Star power, young talent and new attitudes will be on display for Cubs-Nationals

Star power, young talent and new attitudes will be on display for Cubs-Nationals

The Cubs respected the Washington Nationals for their step-by-step building process – a foundation of first-round draft picks accented by sharp trades and free-agent splashes – and saw the similarities in the Wrigley Field blueprint.

Now these are two National League powerhouses, stacked with blue-chip talent and running on high-voltage personalities, positioned to win now and in the future. There will be so much star power and young talent on display when the Cubs open a three-game series on Monday night at Nationals Park, where it should look and feel like a playoff preview. 

The last NL All-Star voting update featured the entire Cubs infield (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant) leading their positions, plus Dexter Fowler and Bryce Harper listed first and second among outfielders.

That 6-for-8 doesn’t include Cy Young Award winners Jake Arrieta and Max Scherzer. Or the two-time World Series champions in the Cubs rotation (Jon Lester and John Lackey) or the former No. 1 overall pick/Tommy John survivor who recently scored a $175 million extension (Stephen Strasburg). 

Or Daniel Murphy, last year’s Mr. October when the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the NLCS, who’s now hitting .374 for the Nationals. Or Jonathan Papelbon, the throat-grabbing, Irish-jig dancing WWE-style villain now just trying to get by with guts in the ninth inning in Washington.   

Or Joe Maddon and Dusty Baker, who combined have won six Manager of the Year awards and actually like to express their viewpoints and talk about anything other than baseball, at a time when other teams appear to be run by robots.      

It’s time for bat flips, eye black and clown questions, bro. 

“You’ll never bring the game back to where it was,” Baker said. “Young people as a whole are different. They’re more flamboyant, more demonstrative in their highs and their lows. 

“If they don’t mind, I don’t mind. I try to keep it in check somewhat, because I’m still old-school, but with modern ideas and thoughts that they help give me.

“It makes it easier for me, because I got a 36-year-old daughter and I have a 17-year-old son. So I got to kind of be in the middle between them as far as them keeping me hip and me showing them some wisdom and knowledge in life. 

“We’re really kind of helping each other. With the players that are out there (now), they like to kid with me, and I kid with them. But I know how far to go with them, and I think they know how far to go with me.” 

Baker has been exactly what the underachieving Nationals needed after an 83-79 finish last year – even if he might have only been an emergency backup plan after negotiations broke down with Bud Black. Where Matt Williams struggled to communicate with his players and looked helpless during that free fall, Baker’s genius is being able to relate to almost anyone. 

“It feels like we’re playing a lot looser,” Scherzer said. “There’s not a lot of panic when certain situations happen, and we have confidence in each other to be able to come back.”

“He keeps things light,” Murphy said. “He keeps things in perspective and understands if you lose a ballgame, it’s not the end of the world. It’s about winning series, winning road trips, winning homestands. Fortunately, we’ve been able to put ourselves in a position to do that.”

Chicago guy/Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is the architect. Baseball America sees the Nationals having a top-five farm system headlined by a top-five prospect (Lucas Giolito) on track to join Scherzer and Strasburg in the rotation at some point in 2017 (if not sooner). 

After a winter where the Cubs and Nationals chased some of the same big-name free agents – with Zobrist and Jason Heyward wanting the chance to make history in Chicago – they could wind up targeting the same players around the trade deadline. Will the New York Yankees finally give in to the future, drop out of the wild-card race and create bidding wars for power relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman?

The Cubs and Nationals appear to be headed on a collision course toward October, and that would be something to watch. 

“I know our guys,” Maddon said. “They’re really authentic, and I think they’re really charismatic as a group. If you’re a young man or a young woman that really wants to follow Major League Baseball, it’s easy to like our guys. 

“It’s the way they project. They’re good on the field, but beyond that, I think they’re affable, gregarious, interesting. There are all different words you can use to describe our guys besides being good baseball players. Hopefully, we’ll be able (to) help out in regards to regaining younger fans in the game today.

“It’s not unique to us. There’s a lot of that going on in Major League Baseball right now.”

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far


What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

For the 10 teams that qualify for MLB’s postseason, October represents a chance to climb baseball’s mountain and secure a championship. For the 20 other teams sitting at home, though, October is a chance to evaluate those in the Big Dance.

Less than two weeks into the postseason, here’s some things that the Cubs can take away from the action thus far.

1. Starting pitching matters

With bullpens being relied on more than ever, starting pitchers aren’t used the same way as just a few seasons ago. The Brewers rode their bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS last season, while the Rays used an “opener” (a reliever who starts a game and pitches 1-3 innings) in Game 4 of the ALDS this season – beating the Astros 4-1.

