Cubs hope 2019 will be the 'Year of Strop' all over again

Cubs hope 2019 will be the 'Year of Strop' all over again

Among other things, 2018 has to be considered the "Year of Pedro Strop" for the Cubs.

You know you're kind of a big deal when Joe Maddon builds an entire theme trip around your unique — and loud — sense of style.

Strop entered 2018 already entrenched as one of the franchise's best relievers of all time but also finally got an extended run to serve as the team's closer and took major advantage of the opportunity.

Though it was his sixth year with the Cubs, 2018 served as a complete realization as to how reliable and stable he's been since coming over in the middle of the 2013 season as the "other" part of the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles.

Now, Strop is underrated no more.

The best indicator of that was the huge hole he left in the Cubs bullpen after injuring his hamstring running out a groundball Sept. 13 in Washington D.C.

Strop missed the rest of the regular season, but made a gutsy return to the mound for the NL Wild-Card Game last week to toss a scoreless 9th inning and help give his team a chance to walk it off (though that never came):

Afterwards, Strop indicated he actually was pitching through "severe pain" and wasn't going to be able to pitch in the NLDS or possibly even beyond if the Cubs had made it that far.

"I knew I was going to be done after this game," Strop said. "What I said was, 'Without this game, there's no longer playoffs, there's no World Series.' So I thought it was the most important game of my season. That's why I took the challenge. And I knew I was able to command my pitches, even with the pain, so I was like, 'OK, let's take the pain.'"

That gritty mindset is exactly what has endeared Strop to teammates, coaches, front office execs and fans throughout his 6-year run in Chicago.

"What an unbelievable performance," Theo Epstein said. "That was a 4-6 week injury that he came back from in about 2 [weeks]. Did a great job on a big stage, just wanted to be back for his teammates and found out after the game that he was actually pitching in pain and didn't want to show it because he didn't want to come out of the game.

"He's such a big part of the heartbeat of this team. I mean, this guy — I hope he can be a part of this organization when he's done playing. That's how impactful he is to the other relievers and to the team as a whole. Just a great disposition, great heart on that kid and a great pitcher."

Strop may be the most well-liked player in the Cubs clubhouse, always smiling and energetic, picking up his teammates when they're down or cheering the loudest when they come through with a big play.

When Javy Baez flipped his bat in frustration after popping out early in the season, it was Strop that stepped up and told Baez that's not how he should act, prompting an unprompted, public apology from the Cubs' young infielder.

The Cubs have a $6.25 million team option on Strop for 2019 and while we won't find out for sure that they plan to exercise that option until after the World Series, it's all but guaranteed the affable reliever will once again be an anchor for the bullpen next season.

Strop, 33, already has more holds than any other pitcher in Cubs history by a wide margin — his 114 dwarfs Carlos Marmol's 83 holds — and ranks 11th in franchise history in games pitched (361). With another full regular season of work if he can stay healthy, he could move into 6th place on the Cubs' all-time appearances list, leap-frogging the likes of James Russell (365 games), Ryan Dempster (374) and Fergie Jenkins (401). 

Strop has been remarkably consistent in his Cubs career — never turning in an ERA higher than 2.91 — while pitching in some of the most high-leverage situations. Coming into 2018, he only had notched 9 career saves but finished 13 games with the Cubs when Brandon Morrow went down to injury midseason.

In a day and age where the bullpen is more important than it's ever been around baseball, Strop is such a valuable weapon for the Cubs as a respected veteran who runs towards big moments, can pitch in any role (including closer) and help serve as a stabilizing force in the most volatile position group in the game.

"I'm glad he had that opportunity this year to close games and get some much-deserved recognition for how good he is and what he means to this team, even if it was only for 6 weeks or so," Epstein said. "Lotta fans tipping their cap to him — or moving it to the side for him. He deserves that and we fully expect him to be back next year and playing a huge role."

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto