Cubs

Why Giants pose bigger wild-card threat for Cubs

Why Giants pose bigger wild-card threat for Cubs

Jake Arrieta’s reflexive answer to the wild-card question – ‘Who gives a s---?’ – will either be remembered as the symbolic moment where a Cy Young Award winner got locked back into the zone. Or those four words will go on the headstone of the 2016 Cubs if they don’t win the World Series.

Because if Madison Bumgarner puts the San Francisco Giants on his shoulders and beats New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard on Wednesday night at Citi Field, then remember how Cubs manager Joe Maddon framed any National League first-round opponent: “Be careful what you wish for.”          

Especially in a best-of-five series where the Giants can line up Johnny Cueto to start Games 1 and 5 at Wrigley Field, with one-time All-Star lefty Matt Moore, World Series MVP Bumgarner and motivated ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija in between, making this a simple question: Which team is more dangerous? 

“It’s the Giants,” an NL Central scout said, “because if their starting pitching gets hot, then they can do some damage. But the only problem is, they need their bullpen to shore things up a little better at the end of the game.

“They have pedigree. They have experience. They have starting pitching. It’s just a matter of the back end (of the bullpen) when they’re winning: Can they hold it together?”   

The Giants certainly have their flaws, leading the majors with 30 blown saves, sinking to 30-42 in the second half after having the best record in the game at the All-Star break (57-33). But San Francisco could once again be clicking at the right time, sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend at AT&T Park to avoid a road Game 163 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Elite rotation pieces and a defense that tied for the major-league lead in fielding percentage (.988) can help mask some of those bullpen issues. Offensively, the Giants can make up for a power outage – Brandon Belt led the team with 17 home runs – with a lineup that doesn’t give away at-bats and features battle-tested hitters like Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford. 

“You’ve got an experienced, mature bunch that will figure out a way to beat you,” an NL East scout said. “It’s an even-number year. That’s what (would scare) me. Look at what they did two years ago. They were in the cellar then, and look what they did.”

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The 2010 Giants didn’t clinch an NL West title until Game 162 and won the World Series. The 2012 Giants won elimination games against the Cincinnati Reds and Cardinals before sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The 2014 Giants watched Bumgarner throw a complete-game shutout in a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates and come out of the bullpen for a five-inning save to beat the Kansas City Royals in a World Series Game 7.    

“This is 2016, so they’re going to be tough to beat, no doubt,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Same with the Mets and the experience they gained last year. That will be a fun game to watch, especially with Syndergaard and Bumgarner. I’m sure they’re both going to throw 200 pitches each if they have to. 

“It’s fun for baseball – those wild-card games – and we’re happy we’re not partaking in that this year with that anxiety and the stress level.”

Where the Mets have lost three frontline pitchers who shut down the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series – Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are all recovering from season-ending surgeries – the Giants invested $220 million in Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA) and Samardzija (12-11, 3.81 ERA) and gave up the kind of young position player (Matt Duffy) the Cubs refused to surrender to the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade-deadline deal for Moore (13-12, 4.08 ERA).

After burning Syndergaard in the wild-card game, the Mets could be leaning on a 43-year-old control artist (Bartolo Colon) and two rookies (Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman) who didn’t arrive in New York with any hype. 

“The Mets – I don’t know – they got some mojo,” an NL West scout said. “When you got a guy like (Yoenis) Cespedes, he can turn (everything) around (in that lineup). Bartolo’s pretty good, but I’m shocked that they’ve put this run together.” 

The Giants and Mets are 87-win teams that didn’t flip off the switch. The Cubs held a double-digit lead in the NL Central since the first week of August, clinched a division title in mid-September and spent the final week of the regular season playing non-contenders. One reward for 103 wins will be a four-day layoff.

“Listen, we’re going to play a good team in the first round,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “By definition, you’re going to play a team that gets on a plane feeling awesome about themselves after Wednesday’s win. 

“We were that team last year. You get on that plane, you feel like world-beaters after winning that (wild-card) game on the road. We’re going to play a good team that feels good about themselves. That’s why I think the focus has to be on us and why we need to play good baseball.”

Arrieta gave his teammates that invincible feeling, suffocating the Pirates and setting off the champagne-soaked celebration inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse, the Cubs flying to St. Louis and then knocking out a 100-win Cardinals team. 

“We can go toe-to-toe in the playoffs with any lineup or any rotation,” Arrieta said. “We’re more than equipped and more than capable of taking care of business and moving forward. But you got to start with the first game October 7.”

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.

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.