Cubs

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

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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."

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: