Cubs

How will Cubs bullpen adapt without Pedro Strop?

How will Cubs bullpen adapt without Pedro Strop?

The Cubs envisioned Aroldis Chapman changing the entire shape of their bullpen – and the feel of playoff games – when they decided to take the off-the-field baggage and acquire the superstar closer in a 4-for-1 trade with the New York Yankees in late July.

And then manager Joe Maddon tried to squeeze four-out saves from Chapman, only to find out that the 100-mph lefty prefers to work one inning at a time.

And then Hector Rondon – another dominant closer bumped into the eighth inning with Chapman’s arrival – started feeling tightness in his triceps muscle. The Cubs already had to be cautious with a pitcher who missed almost three seasons with right elbow issues and came back from Tommy John surgery. Rondon hasn’t pitched in a game since Aug. 2 and will try to get in a bullpen session on Friday at Wrigley Field.

And now Pedro Strop – one of the league’s top setup guys – is looking at a four-to-six-week recovery period once he undergoes surgery to repair the torn meniscus in his left knee.

“We’re just trying to build to that ninth inning with the lead,” Maddon said. “We can still do that. We’re going to miss him, though. Stropy’s that guy that I feel really good against the other team’s best hitters all the time.”

The Cubs needed 11 innings to beat the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night, with John Lackey warming up in the bullpen and Anthony Rizzo drawing a walk-off walk as the exclamation point to a wild 4-3 win. Maddon used five relievers to cover the final five innings, including Justin Grimm, who has been shuttled back and forth from Triple-A Iowa because of his minor-league option and the 25-man roster crunch, the Cubs now hoping he will resemble the trusted reliever he became during last year’s playoff run.

“I know what I’m capable of doing here,” Grimm said. “This is where I belong.”

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Joe Smith – the funky right-hander acquired from the Los Angeles Angels as part of the trade-deadline dealing for Theo Epstein’s front office – should take on bigger responsibilities now.

“It will give more opportunities to different guys,” Maddon said. “Particularly Joe Smith, I think, is really going to be the guy that will be utilized more often because of it. Grimm has his strong points, too, that we can utilize. We’re still waiting to find out about Hector and exactly when he’s going to be available again. So there’s that to consider, too, but it’s still a really strong bullpen.”

Mike Montgomery hasn’t been the next Andrew Miller the Cubs wished for when they traded with the Seattle Mariners. And until Thursday night, the lefty hadn’t pitched in August, with Maddon saying the Cubs wanted to stretch him out and needed to keep next week’s doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers in mind.

Montgomery fractured Matt Holliday’s right thumb with an accidental pitch, and accounted for two scoreless innings against the Cardinals and earned his first win as a Cub.

“It’s my job is to be ready for anything,” Montgomery said.  

After Strop heard his left knee pop on Wednesday night, Carl Edwards Jr. got three big outs in the eighth inning of an eventual 3-1 win over the Angels, retiring Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Andrelton Simmons in a row. But given his rookie status and slender frame, the Cubs are not ready to use Edwards (1.42 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 19 innings) in back-to-back games.

“Not yet,” Maddon said. “I don’t want to push it yet. I don’t think it’s time to go there. He was spectacular (against the Angels). I don’t know (if it’s) because we gave him the appropriate rest in between appearances. Just talking to the guys that have had him (before) in the organization – and how he’s been utilized to this point – I’ve listened regarding (C.J.). It’s worked out pretty well to this point.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Friedell (ESPN.com) and Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times) join David Kaplan on the panel.

The guys discuss Welington Castillo’s 80-game PED suspension, the Cubs struggles and if Joe Maddon could be on the hot seat if the Cubs somehow miss the playoffs in 2018.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

There is no quick fix for what ails the Cubs offense.

Manny Machado would certainly help. That much is certain.

But dropping one of the game's elite hitters into any lineup would help boost that team's offensive profile. The only question is: Would the long-term cost be worth it for a short-term gain?

