Lester or Arrieta? Who would Cubs start in one-game playoff?


Lester or Arrieta? Who would Cubs start in one-game playoff?

If the Cubs make it into the postseason as a wild card team, who will start the one-game playoff: Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta?

Of course, there are still six weeks left in the regular season and even if the Cubs were in that position, it would depend heavily on how much rest each pitcher was working on.

But it makes for an interesting debate inside Chicago bars in mid-August.

Joe Maddon has a simple solution:

"Let's win the division," he said.

The Cubs entered play Friday 7.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and 1.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first wild card spot. 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the stretch run, Cubs fans]

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer cautions how much things can change in the final month-and-a-half of the season, even if the team has won 13 of 14 coming into the Crosstown showdown at U.S. Cellular Field.

"I thought Joe's answer was the right answer," Hoyer said. "Let's have a five-game series and forget about it. First of all, I think it's great that we have two guys you can have that discussion about. The fact both these guys are pitching so well is part of why we're here in a lot of ways.

"But also, I look at it as, this is a moment in time right now. We've been really hot. We put ourselves in a great position. ... We have a long way to go, so to even talk about that kind of stuff is so incredibly premature. We have to grind it out, game after game.

"The hot streak is great, but we still gotta play the next six weeks. And the next six weeks have a lot of challenges ahead. I think we've answered all our challenges so far and hopefully we'll keep on answering them."

The Cubs signed Jon Lester to a $155 million deal in the offseason to come in and lead the pitching staff after winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and starting that epic AL wild card game for the Oakland A's against the Royals last season.

Lester got off to a rough start in Chicago, with a 6.23 ERA in four April starts. But since May 1, the 31-year-old lefty has gone 8-6 with a 2.69 ERA.

He's been especially hot the last six weeks with a 1.92 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 56.1 innings over eight starts.

But Arrieta has put up one of the best seasons of any pitcher in Major League Baseball, going 13-6 with a 2.38 ERA and 0.99 WHIP, including a 7-1 record and 1.23 ERA since June 21.

Lester has also had issues throwing to first base this season, allowing the most stolen bases among all big-league pitchers (35, six more than the next closest guy), including five against the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Wrigley Field.

[RELATED - Cubs keeping Jon Lester’s yips in perspective]

Three of those stolen bases came during a third inning that also featured a throwing error by Lester on an attempted pickoff.

An opposing team can really take advantage of that in a one-game, winner-take-all situation.

But the Cubs don't appear very concerned with Lester's "yips," as Hoyer pointed to David Ross' ability at "back-picking" runners on base and referencing Lester's delivery time to home plate.

"Yesterday, obviously, that third inning was uncomfortable for everyone," Hoyer said. "But then you go back to May 1, after his April starts, and Jon's been one of the best pitchers in baseball. He hasn't been giving up many hits, his walk-to-strikeout ratio has been great.

"The focus is he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the last three-and-a-half months. I think it's something he certainly knows he has to work on and he will work on, but at the same time, David and Jon have done a good job limiting that. I just expect he'll continue to pitch the way he is."

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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