Cubs

More than Chris Archer, Mike Montgomery shows where Cubs might go at trade deadline

More than Chris Archer, Mike Montgomery shows where Cubs might go at trade deadline

Trading for Chris Archer sounds like a great idea in theory. It will be an obvious storyline when the ex-Cubs prospect matches up against Jon Lester on the Fourth of July at Wrigley Field.

Except the Tampa Bay Rays (43-41) have a slightly better record than the Cubs (41-41). There was enough bad blood after manager Joe Maddon used the escape clause in his contract that it complicated any hopes of the Cubs acquiring Ben Zobrist before the 2015 season. Tampa Bay’s asking price last summer for Matt Moore – a less-accomplished pitcher under club control through 2019 instead of 2021 – started at Kyle Schwarber plus.

The Cubs aren’t planning to promote Schwarber to face Archer on Tuesday, allowing him to continue working on his swing and his confidence at Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs have to factor in their inconsistent play and a somewhat dulled sense of urgency after winning the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years. Paying top dollar – and beating a team like the Houston Astros or Los Angeles Dodgers in the bidding war for a frontline starter – doesn’t seem realistic.

The Cubs aren’t performing at a level where team president Theo Epstein can ask the same Aroldis Chapman question: “If not now, when?” Instead of buying the brand name, the template for fixing the rotation might be the other lefty the Cubs acquired last July – Mike Montgomery – the guy who actually got the last out in the World Series.

“Obviously, I don’t think this is how we planned it,” Montgomery said recently on a Cubs Talk podcast. “But that’s the beauty of baseball. It’s never how it seems. Every season is really different.

“I just think it’s going to make us stronger later in the year. After winning the World Series, people say hangover, but I look at it more (as) we just have to get back to the little things that it takes to win games.

“We got a lot of young talent on this team, so sometimes you’re going to have stretches where you struggle, myself as well. It’s just about: How do you every day continue to find something that is either going to keep you where you need to be or get you back to where you need to be?

“We’ve still got our best baseball to play, that’s for sure.”

That optimal level might not come until 2018 or 2019 or 2020, assuming these young hitters mature and Epstein’s front office identifies and develops a next wave of pitching. Preparing for a future without Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, the Cubs projected Montgomery’s size, first-round pedigree, groundball rate and pitch mix, envisioning a core starter when they made that trade with the Seattle Mariners.

The Cubs saw a swingman the guys who run the day-to-day pitching infrastructure – Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode – could coach up. That’s why the Cubs won’t necessarily be locked into a finished product like Archer at the July 31 deadline.

“Obviously, you got to have the talent to begin with,” Montgomery said. “But I think it’s just a philosophy that pitching’s always going to be first and foremost. The hitting, I think, is a bonus if we can get it. But we don’t feel like we need to rely on it to win, because we know after last year that pitching is what wins you World Series.

“It starts with that. But at this level, it’s the ability to take everybody’s strengths and use them in accordance to whatever game, whatever hitter we’re facing. And (with) guys like Boz and Lester Strode, it’s the ability if you’re off – because you’re not going to be there the whole year – (to) get in there and say one thing to you that you didn’t even really see. Those kind of things add up.”

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After being such a valuable part of the bullpen at the beginning of the season (2.21 ERA in 36-plus innings), Montgomery now has a 3.58 ERA through five starts. Montgomery is beginning to show what the Kansas City Royals hoped for when they drafted him 36th overall in 2008, realizing the potential the Rays once acquired in the Wil Myers/Jake Odorizzi/Wade Davis/James Shields blockbuster deal.

After finalizing the buy-low trade with Seattle, Epstein thought Montgomery could be “the next Andrew Miller.” Maddon has talked up Montgomery as someone who could consistently win between 10 and 15 games a year.

“I just want to help the team win,” Montgomery said. “I like starting. I like that responsibility: Hey, today’s your day and you can pretty much win or lose a game for the team.

“That’s what I want, because I’m confident in what I can do. I don’t know what that’s going to mean, but I think that’s one of the things I’ve learned from these guys here more than anywhere I’ve been: (You can have) almost 200 wins, 2,000-plus strikeouts. You get to the point where it’s like all the accolades don’t really matter.

“The reason they got those is because no matter what they were doing, they were consistent in getting ready to go out for the next start. And that’s what I’ve taken the most out of here. If you have a good game, a bad game, it’s just such a small blip on the radar for them.

“One game, it doesn’t really matter. I got to keep that up for a long period of time, an entire season, for multiple seasons, so that’s kind of the focus. It’s just a mindset change.”

The bigger-is-better mindset may never change in a trade-deadline environment that gets broken down into buyers vs. sellers and winners and losers. But the defending champs don’t have to go after a big fish like Archer.

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel stuck with what was working. He pounded the strike zone with one high fastball after another against Manny Pina. Kimbrel was rewarded with a strikeout to end the inning.

In the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Friday, Kimbrel pitched a shutout ninth inning to give his team the chance to rally. Instead, the Cubs’ bats went cold. But the stadium lights illuminated Kimbrel’s progress.

“He looked really good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”

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It should be noted that the spot Ross found for him was in a one-run game. Kimbrel, who entered the season as the Cubs closer, at least temporarily lost that job after a string of rough outings. The Cubs blamed mechanical issues.

On Friday, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit with the game on the line.

One of the biggest developments for Kimbrel is that he’s now throwing his curve ball for a strike, therefore not allowing opposing hitters to simply gear up for a fastball.

The third pitch he threw on Friday was a curve ball. Avisail Garcia already had two strikes on him, and then he fouled off a curve at the bottom of the strikezone.  Kimbrel sat him down with a high fastball clocking in at almost 98 mph.

“I don’t think he was far off (all year),” Cubs starting pitcher Alec Mills said, “and I think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curve balls. It was good to see, for sure.”

As Kimbrel’s teammate, Mills may not be speaking from a position of objectivity. But he knows pitching, and he said he’s been excited about Kimbrel’s fastball all year.

“Even that first inning in Cincinnati,” Mills said. “The ball was coming out really good. It was electric. It was more like the Craig that I remember from past years.”

The Kimbrel from past years was a seven-time All-Star from 2011 to 2018, the year he won the World Series with the Red Sox.

But from 2017 to 2019, the average speed of Kimbrel’s fastball dropped from 98 mph to 96mph. It has remained right around 96 mph this year. On Friday, Kimbrel was locating it more effectively, while his curve ball helped put batters off balance.

Kimbrel still walked a batter – he stopped short of overpowering. But even against the one batter he walked, Justin Smoak, Kimbrel got ahead in the count early. He threw two curve balls for strikes. The first Smoak watched. The second he whiffed.

One outing isn’t a guarantee that Kimbrel will win back his role as closer. But it does show that the positive feedback Ross is getting translates into games. And that Ross is ready to trust him in close games. 

“I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said earlier this month.

On Saturday, he sure did.

 

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Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.

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