Freddie Freeman

With Cubs in need of a reliable lefty in bullpen, Drew Smyly could be a wild card down the stretch

With Cubs in need of a reliable lefty in bullpen, Drew Smyly could be a wild card down the stretch

Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office are always trying to evaluate the franchise's major weaknesses, looking for potential leaks that could sink the ship.

It's only Aug. 2, but one such issue flew to the forefront Thursday evening.

After trade deadline pickup Jesse Chavez gave up a 3-run homer (the first runs he's allowed as a Cub), the game was still in shouting distance for the Cubs. But a pair of lefties — Justin Wilson and Brian Duensing — combined to allow 3 runs in the final three frames to break the game wide open for the Padres.

Wilson walked a batter and gave up a pair of hits in one inning of work. Duensing also walked a batter and gave up 4 hits over 2 innings. 

Right now, the two are the only left-handed options out of the Cubs bullpen and they've each endured their various level of struggles this season.

As the Cubs get down to the most pivotal part of the regular season and hope to roll it into the playoffs, can they get by with the pair of question marks in the bullpen?

"Justin's been good," Joe Maddon said after the Cubs' 6-1 loss. "We've been having to get Duensing straightened out for a bit, but I do like [Carl] Edwards against lefties and I like [Brandon] Kintzler against lefties. 

"But I did not want to use them in those situations tonight. I think Justin's been fine."

Wilson has certainly pitched better than he did in his two-month debut with the club last fall. But he still has 30 walks in 42.2 innings and carries a worrisome 1.43 WHIP despite a solid 3.38 ERA. He ran into major control issues last year and was a non-factor for the Cubs in the postseason because of it.

Duensing has struggled for months and now sports a 7.34 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season with more walks (26) than strikeouts (22). 

If the Cubs have to face Bryce Harper or Freddie Freeman or Cody Bellinger in the playoffs or need some big outs against Travis Shaw and Christian Yelich in September, Wilson and Duensing may not inspire a whole lot of confidence in the fanbase watching on the edge of their respective seats.

Rookie lefty Randy Rosario was just sent down to Triple-A Iowa earlier in the week to clear room for Brandon Kintzler on the big-league roster and while his stats were good (4-0, 1.97 ERA), the underlying numbers indicate he was due for a pretty serious regression — 1.34 WHIP, 5.10 FIP, almost as many walks (16) as strikeouts (19) in 32 innings.

Rosario will undoubtedly be back up in Chicago soon and could be a factor out of the Cubs bullpen come playoff time. But that's a lot to throw on the shoulders of a 24-year-old with only 28 MLB games under his belt.

The answers, ironically, may come in the form of the two left-handers who pitched before Wilson and Duensing Thursday.

Drew Smyly threw a simulated game at Wrigley Field before the Cubs and Padres faced off and could be set to go on a rehab assignment in the very near future.

Mike Montgomery started for the Cubs and got 16 outs, continuing his trend of solid work in the rotation over the last couple months. But the Cubs also want to be cautious of Montgomery's innings and don't want to run the tall southpaw into the ground before what they hope is another run into late October. 

At some point in the regular season, they may opt to move Montgomery back into the bullpen to limit those innings. And even if they don't, it's possible the Cubs opt to flip Montgomery back to the swingman role in the bullpen for the postseason, choosing to fill out the potential playoff rotation with the likes of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels.

Smyly and Yu Darvish are the wild cards here. 

The Cubs aren't counting on anything from Darvish the rest of this season, but almost two months remain until the first playoff game. If he can actually kick this arm injury, he figures to have a spot in the rotation locked up and Montgomery is the natural choice to move back to the bullpen given he has plenty of recent experience in that role.

Smyly is recovering from Tommy John surgery and hasn't thrown a pitch in a big-league game since 2016, but he could fill a variety of roles for the Cubs down the stretch — a left-handed reliever capable of going multiple innings, a starting pitcher or something else entirely.

It's impossible to just assume a guy will find his form and command in less than a month of actual game action on a rehab assignment before the minor league seasons wrap up.

But Smyly and the Cubs were encouraged after his 30-pitch sim game Thursday.

"Good. I thought he finished strongly," Maddon said. "He agreed with that. His fastball started to jump that second 15 pitches. Little bit of command issues with his curve and his changeup. Not sharp, but only threw three in each set.

"But fastball got better and it finished really strong and he felt good about himself. ... Smyly left smiling."

