Cubs

3 ways Bryce Harper's bat would improve any lineup

3 ways Bryce Harper's bat would improve any lineup

So long as the Harper-to-the-Cubs rumors continue to (kinda) swirl, we're going to keep hammering away on the Harper content. You all roll your eyes now, but when he's posted a 130 wRC+ through the first 6 weeks with the White Sox, you're going to think back to the good ol' days when he still had a chance of signing with the Cubs. 

Yesterday, we looked at 3 ways Harper can improve on his already-astounding career stats. Talking about how really good players are actually not as good as people think is a bummer, so let's not do that again. Instead, let's take this time to admire one of the game's great players and how he could fit in the North or South side. Should the Cubs or White Sox be the last man standing at Harper's Baazar or whatever psuedo-clever colloquialism Scott Boras prides himself on thinking up, here's what they'll be getting with their $300 million investement: 

Generational Power 

In the seven years that Harper's been up, only 19 players have posted a better ISO than he has (.223). He's slotted a few spots below Kyle Schwarber and a few spots above Kris Bryant, which, coincidentally enough, is probably how the Cubs would build that lineup card, too. In that time, Harper's hit 174 home runs - only 19 players over that seven-year span have more. He's only missed the 20-homer mark once in his career, an injury-filled 2014 season. His home run totals the last 4 seasons: 42, 29, 24, 34. He's never had a below-average exit velocity, either, and still finished with the 30th-best HardHit% in baseball last year. The kicker, of course, is that Harper's 26 years old. It's widely considered that 26-30 represents the prime of a baseball career, so Harper's just now getting into his peak. Let that sink in for a moment. Players of his caliber almost never hit the open market before or at the height of their peaks. 

An uncanny knack of getting on base

It's funny, but powerr might not even be Harper's best attribute. *No one* gets on base like he does. In the seven years since he's been in the majors, only six batters have posted better walk rates. He lead baseball with 132 walks. ONLY Mike Trout had a better BB% (Trout had almost 100 less PAs than Harper which explains why those are flipped). The Cubs' collective team BB% was nine percent. Their best individual BB% belonged to Kyle Schwarber (15.3%). The White Sox posted a team-wide BB% right around seven percent and their best was either Omar Navarez (11.8%) or Matt Davidson (10.5%) depending on how you feel about sample size. Harper posted an BB% of 18 percent, and that wasn't even the best clip of his career. He would immediately be the best on-base threat on either team, and getting on-base leads to runs, which is theoretically what you're buying with $300 million. 

A sense of the moment

Clutch is a funny thing to define, as some people will die on that hill and some people refuse to believe it exists. FanGraphs has plenty of numbers if you want to counter this argument, but you can look at moments like Game 2 of the 2017 NLDS or his game-tying YAM in the 2014 NLDS or his Opening Day Homer streak or even his performance in last year's Home Run Derby and realize that Harper understands the moment. Is it quantifiable? Perhaps not. But anyone that's watched Harper over the last seven seasons knows that more often than not, he comes up big in big moments. 

And lastly, a side note about his health 

A great deal of people are hesitant to support a Harper signing under the premise that he's never healthy. That's ... not exactly true anymore. Here's a log of how many games he's played in the last 4 seasons:

2015: 153
2016: 147
2017: 111
2018: 159 

So he's only missed substantial time once in the last four years. He missed a lot of time in 2013 and 2014, sure, but how long does two years of nagging injuries carry a narrative? The ONLY Cubs player to appear in more games than Harper last season was Javy Baez, who beat him by *one*. No one on the White Sox appeared in more games than he did. Injuries are part of the game, and Harper got a taste of that when he came up and played fearless, ultimately learning his lesson thanks to the outfield walls in Atlanta and Los Angeles. At this point, Harper's health shouldn't be taken any more or less seriously than the health of any other player. 

Craig Kimbrel struggles again, Cubs lose heartbreaker: ‘Today is not an easy day’

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AP

Craig Kimbrel struggles again, Cubs lose heartbreaker: ‘Today is not an easy day’

After two consecutive tough, one-run losses, the Cubs showed plenty of fight on Saturday against the Cardinals. And yet, it still ended with what could be described as a knockout punch.

“We needed the 16-ounce gloves for that fight right there,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said postgame. “We had the right guy there at the end. You talk about two shots to the jaw —like poom-poom — and they got the win.”

For the second time this weekend, Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel was victimized by the long ball. With the Cubs leading 8-7 in the ninth, Kimbrel surrendered solo home runs to Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong on consecutive pitches, giving the Cardinals a 9-8 lead — ultimately the game’s final score.

“Today is not an easy day,” Kimbrel said postgame. “First and second pitch of an inning, [I] felt like I made two competitive pitches that I wanted to, and it went out.

“It’s just frustrating, that’s the only thing I can say.”

