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10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the most important series of the season

10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the most important series of the season

Only 10 games remain in the Cubs' 2019 regular season. 

Seven of those 10 games come against the first-place St. Louis Cardinals, beginning Thursday night at Wrigley Field. 

The Cardinals come into the series with a 3-game lead over the Cubs, while the Milwaukee Brewers — who lost Wednesday night — are also 3.0 games back and tied with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League. Both teams trail the Washington Nationals by 1.5 games for the top Wild-Card spot. 

The only way the Cubs end this weekend in first place in the division is by taking all four games from the Cardinals — who have been one of the hottest teams in baseball the last two months. Anything less than a sweep means the Cubs will enter the final week of the season at least a game out.

It's not an impossible thought. The Cardinals have yet to win a game at Wrigley Field this season, going 0-6. But this is a different St. Louis team than the last time they visited town in early June.

"This is gonna be a lot of fun," Joe Maddon said. "It's not an easy task. Anything and everything's possible and we're gonna go into it with that thought. It's one at a time."

All homestand, the Cubs have been preaching the need to stay in the moment and take each day as it comes.

'We know what's in front of us," Jon Lester said. "We know what lies there and how big of a weekend it is. But if you start looking toward the entire weekend, you forget about tomorrow and we gotta worry about that."

Here are 10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the biggest series of the season:

1. This Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is about to hit a fever pitch

If you thought the three-game series between these two teams to finish last season was intense, wait until these next two weekends. 

"There is no more fun than how we're doing this right now," Maddon said. "Of course we're expecting a good result, but to do it vs. the Cardinals. When you're looking at the schedule at the beginning of the year, you're hoping you have like an 8-game lead by the time this [stretch] occurs, but then you get in the position we're in here, you're thankful that you have to play them that many times. It is what it is."

Maddon said he already had lined up how the Cubs batting order and defensive alignment would look for the four-game series before Wednesday's game, but was still focused on making sure his team keeps that one-day-at-a-time mindset.

The Cubs know they control their own destiny over the next week-and-a-half, but they can't get there if they're trying to win Sunday's game on Thursday or trying to make up the 3-game gap in the division all in one day.

2. Scoreboard watching will be awfully interesting

The Cubs and their fans will obviously know how the team fares in relation to the Cardinals this weekend, but Cubdom will also be Padres, Pirates and Marlins fans over the next few days.

The Brewers finish off a four-game set with San Diego Thursday afternoon before welcoming the Pirates for three games over the weekend. Meanwhile, the Nationals enjoy their final off-day of the season Thursday before embarking on a road trip to Miami for three games. Beginning Friday, Washington has to play 11 games over the final 10 days of the season, including a doubleheader against the Phillies Tuesday.

Maddon and the Cubs players insist they don't spend too much time watching the scoreboard, but they also can't help themselves, especially at this time of the year.

How do Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs front office executives view the rest of the pennant race?

"Do you want the answer I should give or the real answer?" Epstein joked. "We all watch a lot of baseball this time of year — not just our own team. If we win our games, we're gonna win the division because we play the Cardinals so many times. That lessens the import of scoreboard-watching. 

"It's really something you should not spend too much time doing because you can't control it. You're just hoping, you're just watching. It's better to pour your energy into who you're playing or who you're about to play, trying to find some small nugget that might help in some small way. Scoreboard-watching doesn't really get you anywhere. Now, you can root, but you don't want to spend too much time on it."

3. The Brewers are built for this month

Even with Wednesday's loss to the Padres, the Brewers have still been the hottest team in baseball this month, winning 13 of their 17 contests.

This is a team that looked to be running out of fumes entering September, but the Cubs have nobody but themselves to blame for letting Milwaukee back into the race. Maddon and Co. went just 2-5 against the Brewers earlier this month and gave the team life that sustained them even when reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich was lost for the season with a fractured kneecap.

Even still, this is the second straight year where the Brewers look like a totally different team in September than they were during the first five months of the season. Suddenly, their rotation issues aren't a problem since they have so many relievers to help cover and their "starters" now only go three or four innings.

That extreme bullpenning strategy clearly works against good teams (the Cubs and Cardinals can attest to that), but it can be especially effective against rebuilding teams just playing out the season...which is what Milwaukee's schedule consists of the rest of the way (Padres, Pirates, Reds, Rockies).

4. The timelines for Rizzo and Baez

Anthony Rizzo is still in a boot and unable to walk until at least the weekend, but his sprained right ankle will be re-evaluated at that point to determine if he will be able to make it back at all before October. We may not know anything before the end of this homestand, but any Rizzo updates will be crucial.