The Cubs clearly believe in Smyly enough to give him a 2-year, $10 million contract last winter despite a guarantee he would miss at least the first four months of the 2018 season.

The 29-year-old lefty pitched for Maddon briefly for the Tampa Bay Rays at the tail end of the 2014 season. He has also worked with first-year Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey the last three-and-a-half seasons between Tampa Bay and Chicago.

Epstein said on the last homestand the Cubs plan to stretch Smyly out whenever he's able to get down to the minors and start a rehab assignment. So that leaves open the possibility that he can serve as some rotation depth.

But the most likely scenario is Smyly contributing in some form out of the Cubs' bullpen. It's been a few years, but he has a solid track record as a reliever — 7-0, 2.47 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.7 K/9 in 71 appearances out of the bullpen.

When it comes time for a big at-bat by a dangerous left-handed hitter in September or October, it may be Smyly that Maddon turns to out of the bullpen, not Wilson or Duensing.

Javy Baez for NL MVP? Joe Maddon's driving the El Mago hype train

Javy Baez for NL MVP? Joe Maddon's driving the El Mago hype train

With each passing day, Javy Baez's case for National League Most Valubale Player picks up steam and seems more and more of a possibility.

"El Mago" woke up Thursday morning leading the NL in RBI and sixth in OPS. 

He leads the Cubs in just about every offensive category — runs, hits (22 more than the next closest guy, Albert Almora Jr.), doubles, triples, homers, RBI, total bases, stolen bases, slugging percentage, OPS and WAR.

He's already set career highs in RBI, stolen bases, triples, doubles and extra-base hits and there are still two months left in the season. Over the next week or so, he will reach new career marks in hits, homers and runs.

Where would the Cubs be if you took Baez out of their lineup?

"Oh, don't do that," Joe Maddon joked with reporters prior to Thursday's 6-1 Cubs loss to the Padres.

Seriously, though, where would the Cubs be?

They currently have the best record in the NL despite Anthony Rizzo's up-and-down season, a year for Kris Bryant marred by a shoulder injury that has limited his effectiveness even when he's been on the field and Yu Darvish accounting for only 40 innings of subpar results.

Through it all, it's been Baez that has anchored this Cubs lineup on a daily basis despite just a .333 on-base percentage and 16 walks (6 of which were intentional).

"He's hitting fourth, he leads the league in RBI still, homers are good, he's using the whole field — that's the part that's making the on-base not as bothersome to me," Maddon said. "He still will strike out, but like [Wednesday], drew that walk. He went from 1-2 to 4-2, I think. Did not chase for that third strike.

"That part is maturing a bit. I think he can sustain this. He's playing with so much confidence right now."

Looking at the other top MVP candidates around the league right now, only Nolan Arenado, Matt Carpenter and Freddie Freeman have a higher WAR than Baez.

Baez is significantly better defensively than Freeman and Carpenter, two guys who spend a lot of time playing first base, where defense is not as important. Arenado is a fantastic defender, but Baez is a much better baserunner. 

In fact, Baez rates as the fifth-most valuable runner in all of baseball, behind Jose Ramirez, Billy Hamilton, Eddie Rosario and Whit Merrifield. 

"I know [J.D.] Martinez with the Red Sox is wonderful, but he does not provide on defense or the bases what Javy is able to provide," Maddon said. "So that's my point — don't just get locked into hitting all the time. It's a complete game."

Baez was already a household name around baseball prior to the 2018 season. Many knew him for his flair or easy smile on the baseball diamond. Or they saw his breakout performance in the Cubs' 2016 World Series run that saw him win a co-NLCS MVP.

Yet he still began this season hitting eighth in the Cubs lineup, a 25-year-old that still had quite a bit of developing to do as a hitter.

"He's come a long way this year," Maddon said. "He's getting close [to being the guy other teams gameplan around]. The reason why I'm saying that is, I know he's not chasing as much, but his confidence.

"I don't even know if he could be more confident than he is right now. That plays also. If you get to this tight moment, he believes he's gonna beat you somehow. That has nothing to do with numbers. That's what's in his heart. That's what's in his mind.

"His mind, on a baseball field, is truly artisitic. He does things and he sees things that most other guys do not. And furthermore, he's got the courage to do things. He's fearless.

"I still think he's like a year or two away from being this player that tears everything up.  But for right now, he's trending in that direction. The way he's thinking is a difference-maker right now."

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.