Saturday’s loss all but eliminates the Cubs from NL Central contention, as their tragic number is down to two with seven games left. They’re also 2.5 games back of the Brewers for the last Wild Card spot, pending the outcome of Milwaukee’s matchup with the Pirates on Saturday.

The result is obviously all that matters, but it’s not like Kimbrel left two meatballs over the heart of the plate. Molina’s home run came off a 97-mph fastball that was up and out of the strike zone, while DeJong hit a 96-mph heater that was up in the zone.

“First one was out of the zone, second was up,” Kimbrel said. “Thought it was a good pitch to the hitter, based on what I saw. They just put the barrel on it, and it went out.

“I was pumped out there, I was excited, felt like I had good stuff. And then right there off the bat with two home runs. Frustrating.”

Kimbrel returned to the Cubs on Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list with right elbow inflammation. With the minor league season over, the 31-year-old couldn’t go on a rehab assignment, though he did throw a simulated game on Tuesday.

However, Kimbrel insisted that his recent outings have nothing to do with his health. In fact, he said that he feels great.

“I feel great right now. I mean, my last two outings I’ve felt great,” he said. “I just didn’t get the results I wanted, the results I need to have to do my job.”

“He’s had ample time to build his arm strength back up, and it was nothing wrong with his arm strength,” Maddon said. “After [the homer runs], he made some really good pitches at the other guys.”

One of the tougher parts of Kimbrel’s last two outings is that they’ve followed rallies by a Cubs offense that has been inconsistent in September. Thursday, they scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie things up before passing the ball to Kimbrel.

After surrendering two runs in the seventh inning Saturday, the Cubs put up two runs of their own that inning, retaking the lead. That lead didn’t hold, but the Cubs still are confident in their closer.

“Of course,” Maddon said. “We were at that point where we’ve built the game towards him, and I want to continue to do so. I thought his stuff was actually better today than the other day.

“It felt really good about the moment right there, the way we fought back, him coming in the game, had already been in one game, has had ample time to get it back together. It was kind of surprising.”

“Craig’s a Hall of Fame closer. He’s got a track record for a reason,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He puts in the work. We all see it.

“He’s an amazing guy in the clubhouse. We have his back. It’s tough. I know he feels bad, but he’s a competitor and he’s a champion and he’ll bounce back.”

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Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

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USA Today

Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

The Cubs took the field Saturday afternoon with only a 21.3 percent chance of making the postseason.

That number will certainly go down after another epic meltdown in a season full of disastrous moments.

Just five days earlier (after Monday's win), the Cubs had a 76.7 percent chance of October baseball.

But that's what five straight losses will do, especially when the other teams in the race keep on winning. They still couldn’t get back to their winning ways Saturday despite a hard-fought effort in a wild 9-8 loss that saw seven lead changes.

The Cubs are now 6 games back in the division and 3 games out of the final playoff spot in the National League with only seven contests remaining.

"Obviously it sucks," said Javy Baez, who struck out to end the game. "But we are really close to the other teams. We just gotta play our game — try to get hot in the last two series and see what happens when the last game is over."

"It doesn't matter how you lose at this time of the year," Anthony Rizzo said. "It sucks. A loss is a loss. Especially with seven games left. It sucks." 

Quick thoughts

—Kimbrel’s disastrous weekend

This is not what anybody had in mind when the Cubs addressed their biggest weakness and signed Craig Kimbrel to a three-year deal in early June.

In his first 19.2 innings as a Cub, the closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory surrendered 9 home runs — the latter two coming on back-to-back pitches in the top of the ninth inning Saturday.

Called on to protect a 1-run lead, Kimbrel could only watch in disbelief as Yadier Molina sent his first pitch into the left-field bleachers and Illinois native Paul DeJong followed suit on the very next offering.

"It's tough. it is," Rizzo said. "Craig's a Hall of Fame closer. He's got a track record for a reason. He puts in the work. We all see it. He's an amazing guy in the clubhouse. You don't want to ever see anybody give up runs. We have his back. It's tough. It feels bad, but he's a competitor and a champion and he'll bounce back."

Kimbrel spent most of this month on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but returned Thursday only to give up the lead and get saddled with the loss in the 10th inning after the Cubs had just pulled off an epic 3-run rally in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extras.

Kimbrel now has a 6.53 ERA in 23 games with the Cubs this season.

—Javy suits up

Baez scored the tying run as a pinch-runner Thursday night, but his at-bat to end the game Saturday was his first plate appearance since breaking his left thumb three weeks ago. 

He struck out against Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez to end the game and admitted it was a tough at-bat given the layoff.

"It was hard, especially with him out there throwing 100 mph," Baez said. "It's tough, but you gotta give it a try and try something for the team."

