The return of Javier Baez and how Cubs are prepared for next wave of injuries

The return of Javier Baez and how Cubs are prepared for next wave of injuries

The Cubs are looking at internal solutions and hoping for strength in numbers with Kyle Schwarber sidelined for the rest of the season. Javier Baez could be on deck.

Baez hit in the middle of Triple-A Iowa’s lineup on Monday night, with Cubs manager Joe Maddon saying the organization would like to see him get around 20 or 25 at-bats before joining the big-league club.

That could happen as soon as this week’s opening homestand at Wrigley Field — or once Baez gets his timing down after a left thumb injury prevented him from making the Opening Day roster.

The Cubs plan to move Baez around the infield and the outfield with Iowa, grooming another versatile player to help fill the void with Schwarber awaiting surgery to repair the torn ACL and LCL in his left knee.

That’s how Theo Epstein’s front office built this flexible roster over the years, preparing for worst-case scenarios with a Rookie of the Year who can play third base and all over the outfield (Kris Bryant), an All-Star super-utility guy (Ben Zobrist) and a bullpen stocked with four swingmen (Trevor Cahill, Adam Warren, Clayton Richard, Travis Wood).

“Overcoming adversity is really all about character and looking at it the right way,” Epstein said, “instead of sulking and getting down and thinking about what you don’t have. It’s seeing it as an opportunity to overcome something, an opportunity for someone else to step up, an opportunity to really prove your mettle as a club.

“Because injuries are not a variable in this game. They’re a constant. You just don’t know who. You don’t know how long. You don’t know what type of injury. But you know you’re going to have injuries. So if you don’t prepare for them, then shame on you.”

That’s what the Cubs had in mind when they signed Dexter Fowler to a one-year, $13 million contract in late February — or multiple news cycles after the Baltimore Orioles were supposed to be finalizing a three-year, $35 million deal with Maddon’s you-go, we-go leadoff guy/outfielder.

“Dexter’s pretty much been the guy that’s gotten this whole thing rolling,” Maddon said. “We have so many great guys within our support group. It’s obvious with the guys that came in. You’re talking about Jason (Heyward) and ‘Zo’ and what they’ve already done to this particular group.

“These guys (understand) that we can survive. They realize that people are going to have to pick each other up.”

The Cubs also look at Iowa and already think Albert Almora could be a plus defender in center field, with Willson Contreras projected to be a frontline catcher in the big leagues.

As Maddon said: “I really believe you’re going to see a lot of guys (who) are going to come up from the minor leagues and do equally as well (and) surprise a lot of people.”

The Cubs can’t afford to lose Anthony Rizzo, an MVP presence in the middle of their lineup and new clubhouse and a Gold Glove-level defender at first base.

Schwarber’s promotion from the minor leagues helped transform the Cubs into a 97-win team last year. He got a loud ovation when he used a crutch to climb the dugout steps and join his teammates on the field before Monday’s home opener against the Cincinnati Reds.

Maybe the Cubs will have lightning strike again this summer.

“We hate to lose Kyle,” Epstein said. “It changes who we are a little bit, because he’s unique. But we’re built to withstand some injuries and to keep fighting and to have the next guy step up.

“That’s why you have depth. That’s why you have talented players waiting for that opportunity. I think our guys will rise to this challenge.”

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.