And yet, the Astros and Nationals are proving how important it is to have a difference-making rotation. The bullpening method can work, but being able to throw Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke at an opponent in a single postseason series is downright unfair.

The Nationals have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in their rotation, as formidable of a trio as any in the National League. They also have Anibal Sánchez, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals on Friday. No big deal...

And despite getting eliminated, the Rays — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton — and Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu — have talented rotations, as do the Cardinals and Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Cubs rotation didn’t have as big of an impact this season as they expected, a contributing factor to the team not making it to October.

“We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "You looked at it 1-through-5, we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis, and that might be an area that was a separator for us versus some of the teams we were competing with. While we had a couple guys who had really good years and all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned. It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well. We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are under contract for 2020, while Jose Quintana has an $11.5 team option. The Cubs don’t have an Astros or Nationals-esque trio, but their rotation can still be good enough to lead the charge in 2020. They’ll need them to do just that if they are to return to the top of the NL Central.

2. Manager decision-making is far more important in October than regular season

The Dodgers’ season came to an abrupt close in Game 5 of the NLDS, with manager Dave Roberts being smack dab in the spotlight.

With the Dodgers leading 3-1 in the seventh inning, Roberts called Clayton Kershaw’s number to get Los Angeles out of a two on, two out jam. Kershaw did just that, but the Nationals opened the eighth with home runs from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto (on consecutive pitches) to tie the game.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in his generation, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time NL MVP. However, his postseason woes are real (4.43 ERA, 32 games/25 starts), and therefore, Roberts made a questionable decision going with Kershaw in that moment. 

Where was Kenta Maeda to face Rendon? Maeda had allowed just a single hit in 3 2/3 innings at this point in the postseason. He took over for Kershaw after Soto’s home run, striking out three-straight Dodgers to end the eighth. 

Roberts also didn't bring in closer Kenley Jansen to start the 10th inning, when the game was still tied 3-3. Instead, he left in Joe Kelly, who allowed a decisive grand slam to Howie Kendrick. Only then did Jansen come in, but the damage was done. Not bringing in your closer in an extra-inning postseason game is inexcusable, and while it may be outcome bias, this game proves why.

Roberts has 393 wins in four seasons as Dodgers manager, leading them to World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. Even with that experience, though, he made a bad decision at a terrible time. The postseason is a different animal, not only for players, but the coaches in the dugouts, too.

Of the known candidates the Cubs have interviewed for manager — David Ross, Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Will Venable — only Girardi has big-league managing experience. And while Epstein noted at his press conference that it isn’t everything, he added that experience is important.

"Lack of experience - and I'm speaking broadly for the group, not necessarily [about Ross] - is always a factor,” Epstein said. “It's not a determining factor, but it's a significant factor. I always have greater comfort level hiring for roles in which the person has done the role before. Especially with manager.

“But I think there are ways for that to be overcome - there are a lot of different ways to get experience in this game - beliefs, skills, personal attributes, those can outweigh a lack of experience, but experience certainly helps.”

3. Winning in the postseason is tough

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, there was a feeling that baseball’s next dynasty was underway. After all, the Cubs had a talented, young position player group that reached the promised land early in their time together. It made sense.

Those talks have died down, of course, as the Cubs haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 2016. And while they've had plenty of success since 2015, it feels like they could’ve had more.

The thing about baseball, though, is that it’s extremely hard to sustain those high levels of success. A few teams (Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants) have won multiple World Series this century, none have repeated as champions since the Yankees, who won three-straight from 1998-2000.

The Twins won 101 games this season and were swept out of the ALDS. The Braves won 97, only to lose Game 5 of the NLDS in brutal fashion at home to the Cardinals.

The Dodgers made it to the World Series in 2017 and 2018 and came up empty both times. They won 106 games this season, a franchise record, only to be eliminated in the NLDS by the Nationals — a Wild Card team, nonetheless.

Does that make last few seasons even more frustrating for the Cubs and their fans? Probably. October is a crapshoot, meaning as long as a team gets in, they have a shot at winning it all, no matter their record.

At the same time, the Cubs made things look easy in 2016. They had brilliant injury luck, a historic defense, a deep position player group, a loaded starting rotation and the right manager for their young core. Even so, it took erasing a 3-to-1 series deficit against the Indians to win it all, not to mention a dramatic Game 7 win that nearly didn’t go their way.

This isn’t an excuse for the Cubs shortcomings in 2019, but merely a reminder: they won the 2016 World Series, and that's no small feat. This offseason offers the chance to improve as a team for 2020, when they’ll set out to win again.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

David Kaplan shares his thoughts on the Cubs, the decision to move on from Joe Maddon (0:50), the process in hiring a new manager (2:40), and who should be in the dugout next season (4:05).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast