Cubs

Maddon’s playoff message to Cubs and Schwarber's role in wild-card game

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Maddon’s playoff message to Cubs and Schwarber's role in wild-card game

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs should run all the numbers, analyze where the Pittsburgh Pirates will probably hit the ball against Jake Arrieta and break down every possible lineup combination and bullpen matchup.

But the National League wild-card game will likely hinge on Arrieta pitching like a Cy Young Award winner, whether or not he can do what Madison Bumgarner did to the Pirates last year, carrying the San Francisco Giants to their third World Series title in five seasons.

Yes, manager Joe Maddon wanted another look and played Kyle Schwarber in right field against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night at Miller Park. That could be a wild-card preview, especially since PNC Park’s dimensions mean there is less ground for a part-time catcher to cover in right field than in left.

[MORE: Jake Arrieta gets one more shot to make Cy Young case]

Maddon also started Kris Bryant in left field, still experimenting and maximizing versatility at Game 160 to get a better feel for Game 163.

“All these guys have been all over the map,” Maddon said. “I wanted to make sure they’re aware of all the different parts. I wanted to see what it looked like.”

The buildup to this one-game playoff has intensified the obsession Cubs fans and the Chicago media have with the daily lineup. But on some level, the Cubs know this is overkill after playing the Pirates 19 times already this season – and winning 11 of those games.

“I’ve asked for our geeks to send me some stuff to just look at,” Maddon said. “I’m always looking for other people to give me opinions.

“(It’s more) the skills that we have, whether we’re looking for more offense – or more defense – and how that plays. But to break down all the minutia…

“I’ve learned that the scouting reports at that time of the year – if you could grab a nugget or two – don’t even give them to your players. They just need to go play. Now if there’s something in-game you can remind somebody about, that’s probably the best way.

[RELATED: What if Cubs had traded for Jonathan Papelbon?]

“Believe me, it sounds like you’re nuts. They should be able to handle this. They’re big-league players. They’ve been doing this for a long time.

“Our game really requires kind of an open, free mind to play. And if you’re bogging it down with stuff, man, it can only get in the way.”

That’s how Starlin Castro has been playing since losing his job to Addison Russell. The three-time All-Star shortstop has looked sharp defensively at second base, carefree in the clubhouse and locked in at home plate in September (1.202 OPS).

Castro should also feel confident facing Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA), going 6-for-17 with a walk and a sacrifice fly in 19 plate appearances against Pittsburgh’s ace.

“He definitely plays in a very non-uptight manner,” Maddon said. “I love the fact that he goes out there and he’s tension-free.”

[NBC SHOP: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]

Ultimately, it took four years for the Theo Epstein administration to build a playoff roster. The rest is fringe stuff, which could still be important in an elimination game featuring two stud pitchers and two teams with at least 190 wins combined.

But the Cubs already made their biggest decisions, drafting big bats like Schwarber and Bryant and trading for foundation pieces in Russell and Arrieta and hiring the manager you would want making all those decisions in real time.

“It’s the team that plays the better game that night, catches the ball, works a better at-bat,” Maddon said. “Your pitcher’s going to be in charge of the moment, primarily. That’s how I look at it.”

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."

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

Despite the MLB trade deadline being two months away, rumors of the Cubs potentially acquiring Orioles' shortstop Manny Machado have intensifed recently. Regardless, Cubs president Theo Epstein made his point on the rumor frenzy quite clear Thursday.

"I can say with regards to this particular spasm of media frenzy, it is outrageously outsized when you compare it to the reality of the situation," Epstein said Thursday on 670 The Score.

Machado is having an unbelievable season with the Orioles, hitting .328 with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs entering Thursday. If traded, he would undoubtedly provide a boost to any ballclub, but that is a big "if."

Of course, the MLB season is not even two months old yet, which Epstein pointed out as being a big factor in the situation.

"It's May," he said. "We're still figuring out who we are as a team this year. We're still figuring out our place in the division.

"There's an atypical amount of trade discussion in May this year, which is essentially nil."

Rumors of the Cubs being a potential player in acquiring Machado make sense. At 15-34, the Orioles have the worst winning percentage (.306) in the MLB. With their current positioning, trading Machado could start a rebuild that the Orioles might just need. The Cubs have a 24-year-old shortstop in Addison Russell that the Orioles could acquire to a) replace Machado and b) use as the face of their rebuild.

Be that as it may, Epstein said the rumors are something that the Cubs are "just rolling our eyes at."

"I understand it's natural for people to connect the dots and there to be this kind of frenzy from time to time, but it's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at," he said. "It's not like July, where every now and then there's lots of coverage on deals that are actually being discussed or actually might happen.

"This one is just out there in fantasy land at this point."