Javy Baez is supposed to meet with doctors later this week to determine an updated timeline on his fractured thumb. The Cubs aren't expecting him to play again in the regular season, but right now, they don't even know if he'll be able to suit up in October (if they get there).

5. The return of Kimbrel and Kintzler

The Cubs certainly missed their closer and top setup guy Wednesday night. In a tight, extra-inning game, Maddon had no choice but to go to inexperienced rookie James Norwood in the 10th inning with Steve Cishek not available (he pitched both Monday and Tuesday night) and Craig Kimbrel (elbow) and Brandon Kintzler (left side) still not healthy.

David Phelps, Pedro Strop, Kyle Ryan, Tyler Chatwood, Rowan Wick and Derek Holland had already been used after Jon Lester was removed with nobody out and two runners on in the sixth inning.

Kimbrel hasn't pitched since Sept. 1, but threw a bullpen Tuesday night and reported positive after it. He went through a regular pregame routine Wednesday and could be activated from the injured list before Thursday's game. 

Kintzler said he's been dealing with the left oblique issue for the last few weeks, but the pain became too unbearable in San Diego last week, so he shut it down for a little while. He threw Wednesday and is hoping to return to the Cubs bullpen sometime this weekend, though no exact day has been determined yet.

6. Can the bullpen stay hot?

Even with the 2 runs allowed Wednesday night and the bullpen taking a loss, this group of Cubs relievers still has the best ERA in Major League Baseball since the All-Star Break (3.47) and is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack in September (2.35 ERA). St. Louis' group of relievers is no slouch either, ranking second in the big leagues with a 3.58 ERA in the second half.

The bullpens figure to play a huge role in this weekend's series — and all seven games remaining against the Cardinals. 

Maddon had to utilize nearly every name in the 'pen Wednesday, but anticipated every one of the guys would be available Thursday for the opener against St. Louis. The only guy who might have a bit of a restriction is Wick, who needed 26 pitches to get through the ninth inning Wednesday night.

Cishek should be available and Kimbrel could once again help lock things down at the back end.

7. Hoerner vs. Russell at shortstop

Addison Russell is eligible to return from the 7-day concussion IL Thursday after missing the last week-and-a-half following a pitch to the face in Milwaukee. He went through a complete pregame routine Wednesday, including batting practice and taking grounders at shortstop.

Nico Hoerner is still only 15 months removed from being drafted, but the rookie has given the Cubs a spark over his first 10 big-league games, hitting .317 with an .876 OPS while impressing everybody with his defense at shortstop and calm demeanor.

Maddon has already indicated he may still stick with Hoerner at shortstop even when Russell is ready to return, though he still prefers Russell's defense at shortstop. Both Russell and Hoerner can play second base, so it's possible they are in the lineup — at least defensively — at various points this weekend, too (assuming Russell does not suffer a setback). 

8. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup set records this weekend with productivity, but it came with Rizzo leading off, the wind blowing out at Wrigley and against a bad Pirates pitching staff. They were able to carry it over just one day into the Reds series before once again going back to their Jekyll and Hyde ways.

To a man, the Cubs tipped their caps to the Cincinnati pitching staff after Tuesday's and Wednesday's losses and deservedly so — the Reds pitched well. But this lineup needs to do more, especially at this point in the season. 

[READ: From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break]

Thirteen different Cubs pitchers combined to allow only 7 runs in 19 innings of work the last two nights, which should be good enough to win most games. But the offense managed only 9 hits and 5 walks over those same 19 innings.

Things don't get any easier this weekend, either. If the Cubs thought the Reds pitching staff was good...the Cardinals are even better. St. Louis' rotation leads baseball by a WIDE margin with a 1.97 ERA in September, nearly a full run better than the next-closest team (Arizona — 2.75 ERA). 

Rizzo and Baez aren't grabbing a bat at any point this weekend, but there are still plenty of good names in that lineup, led by Kris Bryant and Nicholas Castellanos.

The Cubs still have time to find the "offensive nirvana" they've been in search of for over a calendar year.

9. It's time for the rotation to step up

While the offense rides the roller coaster and the bullpen works back to health, a lot of weight over the next 10 days falls on the rotation. The Cardinals starters — led by Jack Flaherty, who is on a 2015 Jake Arrieta-esque run right now — are going to bring it and the Cubs' veteran-laden rotation needs to respond.

That starts with Kyle Hendricks, who leads baseball in home ERA (1.75) and has absolutely dominated the Cardinals this season to the tune of a 0.39 ERA and 3-0 record in 3 starts.

Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana have been searching for consistency the last few times out and the Cubs badly need them to find that groove this weekend and hope Hendricks and Darvish can continue their hot streak.

