Cubs

The Padres actually have a point when it comes to Anthony Rizzo's controversial slide at home plate

The Padres actually have a point when it comes to Anthony Rizzo's controversial slide at home plate

As Anthony Rizzo streaked toward home plate in the sixth inning, nobody knew it was about to be the most-talked about play in baseball for a news cycle (or longer).

Rizzo smacked into San Diego Padres catcher Austin Hedges, attemping to jar the ball loose and score an all-important run in a close game at Wrigley Field.

The play is a rarity in this game now, as MLB rules have changed to try avoid home plate collisions and keep players on the field.

The Cubs backed Rizzo and didn't think he did anything wrong. 

The Padres were upset, with manager Andy Green calling it a "cheap shot." 

Who's in the right?

Let's treat this like an internet court case:

RIZZO'S CASE

Anthony Rizzo said it's "game on."

The face of the Cubs doesn't think he was in the wrong with his slide, saying, "By no means do I think that's a dirty play at all. I've talked to a lot of umpires about this rule. And my understanding is: If they have the ball, it's game on.

"I went pretty much straight in. He caught the ball. He went towards the plate. It's a play where I'm out by two steps. I slide, he runs into me. It's just one of those plays where it's unfortunate he had to exit."

Rizzo hopped on David Kaplan's ESPN 1000 radio show Tuesday and reiterated it was not a dirty play and instead was a "hard baseball play."

Rizzo has a very solid point, especially if that's how MLB umpires are explaining it to him. If a catcher is blocking the plate, why should a player just lay down and slide into a catcher's shinguards and risk injury to himself?

Cubs manager Joe Maddon backed the face of the franchise:

“I’d much prefer what Rizz did tonight. And what he did was right, absolutely right, so there’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody could tell me differently.

“It’s a good play. The catcher’s in the way. You don’t try to avoid him in an effort to score and hurt yourself. You hit him, just like Rizz did.”

Even Jon Lester had Rizzo's back:

"He caught the ball. He protected the plate. And Rizz had nowhere to go."

To a man, the Cubs don't think Rizzo's slide was wrong. Of course not. Why would they think he was wrong? The umpires did not throw Rizzo out of the game. A couple years ago, the collision at the plate was just a part of the game.

THE PADRES' CASE

First off: Hedges was not blocking the plate. He did have the ball, so we can all agree there. But he was in front of the plate. No part of him blocked Rizzo's path to the plate, as these images and GIFs show from the Padres broadcast:

The Padres have a very solid case here. Rizzo went out of his way to go after Hedges.

Why? Not because Rizzo is a dirty player. The Padres can think that, but come on. He's the face of the Cubs, he does not have a reputation as a dirty player and as Patrick Mooney said early Tuesday morning, why would Rizzo need to send a message to the hapless Padres of all teams?

Rizzo is ultra-competitive and wants to win. He was out by several steps on that throw from former Cub Matt Szczur, so Rizzo went at Hedges in an effort to knock the ball loose. He wanted to win and he made a split-second decision to try to give his team an advantage while playing within the rules as he understands them.

That's not dirty. But that also doesn't mean the Padres shouldn't be upset. They have every right to be.

IN CONCLUSION

Rizzo has a point, especially if umpires or the league have explained to him that he can hit the catcher if he's in the way.

But the Padres have a point in that Major League Baseball has tried to reduce — or completely eliminate — any contact at home plate whenever possible. And in the case of Monday night, it was very possible contact could have been avoided. It actually would've been easy to avoid contact here.

So the Padres and their fans and broadcasters have every right to be upset. The Cubs have every right to defend Rizzo (and they absolutely should until proven otherwise). The Cubs should just avoid making statements talking about Hedges blocking the plate, because he was not.

Rizzo could've easily slid around Hedges and gone toward the back side of home plate. Of course, we're watching it in slow motion and the game doesn't happen in slow motion. The players don't operate or make decisions in slow motion.

It all happens very quickly and in this case, it very well may be possible that Rizzo's split-second decision was wrong.

But if so — if Rizzo is in the wrong here — then MLB needs to step in here and explain it and use it as an example to teach and inform. 

Will Rizzo get suspended for this play? I honestly don't know. Probably not, but it's possible. Players have gotten suspended for less and the league is trying hard to avoid "The Buster Posey Play" where the San Francisco Giants superstar broke his leg on a similar home plate collision

It's unfortunate Hedges was injured on the play. Everybody is in agreement there, from Rizzo to Lester to Maddon to everybody in the Padres camp.

Regardless of if Hedges was injured or not, the Padres do have a strong case in being upset by the play.

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

In the wake of the cheating allegations surrounding the Houston Astros, multiple parties have weighed in with their takes on the situation, and this includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish. He stated that this past season, he had noticed "weird behavior" from batters. Bleacher Nation then tweeted out a video showing Darvish stepping off the mound in a matchup against Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers, stating that he stepped off the mound because Yelich's "eyes move first...I'm not sure what he is trying to do."

Darvish then went on to elaborate that he wasn't trying to accuse the Brewers of stealing signs, rather that he was just stating what he had noticed in terms of batter behavior. Darvish made a minor grammar mistake, saying "your" instead of "you're" and when he responded to try to clarify that, it may have accidentally caused more confusion, as some mistakenly thought he was saying that Yelich indeed was stealing signs, but this was not the case.

That didn't stop Yelich from sounding off on Darvish with quite a harsh response, a response that was so harsh that some were shocked at the nature of it.

MLB free agent Josh Donaldson chimed in, humorously stating that he could definitely  use some help hitting off of Darvish and jokingly asked for what tips Yelich might have. 

Darvish then retweeted a few tweets that illustrated the point he was trying to make. 

Darvish also responded to Donaldson, saying that he doesn't think the third baseman needs any help hitting off of him either. 

At the end of the Darvish seems to be in a good place, and from his Twitter interactions, it is clear that he was not as upset or offended over the situation as Yelich was. 

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