Baez said he hopes to be able to start the game Tuesday for the Cubs in Pittsburgh.

"I've been feeling good," he said. "It's still bothering me a little bit, but I would do anything to help my team. We're in a hard situation right now that we gotta win games and if not, we'll be out of the playoffs. We're in this together. If we're gonna give everything, we're gonna give everything together. I'm trying my best to come back before the regular season is over. It's been a quick process, so hopefully I'll keep getting better and after the day off, I'll probably be out there."

—The winds of change

At first pitch Saturday, the wind was blowing straight out at Wrigley Field at 17 mph. That proved to be a huge factor in the game.

Each team felt the benefit of Mother Nature, with Marcell Ozuna somehow golfing this very low 0-2 pitch from Kyle Ryan into the bleachers in the top of the seventh inning for a go-ahead blast:

The Cubs’ big boost from the wind came on Tony Kemp's signature moment with the team in the bottom of the inning (though this game won’t be remembered for his heroics).

After Ben Zobrist had doubled with one out, Kemp was sent up to the plate as a pinch-hitter and appeared to strike out, only to get new life when it turned out a balk was called. He hit the next pitch in the air to center field — deep enough to at least get Zobrist home from third as the tying run — but it wound up carrying just a few rows into the bleachers for an enormous, game-changing home run.

The Cubs had been waiting for their baseball luck to turn and I think it's safe to say the balk call qualified, though it ultimately proved to only set the stage for even greater heartbreak for the fanbase.

—Brad Wieck's big moment goes for naught

Kemp wasn't the only player to deliver his signature moment with the Cubs Saturday afternoon.

Wieck was called on to protect the 1-run lead in the eighth inning of a crucial, Game 7-esque contest Saturday — just like everybody predicted back when the Cubs traded for him on July 31. Despite walking the leadoff hitter and plunking Tommy Edman, Joe Maddon left Wieck in the game to face the heart of the Cardinals order — righties Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — even though veteran Steve Cishek had been warming up in the Cubs bullpen.

Goldschmidt flied out to left field and Ozuna struck out, giving Wieck a huge boost of confidence and setting the Cubs on the path for a much-needed victory before the ninth-inning meltdown.

—Oh, that's where the offense was hiding...

Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson certainly helped out with back-to-back-to-back-to-back walks after Nicholas Castellanos' double in the first inning.

The team that scored only 1 run on 9 hits in Friday's ballgame then plated 3 runs on just 1 hit in the first inning of Saturday's contest.

Baseball, man.

The Cubs generally had a solid approach at the plate all day, drawing 6 walks and slugging 7 of their 10 hits for extra bases.

Rookie Nico Hoerner delivered a clutch go-ahead homer in the bottom of the sixth, his third longball of the homestand after hitting just 3 homers in 75 minor-league games this year.

—What bum ankle?

This weekend series hasn't gone the way the Cubs wanted, but Anthony Rizzo's shocking return to the field and subsequent play has been one of the consistent bright spots.

After a nasty-looking sprained ankle that was originally thought to keep him out for the rest of the regular season, Rizzo returned to the Cubs leadoff spot just 20 minutes before Thursday's game and he even provided a homer in that contest before the Cardinals pulled out a victory in the 10th inning.

In 11 plate appearances over those three games, Rizzo reached in six of them, including three hits Saturday. He even hustled out a double in the second inning, sliding into second on that injured ankle and trying to give his team a spark.

—Q's about Q

What is going on with Jose Quintana. He hasn't made it through 4 innings in any of his last three starts and has gone more than a month since pitching at least 6 innings (Aug. 18).

He's now given up 18 earned runs and 25 hits in 13.2 innings this month - good for an 11.85 ERA and 2.19 WHIP.

Quintana was a rock for the Cubs in the rotation for the first five months of the season, but he's taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction at the absolute worst time. His struggles are even tougher to swallow when taken alongside Cole Hamels' last couple months of injuries and ineffectiveness.

At the moment, Quintana would be in line to start the first game in St. Louis next weekend, but the Cubs could always utilize the off-day to change up their rotation a bit.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Pirates Saturday night and are 3 games up on the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Nationals update

The Nationals beat the Marlins and have a 4-game lead on the Cubs and are 1 game up on the Brewers for the top Wild-Card spot.

What's next?

The Cubs finish their 2019 regular season home slate Sunday afternoon, though some serious storms are projected to hit Chicago.

If they are able to play, will this be the final game at Wrigley Field in 2019? If they're not able to play, the Cardinals have a game Monday night while the Cubs are off, so the makeup would have to be pushed back to Sept. 30 if it still holds weight for the playoff race.

Yu Darvish takes the hill for the Cubs against Miles Mikolas. Catch all the action on NBC Sports Chicago or the My Teams app, with pregame live beginning at 12:30 p.m.

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