Cubs

Giants knock out Jon Lester in heavyweight matchup vs. Cubs

Giants knock out Jon Lester in heavyweight matchup vs. Cubs

SAN FRANCISCO – Joe Maddon’s zany stunts, Jake Arrieta’s individual brilliance and all these star hitters generate most of the headlines about the team with the best record in baseball.

But the game still revolves around pitching, even if it sometimes feels like the Cubs rotation only gets noticed when it doesn’t do its job, or in the context of which big-name starter Theo Epstein’s front office should add by the trade deadline. 

Case in point: Saturday’s 5-3 loss at AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants knocked out Jon Lester in the third inning of what’s been billed as a potential playoff preview.

You can find all sorts of distracting stats and invented streaks, but this one actually mattered: Until this clunker, the Cubs had 48 straight regular-season games where their starter had gone at least five innings, the franchise’s longest stretch since 1910.

“Everybody’s talking about run differential and all this other stuff – fine,” Maddon said. “A lot of that’s based on the fact that our pitchers are so good.”

The Giants can compete with anyone. Just look at the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series flags flying above the center-field video board at their beautiful waterfront stadium that draws the younger, engaged, energetic crowds Major League Baseball is desperate to connect with now.      

This is a great city and a relaxed West Coast media market that doesn’t smother players. The Giants have a potential Hall of Fame manager (Bruce Bochy), an MVP catcher (Buster Posey) and an overall baseball-operations/business-side efficiency/harmony that’s become the industry’s gold standard.

All that synergy and postcard-perfect scenery – and more guaranteed money – still couldn’t convince Lester to change his mind before agreeing to the six-year, $155 million megadeal that shook the 2014 winter meetings.

The 431st straight regular-season sellout crowd here watched Giants pitcher Matt Cain snap an 0-for-46 streak in the second inning, blasting a two-out, two-run double off Lester and over the head of center fielder Dexter Fowler. Posey later drilled a two-run homer into the left-field seats off Lester in the third inning.

“I can’t walk the pitcher,” Lester said. “I got to take my chances with a heater and pulled it middle and he put a good swing on it. I can live with the Poseys of the world hitting homers. But to put myself in a 3-2 count with a pitcher and allowing him to do damage – that’s obviously not good.

“(There’s) a lot of things in the game that I wish I could go back (to) and rethink through or throw another pitch. But it is what it is.”

It doesn’t change the outlook for a 29-12 team that’s lost four of its last six games, and six of its last 10. Or a pitching staff that began the day with three top-seven pitchers among the National League ERA leaders: Arrieta (1.29); Lester (1.88); and Jason Hammel (2.31).

“Our rotation’s been pretty solid,” said Lester, who’s now 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA after giving up five runs in 2.2 innings against the first-place Giants. “We’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do – keep our team in the ballgame and put up innings – with the exception of today.

“We all knew coming in that our rotation was going to be pretty strong. And we have to be strong if we want to go where we want to go.”

Or as All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said: “If anyone thought that we were going to win 140 games, I want to know what they’re taking.”

Up next is ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and Madison Bumgarner, the 2014 World Series MVP who thought Fowler and Jason Heyward had been tipping pitches during a Cactus League game and almost sparked a bench-clearing incident two months ago in Arizona.

If it could get that heated in spring training, imagine October with Arrieta vs. Bumgarner and Lester vs. Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija wearing black and orange making a playoff start at Wrigley Field.

“We’ll see,” Lester said. “We got a long season. There’s a lot of what-ifs and all this stuff that can happen along the way. We got to stay healthy and worry about the Cubs. If we’re able to get to that position, we’ll worry about the opponent when we get there. But they definitely have a good team. They’re a scrappy team. They put up good, quality at-bats. They make you work.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.