Because Machado wouldn't cure everything with this Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense.

After hammering Reds pitching in Cincinnati last weekend, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run against the Indians in 18 innings and they didn't even have to face Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.

They went a combined 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

It was also the 42nd different lineup the Cubs have rolled out this season in 46 games.

That's been a point of contention for many, many fans wishing Joe Maddon would stick with one set lineup from 1-through-8 in the order. 

But that will never happen. 

For starters, this way does work. The 2016 Cubs boasted 130 different lineups throughout the course of the season and we all know how that year finished.

A set lineup also won't work because this isn't 1970 and some players are better than others for different matchups against opposing starting pitchers (like Albert Almora Jr. vs. left-handed pitchers and Jason Heyward vs. right-handed pitcher). Also, players need rest to ensure they'll be fresh for the stretch run in August and September and the postseason after that.

"It's such a non-sophisticated conversation," Maddon said. "I don't know how it begins. I've heard it from old baseball dudes — I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It's like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift; it just gets passed along.

"I try not to comment on it, because really, it's such a poor discussion. There's no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn't belong in today's game and actually it never belonged in anybody's game."

So what can the Cubs do to find more consistency on offense?

Honestly, not much beyond just continuing to develop. Remember, this is still a very, very young and inexperienced core of position players and growing pains are inevitable.

It's also the nature of the game right now with strikeouts way up and basehits down. 

Offense is naturally an ebb-and-flow, up-and-down kind of thing. Words like "feel" and "confidence" are thrown around so often because they matter.

But with the way baseball has gone, the peaks and valleys have become as prevalent as ever. Try to point to other teams right now that have had no trouble scoring runs on a consistent basis this season.

The Yankees are close, but that's one team. The Braves and Red Sox are the next two closest, but they're not without flaws.

Atlanta has scored just 3 runs in their last 3 games as they dropped a series to Jake Arrieta and the Phillies this week. The Red Sox haven't score more than 6 runs in a game since April 30.

It may seem like the Cubs are on a roller coaster all on their own, but that may just be because of HOW they go through valleys. 

The Cubs still struggle with runners in scoring position, ranking 26th in baseball in that area (.222 AVG). They rank 24th with runners in scoring position and 2 outs (.194 AVG).

But delve deeper and you'll see the Cubs actually rank near the top of baseball in RUNS in such situations. 

With guys in scoring position, they sit 5th in MLB wiith 168 runs. With guys in scoring position and 2 outs, they rank 6th in runs, ahead of the Yankees.

So they're giving themselves plenty of opportunity by getting guys on base and in scoring position often.

Another elite hitter would help things, sure. You could say that for any team in baseball.

But the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs are 4th in MLB in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in OPS and 5th in SLG.

They do feast on poor teams and have trouble scoring against better opponents, but every team has that issue to some degree.

Getting Anthony Rizzo — whose 2018 OPS (.661) is almost 200 points below his career mark (.842) — back to his standard MVP-candidate level would certainly help matters, too.

The Cubs are on the right path — trying to use the whole field, hit the ball on a line more, make more contact — but it's not something that will become consistent parts of their respective offensive profiles overnight.

Maddon was actually OK with where his team was at before being shut out Wednesday night.

"I think a lot of guys are doing pretty well right now," Maddon said ahead of the Cubs' 1-0 loss. "...Overall, I kinda like what I'm seeing on the offensive side. I just think that OK, are we doing a better job of not chasing? I think so.

"Are we utilizing the opposite gap a little better? I think so. Strikeouts, I don't think anybody's overtly striking out too much right now. So I kinda like what we're doing with the bats. I kinda do. ... I think a lot of guys are starting to get it."

But there is still one area Maddon will never be satisfied with — getting runners home from third base with less than 2 outs.

"Of course," Maddon laughed, "I'm gonna talk about that for the next 10 years and I'm not gonna like it, probably."