Cubs

Not-so-usual suspects helping Cubs to baseball's best record

Not-so-usual suspects helping Cubs to baseball's best record

Joe Maddon knew what Tommy La Stella could do.

But surely there weren’t many who predicted that La Stella would be among the best hitters in a lineup that features Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Dexter Fowler.

Of course, many of those guys have swung a good bat, too, as the Cubs have surged out of the gate to an incredible 22-6 start during which they’ve posted a jaw-dropping plus-98 run differential. But La Stella’s efforts — as well as those of Matt Szczur, David Ross and even Cubs pitchers — have been an important key in making the Cubs the best team in the big leagues.

“It shows how deep we are,” La Stella said Friday. “And it’s important because you have your horses — the guys who are going to carry the offense and the pitching and everything like that — but it’s important as you go down the stretch to have that depth, to give those guys days off so they’re fresh for the end of the year and to be able to fill in in big situations.”

La Stella has hit the cover off the ball this season, posting a .356/.420/.667 slash line with a trio of three-hit games. He continued that type of play Friday, hitting the first of the Cubs’ four home runs off Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

And he hasn’t been the only one. Szczur has a .367/.441/.600 slash line with 10 RBIs. Ross  has gone from an offensive liability to a consistent contributor. He’s batting .250/.360/.450 after posting a gruesome .176/.267/.252 line last season and is just one RBI away from matching his 2015 total after already hitting twice as many homers as he did a year ago. Javier Baez was expected to be a prime offensive contributor, but he counts as a bench player, too, and he’s hitting .311.

“When you have bench players like that, you give your regular guys days off comfortably, game in progress, you can do things without any concern. It matters a lot,” Maddon said Saturday. “You don’t have the record that we have right now without a really wonderful supporting cast or other members that are able to participate as if they’re a regular.”

In a season with World Series expectations for the Cubs, a key would undoubtedly be to stay healthy. That hasn’t exactly been the case through nearly 30 games, as numerous players have hit the disabled list. Most notably, Kyle Schwarber’s season ended on the team’s season-opening road trip with that cringe-worthy knee injury. Miguel Montero, the team’s starting catcher, remains on the DL. Even Szczur is currently on the shelf.

But the Cubs haven’t missed a beat through any of it, getting offensive contributions from every spot in the order and every name on the roster. Maddon raved about up-from-the-minors catcher Tim Federowicz before Saturday’s game. In his first start with the team this season, outfielder Ryan Kalish reached base twice and scored a run in Thursday’s win.

“I think it speaks to the depth that we have. We’ve got a ton of guys that are capable of filling in,” La Stella said. “There’s a lot of talent on this team, and we’re deep and we’re young. Guys really pull for each other, I feel that makes a big difference. It doesn’t matter who’s in there, everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s pulling for each other.”

While it’s impressive seeing not-so-usual suspects fueling the Cubs’ remarkable start, the inverse might be true, as well. With so much talent, such high expectations and a clubhouse staying loose thanks to Maddon’s managing and all this winning, newcomers are finding it easy to jump in and contribute.

“It’s contagious in here. There’s confidence brewing in all aspects,” Kalish said. “The more everyone gets out there, the better. When you see guys like Tommy and people making names for themselves, it’s really good to watch.”

“That happens when you’re with any good team,” Maddon said. “The Patriots in football is a good example of that particular concept. I would say right now if you showed up at Golden State you’d become a pretty good basketball player. So I think when you get talented people that show up in a good environment, it’s going to bring out the best in you. And I’m not just talking about our clubhouse. I’m talking about the city, the fan base, the ballpark, the ownership. All those things matter.

“Ask any guy that’s new here ask how good they feel if they’re sitting on that bench or on that field when that game begins. There’s energy. There’s energy in the moment. I think maybe energy and expectation should become synonymous terms.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

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No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.