Why the Cubs are betting on Joe Nathan

Why the Cubs are betting on Joe Nathan

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are trying to catch lightning in a bottle with Joe Nathan, the former All-Star closer still recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Cubs finalized a major-league contract with Nathan on Tuesday, putting him on the 60-day disabled list and potentially adding another weapon to manager Joe Maddon’s late-game arsenal. But that’s only if Nathan can get healthy for the second half of this season – at the age of 41 – after a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow 13 months ago.

The Cubs are placing a small bet on their pitching infrastructure, which has helped a Triple-A pitcher become a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and a Rule 5 pick turn into an elite closer (Hector Rondon). Scrap-heap deals (Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, etc.) became part of the formula for a 97-win team last season.

That outweighs the unpredictability with Nathan, who faced only one hitter last season with the Detroit Tigers and could have moved onto the next phase of his life after earning more than $85 million during his career.

“We got a guy with legitimate numbers on the back of his baseball card who is still hungry,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said before a 4-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “With the history that we’ve had the last couple years – being able to get guys and get more out of them – I think it’s a good fit.

“We just got to make sure that we put him in the right position and get him acclimated to see what happens. You never know, we might have another ace in the hole here.”

Nathan earned six All-Star selections between 2004 and 2013 with the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers. He’s pitched for six playoff teams. He ranks eighth all-time with 377 career saves.

This type of low-risk gamble paid off for the Cubs last season when the Seattle Mariners designated Fernando Rodney for assignment in late August. Rodney put up a 0.75 ERA in 14 appearances and used that platform to get $2 million guaranteed and a closer’s job with the San Diego Padres.

It didn’t work out last season with Rafael Soriano, another one of Maddon’s former closers with the Tampa Bay Rays. Soriano made six appearances (6.35 ERA), got released by September and announced his retirement in the middle of spring training.

It’s obvious where president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will be trying to upgrade a team with World Series expectations.

“It’s always about pitching depth,” Maddon said. “It’s always a good strategy.”

Nathan will work out at the team’s Arizona complex and earn the prorated major-league minimum (roughly $350,000). The deal also includes $2.4 million in incentives, according to MLB Network insider Jon Heyman, with a team option for next season that can become a mutual option based on performance.

“You can never have enough (pitching),” Bosio said. “That’s the way we got to be – and every other club’s got to be. When you got a guy sitting with 300 saves out there, I’m not going to say it’s a no-brainer, because I’m sure there were some questions that had to be answered on our end.

“But with Theo and Jed and (all our) scouts, (they) probably saw enough there to say: ‘Hey, it’s worth it.’ I don’t really think it’s a flyer. I think it’s more of a great opportunity for both parties.

“This guy’s presence alone can really help us. And I’m interested to see what he’s got left in the tank.”

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.