Unsung hero Jonathan Herrera impressing Maddon, Cubs


Unsung hero Jonathan Herrera impressing Maddon, Cubs

If you asked Cubs fans who Jonathan Herrera was at the start of spring training, you'd get a lot of puzzled looks and shoulder shrugs.

Herrera was an unknown when he signed as a minor-league free agent with the Cubs last December, earning a nonroster invite to spring training. He hit .300 in Cactus League play and suddenly found himself on the Opening Day roster as the Cubs hosted the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Three weeks later, Herrera is flying high after a few good games in a row, capped off with the game-winning hit in the 11th inning Friday against the Reds.

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Herrera entered Friday's game in the late innings, taking over at third base as Kris Bryant moved to left field. In his first at-bat in the 11th, Herrera lined a sharp single to right field to bring home Anthony Rizzo in an eventual 7-3 victory.

"You have to prepare yourself for the situation," Herrera said. "I'm here to face those situations and be ready for them.

"I try to do the little things every day, take my swings in the cage before and throughout the game, just in case I get an opportunity in the game and then try to do my best."

It's that mindset that has helped Herrera carve out a utilty role with the Cubs, where he now has four RBI in the last four games, including a two-run triple in Pittsburgh Thursday afternoon.

Herrera, 30, signed with the Colorado Rockies as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2002 and appeared in 375 games for the Rockies from 2008-13, making appearances at second base, third base, shortstop and even left field.

After a minor role in Boston last season, Herrera inked a deal with the Cubs and impressed manager Joe Maddon right off the bat.

"During spring training, the thing I really appreciated about him, even when he wasn't playing or he was on the bench, he was always upbeat," Maddon said. "He didn't know his status, he didn't ask about his status. He just kept coming out and doing his job.

"I thought, 'This guy is a real professional.' He has totally exhibited that over the course of the two-three weeks of the season. An ability to play a variety of positions, he's gotten some big hits for us, works good at-bats.

"He's a pro, man. When he's one of the guys on that bench, you feel good about it. Because you know if you put him out there, he's going to be ready."

[MORE: Cubs: Bryant, Stanton and the popularity of power prospects]

Herrera credited Maddon's managing style for putting him in a position to succeed and making him comfortable, even when his name isn't on the lineup card to start a game.

With Addison Russell and Kris Bryant now up in the big leagues and starting every day at second base and third base, respectively, Herrera has been relegated to more of a bench role, but he's content with that, especially while the team is winning.

"I'm very happy to be a part of this really good group we have," Herrera said. "I prepare myself every day for an opportunity to come.

"We're playing really hard games every single day. We're fighting, we're playing 27 outs. Good things happen when you play like that."

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Pedro Strop has had a tough go of it lately, but that doesn't mean it's time to panic on one of the most consistent relievers in Cubs history.

After blowing the game Monday night in San Francisco — his third blown save of the month — Strop now has a 5.47 ERA on the year and an 8.22 mark in July alone. In fact, nearly half the runs he's allowed in 2019 have come this month — 7 of 16.

But Strop has been pitching better than his ERA indicates — his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is nearly a full run lower than his ERA this season. His strikeout rate (27.4 percent) and walk rate (8.5 percent) are the lowest they've been since 2016. 

That being said, the 34-year-old has also seen a precipitous spike in hard contact rate and his soft contact percentage is way down. He's been plagued by the home run ball this year more than ever before, serving up 1.7 dingers per 9 innings, the highest rate of his career (though the same can be said for many pitchers this season).

So Strop clearly hasn't been his typical dominant self this year, but he also deserves a better fate than he's had to this point in the season.

Take Monday night, for example. 

Strop came on to pitch the eighth inning of a game the Cubs were leading 4-2 and promptly gave up a leadoff double to Pablo Sandoval. On paper, that's obviously not a great start, but look at where this pitch was when the Giants third baseman hit it:

Strop followed that by striking out Stephen Vogt before executing a nice pitch to Brandon Crawford and inducing a groundball...only to see it sneak through the infield for an RBI hit:

Then came a groundout before Austin Slater's game-tying double that came just inches away from Albert Almora Jr.'s glove in center field. 

The final blow was the go-ahead double by Joe Panik...on a ball that was higher than Strop would've liked it, but still not a bad pitch off the plate outside:

These are not bad pitches; it's not like Strop was leaving the ball over the heart of the plate all inning.

How's this for bad luck — the Sandoval double was pegged for just a .070 expected batting average. 

Crawford's single was hit at 89.7 mph and had an expected batting average of .360. By comparison, Kyle Schwarber hit a grounder in the top of the inning at 102.9 mph with an expected batting average of .630 and it was an out. It was simply a matter of Crawford's ball finding a hole while Schwarber hit his right at a defender. 

No matter which way you slice it, this was a tough luck outing for the veteran setup man. 

But bad luck or not, Strop still hasn't been getting the consistent results the Cubs need in crucial innings of a tight playoff race, so it's understandable manager Joe Maddon was asked about the bullpen usage on his weekly appearance with 670 The Score Tuesday afternoon:

"When Pedro's in the game, I really feel good about it," Maddon said. "We all do. I think last night, it was more about pitch selection than it was necessarily about stuff. He was one pitch away from getting out of that thing. 

"If you replay and look at it, you see the hit by Sandoval — that ball literally almost bounced. It really did and it almost hit his back foot. I don't know how he kept that ball fair, but he did. Good for him. And then Crawford hits a slow ground ball up the middle that gets between two guys that are outstanding infielders and that's a hit."

Maddon went on to say the last hit — Panik's double — was the more concerning one because it was a sinker that just didn't drop enough. Maddon said he'd rather see Strop go to his wicked slider in that situation than lean on a pitch (the sinker/fastball) that has seen a dip in velocity and value this season.

"I don't think Pedro's that far off," Maddon said. "Maybe the velocity's down a little bit more than anything. To utilize his cutter/slider and really get that to where he wants it — those are the devastating pitches. So that was my bigger concern last night."

Moving forward, it doesn't sound as if Maddon will shy away from utilizing Strop in high-leverage situations again, but the Cubs also have the luxury of a pretty deep bullpen where they could utilize some other arms (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler) to pitch the eighth inning and help bridge the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel.

Strop is 34 now and has dealt with some health issues over the last calendar year, but he has such a long track record of success that it wouldn't be surprising to see him once again emerge as a lights-out reliever before the season ends.

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Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

The Chicago Cubs tied the Washington Redskins for 14th on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list with a $3.1 billion valuation. The Cubs' valuation grew by 7% year over year.

The Cubs are the fourth-most valuable franchise in MLB behind the Yankees ($4.1B), the Dodgers ($3.3B) and the Red Sox ($3.2B). Only seven MLB teams made the Top 50.

Two other Chicago teams, the Bears and the Bulls, are tied for 19th on the list with a value of $2.9 billion. The Bears' value grew just 2% while the Bulls' valuation grew by 12% year over year.

The rise of the pro sports teams valued over $2 billion has been pretty meteoric over the past decade. In 2012, only Manchester United was valued over $2 billion and in 2019 that number has risen to 52.

In 2012, only the Knicks and Lakers made the Top 50 list but in 2019 the Bulls are one of nine teams to earn a spot. The Bulls were the fourth-most valuable NBA franchise in 2019 behind the Knicks ($4B), Lakers ($3.7B) and Warriors ($3.5B).

Forbes credits the NBA's international prospects and worldwide revenue growth for the league's rise in the list.

No NHL teams made the list, the New York Rangers were the most-valued hockey team at $1.55 billion, 72nd highest.