Cubs

Eddie Butler shows Cubs the future is now and shuts down Cardinals

Eddie Butler shows Cubs the future is now and shuts down Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs methodically built their franchise around talented young hitters and targeted free agents who would bring attitude and experience to the clubhouse. But to become contenders and eventually World Series champions, the front office also needed to get creative with in-season moves and the farm system had to deliver jolts of energy.

Whether it was rebuilding the bullpen on the fly with scrap-heap relievers in 2015, or making the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with the New York Yankees last summer, or promoting Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. and trusting those rookies in pennant races, the Cubs could feel the shots of adrenaline.

Maybe that’s what Eddie Butler will provide at a time when the defending champs haven’t been playing with the same precise execution and laser focus.

Butler gave the Cubs exactly what they needed on Friday night at Busch Stadium, throwing six scoreless innings during a 3-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals and earning at least another turn in the rotation.

“Of course,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward.

“Sounds good to me,” Butler said with a smile. “I’m going to go out there and keep attacking.”

Called up from Triple-A Iowa to replace the injured/ineffective Brett Anderson, Butler allowed only two infield singles to Aledmys Diaz, showing why the Colorado Rockies once made him a first-round pick and Baseball America saw him as a top-25 prospect.  

“To be honest, I didn’t even know that he threw that hard,” Contreras said. “And then once I saw the scoreboard, 96, 95 (mph), OK, we’re going to use the fastball, because they looked kind of behind on it. He had a good idea (of what he wanted to do).”  

Performing in front of a sellout crowd – at 47,601 it would be recorded as the third-largest regular-season mark in Busch Stadium III history – Butler felt so amped up that he allowed back-to-back walks with two outs in the first inning. 

Pitching coach Chris Bosio visited the mound at that point, Butler got the groundball in his matchup against Yadier Molina and the Cubs settled in to watch only their 14th quality start through 35 games.

Between Butler’s raw talent, Bosio’s no-nonsense approach and a sophisticated game-planning system, the Cubs think they may have found an answer for their 2018 rotation, when Jake Arrieta and John Lackey might be gone. But an 18-17 team needs to see results from Butler now.

“He’s been doing that at Triple-A (1.17 ERA), so that’s the part that I like,” Maddon said. “It’s not like he was just throwing in a pedestrian manner down there and came up here and all of a sudden had a good night. 

“He’s very interesting with a very good arm.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains, the way it’s been with Contreras, a revelation as a rookie catcher last season and a player constantly finding himself in big moments.

Contreras drove two Mike Leake pitches into the right- and center-field seats that traveled 809 feet combined, giving him his first career multi-homer game. Contreras picked off Dexter Fowler at first base with a throw from his left knee to end the seventh inning, screaming and pounding his chest as he walked off the field. A wild Contreras throw to Anthony Rizzo on what should have been the game-ending strike three allowed the Cardinals to score an unearned run and put Cubs fans on edge.  

Whether or not it’s now or never for Butler, it’s hard to picture a better spot to launch his career, even when the Cubs are hovering around .500. 

“I plan on holding the spot,” Butler said. “I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, trying to get quality starts, give these guys a chance to win every day. They’re going to put up runs and they’re going to play some ball behind us.”

Podcast: After Murphy/Darvish news, examining Cubs roster moving into September and October

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USA TODAY

Podcast: After Murphy/Darvish news, examining Cubs roster moving into September and October

With Tuesday’s news that the Cubs acquired Daniel Murphy and will be without Yu Darvish’s services for the remainder of the season, how does that affect the roster moving into the final month of the season? How much will the Cubs be able to count on Kris Bryant? How does Murphy fit in the picture for the Cubs’ potential playoff roster and lineup? Will Darvish even be ready to go in 2019?

Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki answer these questions and more on the latest CubsTalk Podcast, plus a special bonus take on Cole Hamels’ future with the club.

Check out the entire podcast here:

There are still more than five weeks left to play in the regular season and many questions to be answered, but as I touched on in the podcast — the Cubs' playoff lineup and roster is coming into focus a bit in my mind. We can now count Darvish out, which helps finalize the pitching staff. And we can add Murphy in, along with being able to more confidently pencil in Bryant after a successful round of BP (not that there was ever much doubt he'd return).

At the moment, here's my Cubs' 25-man postseason roster:

Rotation

Cole Hamels
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana

Bullpen

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Jesse Chavez
Justin Wilson
Mike Montgomery
Brandon Kintzler

Catchers

Willson Contreras
Victor Caratini

Infield

Anthony Rizzo
Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Daniel Murphy
Addison Russell
Tommy La Stella

Outfield

Jason Heyward
Kyle Schwarber
Ben Zobrist
Albert Almora Jr.
Ian Happ

And here's my lineup for Game 1 of the postseason if the Cubs face a right-handed pitcher:

1. Daniel Murphy - 2B
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - SS
5. Ben Zobrist - RF
6. Jason Heyward - CF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Kyle Schwarber - LF
9. Cole Hamels - P

Rationale: If we're doing this as of the moment, Hamels is the clear choice to draw the opening start. Schwarber is kind of a funny choice for the No. 8 spot, I'll admit, but Baez has proven you can drive in runs from that spot and we know he won't expand the zone too much even if he's being pitched around with the pitcher on deck.

Also, this gives the Cubs a perfect balance of left-right hitters in the lineup (plus Zobrist's switch-hitting capability), which is something Joe Maddon absolutely loves because it makes managing against difficult in terms of choosing relievers with pronounced splits.

Against a right-handed pitcher, Murphy and Zobrist are the best options on the roster to lead off. Also at the moment, Russell and Almora have no business starting against right-handed pitchers, but that could obviously change in the coming weeks.

Here are my thoughts for a Game 1 lineup if the Cubs faced a left-handed pitcher:

1. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - 2B
5. Ben Zobrist - LF
6. Jason Heyward - RF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Addison Russell - SS
9. Cole Hamels - P

Rationale: Almora and Russell are no-brainers to start against left-handed pitchers, while Murphy heads to the bench with his .622 OPS against southpaws. Still, that's a heck of a bat to bring off the bench — a guy with a .323 average and 1.020 OPS in 24 postseason games. 

Heyward is a big question mark here, too. He's actually hitting better vs. lefties (.792 OPS) than righties (.744) this season, but he's also had just one truly good month in his resurgent season. Since posting an .873 OPS in June, he has since posted a .674 OPS in 43 games entering play Wednesday.

Right now, there's not much room for Happ in a playoff lineup, just like last fall. But what a weapon to have off the bench — a switch-hitter who could change the game with one swing of the bat or work a walk and pass the baton to the next man up. Plus, given his positional versatility, is a perfect double-switch candidate.

All this without David Bote on the roster, which would've seemed crazy a week ago. So again, the disclaimer that a lot can change in the next five weeks.

The presence of Murphy may also mean that La Stella isn't as valuable to this team as once thought. Still considered one of the game's best pinch-hitters, La Stella has not provided much pop this season — he has only 5 extra-base hits all year (all doubles) and just 3 since April 6.

With Murphy filling the role of a left-handed hitting infielder, maybe the Cubs opt for Bote over La Stella on the postseason roster. Or they could choose another pitcher like Tyler Chatwood, Randy Rosario or Jorge De La Rosa to provide more depth to the bullpen.

We'll see where the next five-plus weeks takes the team.

Get hyped: Kris Bryant took batting practice as he marches toward a return

Get hyped: Kris Bryant took batting practice as he marches toward a return

The Cubs' wild Tuesday continued with star Kris Bryant taking a round of batting practice in Detroit.

The 2016 NL MVP has been out nearly a month with a left shoulder injury, his second bout on the disabled list with the issue this season. 

Over the last couple weeks, Bryant has worked his way up from being pain-free to dry swings and tee work to taking ground balls and now hitting in batting practice. 

There's still no set timetable for when he will return to the Cubs lineup and with so much time off, he'll likely need a short rehab stint in the minors to get his timing back. So it would be shocking to see him back before rosters expand Sept. 1, but crazier things have happened.

This is great news for the Cubs, who added more depth to their infield and lineup with the acquisition of Daniel Murphy Tuesday afternoon. Murphy's main position is second base, but he can also play third and ensure the Cubs don't have to run Bryant into the ground immediately after returning.

Nobody knows how Bryant's shoulder will hold up for the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs and there is a concern that any one swing can reaggravate the issue, as it did last month. 

But he has laughed off any notion that he would let this shoulder injury keep him on the bench as the Cubs march toward their goal of a second World Series championship in three seasons. Even if Bryant isn't 100 percent upon his return, he still brings a major presence and stellar on-base percentage to a lineup that badly needs him at the moment.

Bryant has an .854 OPS in 76 games this year despite a low power output (11 homers). The shoulder injury clearly affected his power, as he's hit only 3 homers in 42 games since May 15, but he posted a .352 OBP during that time thanks to an elite walk rate.