10. Zobrist and the leadoff spot

The Cubs lineup finally looked better and more solid 1-through-8 when Maddon moved Rizzo up to the top spot last week in San Diego. The numbers were great and it meant the Cubs' top hitters were all guaranteed to come up in the first inning.

Now that burden of leadoff falls back on Ben Zobrist's shoulders. He's done a nice job atop the order this season, but after he missed four months for personal leave and closely monitoring his birth certificate, the Cubs insisted all along they didn't plan on pushing the 38-year-old veteran too hard.

Things have certainly changed now. Zobrist has started five straight games at leadoff, though Maddon has been able to switch him out in each contest, including a couple times for nearly half the game over last weekend.

"I've been in constant contact with him," Maddon said. "So far, so good. The games against Pittsburgh did help, there's no question. But I'll continue to talk with him on a daily basis trying to figure out the next day."

If Zobrist can't lead off, it's unknown who would get the call up there. Schwarber, Jason Heyward and almost everybody else has taken a turn atop the order and the results haven't been to anybody's liking. 

With the four biggest games of the year on tap, expect Maddon to treat them all like playoff games and that means Zobrist leading off in Rizzo's stead.

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Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

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USA TODAY

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since July 2018, but he’ll get a shot at making a comeback next season.

Morrow is set to sign a minor league deal with the Cubs, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. It’s worth $1 million if he makes the Cubs' roster and could reach $2.25 million if Morrow makes 65 big-league appearances. 

Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 15, 2018, missing the second half of that season with right biceps inflammation. He underwent a debridement procedure on his right elbow last offseason, which was supposed to keep him out for the first month of the 2019 season. But Morrow suffered several setbacks and never pitched in 2019. 

Morrow’s agent, Joel Wolfe, told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times last month that the right-hander feels a sense of loyalty to the Cubs after they stuck by him through thick and thin. He said Morrow was open to a minor league deal.

When he last pitched, Morrow was one of the most dominant closers in baseball. He posted a 1.47 ERA in 35 games in 2018, converting 22 of 24 save tries. He provided the Cubs with a power arm in the back of the bullpen, striking out 31 batters in 30 2/3 innings compared to nine walks.

For the Cubs, Morrow is a low-risk addition with high-reward potential. He told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that his arm feels great. If he’s healthy, he could be a major contributor to the Cubs' bullpen.

This time, the Cubs won’t place such high expectations on the 35-year-old. They expect closer Craig Kimbrel to bounce back in 2020 with a normal offseason ahead of him. Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs last June and struggled mightily, posting a 6.53 ERA in 23 games.

If healthy, Morrow could prove to be a lethal weapon in front of Kimbrel. If he can’t stay healthy, it’s not like the Cubs are investing a lot of money in him, as they did two offseasons ago when Morrow signed a two-year, $21 million deal.

Simply put: if Morrow pans out, great. If he can’t stay healthy, the Cubs can move on without losing a large investment.

If Rangers sign Nicholas Castellanos, it could lead them to Kris Bryant deal

If Rangers sign Nicholas Castellanos, it could lead them to Kris Bryant deal

After losing out on free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon, the Texas Rangers have spoken to agent Scott Boras about Cubs free agent outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

Castellanos played third with the Detroit Tigers from 2014-17, but considering he posted a -64 Defensive Runs Saved mark in four seasons, he won’t be moving back there. Interestingly, however, Castellanos is willing to consider playing first base, according to Grant.

The Cubs — who are reportedly still pursuing Castellanos — obviously would be affected if the 27-year-old signs with Texas, as they'll lose one of their most productive players from 2019. But besides that, Castellanos landing with the Rangers would impact the Kris Bryant trade market.

The Rangers are looking for a consolation plan at third base after missing out on Rendon. They have a three-year offer on the table for Donaldson, according to Grant, and signing him would cost them only money. The same cannot be said about acquiring a third baseman via trade, like Kris Bryant, who would cost several assets.

But if Donaldson doesn’t sign with the Rangers, they might be more inclined to pursue Bryant. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said at the Winter Meetings they’ll address third base this offseason, and the Cubs' third baseman would be the best option left. That is, unless Texas calls the Rockies about Nolan Arenado.

Daniels also indicated that the Rangers are unlikely to trade for a player with only a few years of team control left (like Bryant) without making other major additions.

“There are some trade options [that] would have quite frankly made more sense in our mind if we had landed the free agents at the top of our list,” Daniels said. “I don’t love the idea of half measures. I don’t love the idea of taking a chunk out of the system if it doesn’t really make sense. Trading for somebody with a year or two of control makes more sense if the club is a little more filled out.”

So if the Rangers land Castellanos, a pursuit of Bryant could follow. But the same might also be true if they sign Donaldson, thanks to Bryant’s positional versatility.

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