Steve Cishek

Analyzing the All-Star chances for each Cubs player

Analyzing the All-Star chances for each Cubs player

Barring a crazy Fourth of July holiday, the Cubs will not have a player voted into the National League All-Star starting lineup.

It's always possible a Cubs player could join that lineup over the next two weeks as a replacement, but as of Monday, the only Cub with a chance of being voted in was catcher Willson Contreras, who was close on the heels of former MVP Buster Posey.

Javy Baez somehow slipped to 3rd in voting among second basemen while Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist were all likely too far behind in their respective positions to make up the ground before voting closes on July 5.

But that's not to say the Cubs won't be well-represented when it comes time for the entire roster — including reserves — to be announced.

Either way, Baez will be on the NL roster. That much is clear.

Jon Lester leads the NL in wins (11) and will enter his next start with a 2.25 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in his age 34 season.

Washington's Max Scherzer and New York's Jacob deGrom are having fantastic seasons and should be the NL's starting pitcher, but if their schedule doesn't allow, Lester looks like the next-best candidate at the moment.

Albert Almora Jr. may also be named as an NL reserve with the incredible first half he's put up so far this year.

The 24-year-old entered play Tuesday 2nd in the NL in batting average (.331), just behind Cincinnati's Scooter Gennett (.334). And that was before Almora doubled home a run in the 5th inning Tuesday to get the Cubs on the scoreboard.

He wasn't an everyday starter at the beginning of the year and thus wasn't included by the Cubs on the All-Star ballot, so the only way fans could vote him in is by writing him in manually.

Still, Almora has been an absolute revelation for the Cubs this season, hitting .332 with a .371 on-base percentage and .834 OPS. He's on pace for 88 runs in only 476 at-bats and has already accrued as much WAR (1.7) in 78 games in 2018 as he did in 179 games between 2016-17 combined.

Almora is always focused on the team and trying to get the Cubs back to the Promised Land. But even he could allow himself to dream on how cool it would be to head to Washington D.C. in two weeks to represent his organization.

"It'd be special," Almora said. "Not even being on the player's ballot, to be a write-in everywhere, no exposure when it comes to social media from our team or anything, that'd be pretty neat if I could make that.

"It shows people really pay attention to the season. But at the same time, I'm not looking at that. I'm not paying attention to that. But it would definitely be a great experience."

Almora appeared in 132 games for the Cubs last season, but only notched 299 at-bats in the process. Despite hitting .298 with a .783 OPS, he was only a platoon player as the Cubs limited his plate appearances against right-handed pitching.

The Cubs still manage his exposure to some tough righties and Almora still has a tendency to swing at too many breaking pitches low and away, but he's made remarkable strides this year. Entering Tuesday's game, he was hitting .329 with an .815 OPS against righties compared to a .333 average and .855 OPS against lefties.

When asked if his place near the top of the NL leaderboard in batting average is any validation for the amount of work he's put in, Almora let out a breath and said, "Ah man, I've put in a lot of work, that's for sure.

"There's still a lot of season left, so I'm not gonna sit here and say, 'Yeah, what I did paid off,'" Almora continued. "I'm just putting my head down and playing the game. There's still a long way to go. 

"I feel like you can really determine a player throught he final stages of the season, when you start getting tired and fatigued. It's been a nice season so far for myself and team-wise, we're right where we need to be."

Almora talks about rest and with a team hoping to be playing through the end of October, getting 3 days off in mid-July for the All-Star Break would be a major boon.

At the same time, the Cubs also understand how exciting it would be for these young players to be able to experience the honor of going to the Midsummer Classic for the first time and Joe Maddon believes it can do wonder for the confidence of a guy like Almora.

As for the rest of the Cubs, Willson Contreras looks to be a good bet to go in as a reserve even if he can't catch Posey in the voting. 

Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber are having resurgent offensive seasons at the plate and the NL outfield isn't as stacked as it usually is, so it's possible one — or both — of the Cubs outfielders makes the trip to D.C.

Kris Bryant's All-Star chances have slimmed after enduring the worst month of his pro career in June and landing on the disabled list for the first time ever. Nolan Arenado is a lock to start at third base if healthy and Cincinnati's Eugenio Suarez will probably be his backup. Then it's a choice between Anthony Rendon, Travis Shaw and Bryant among the other candidates if the NL squad even has 3 third basemen.

Across the diamond, Atlanta's Freddie Freeman should start and it would be hard for Anthony Rizzo to beat out the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Brandon Belt and Joey Votto for a reserve spot. Rizzo is currently 10th in the NL in OPS, ahead of only Justin Bour, Ian Desmond and Josh Bell among qualifiers.

Ben Zobrist is having a very solid season, but isn't an everyday player at age 37 and probably won't be included among the reserve outfielders.

Closer Brandon Morrow also has a chance to make the NL squad. He's only thrown 24.2 innings, but he's 18-for-19 in save chances and has a sparkling 1.46 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.

Setup men aren't often selected for the midseason festivities, but Steve Cishek (1.89 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 10 holds, 2 saves) has been the linchpin of the Cubs bullpen this year while appearing in almost half the team's games.

Of course, none of this speculation is even taking into account the rule where each team must be represented at the All-Star Game. Maybe Colin Moran is the Pirates' only representative worthy of attending, which would take yet another third-base spot away from Bryant's potential bid.

We'll find out more about the Cubs' chances in the next week or so.

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Dominating.

That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Well, we got a look at what life is like without Brandon Morrow.

The Cubs closer and the anchor of the bullpen all season was unavailable for the first game of Tuesday's day-night doubleheader due to back tightness, leading to Justin Wilson taking on closing duties in the ninth inning.

The end result was a 4-3 Dodgers win as they rallied for a pair of runs off Wilson on Kyle Farmer's pinch-hit, 2-run, 2-strike, 2-out double just past the glove of a diving Kris Bryant.

Joe Maddon said he obviously would've planned on using Morrow for the ninth inning if the Cubs closer was healthy but due to the back tightness suffered early Monday morning, Morrow is down for both games of the doubleheader (assuming the night game isn't also rained out).

That leaves the Cubs pitching staff in an even tighter spot than they already were as they're currently in a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Monday's rain/light-out.

Let's start with the bullpen, which will be "raggedy" for Game 2, to quote Maddon, who admitted starter Mike Montgomery would have to be ready to go deep into the game.

Tyler Chatwood was only able to account for 5 innings in Game 1, leaving Steve Cishek to throw 14 pitches, Randy Rosario to throw 10 pitches and Pedro Strop 29 pitches before Wilson tossed 27 in the final frame.

That probably means Strop and Wilson are down for the rest of Tuesday and may make it a bit of a toss-up for either guy's availability Wednesday even with the surprise off-day Monday.

Cishek and Rosario should be able to throw Wednesday for sure and may be able to go in a limited capacity in Game 2 Tuesday.

That leaves Luke Farrell, Anthony Bass, Rob Zastryzny and Justin Hancock as the guys that are completely fresh at the moment. Hancock is up from the minors as the 26th man for the doubleheader and Zastryzny replaced Brian Duensing for this week while the veteran went on the bereavement list.

Without Morrow and with a loss already under the belt to open the Dodgers series, the Cubs bullpen is in a bad way and no scheduled off-day until July 2.

The starting rotation is in a bind, too, as now they'll need a starter for Saturday's game in Cincinnati assuming there are no more rainouts along the way.

With Chatwood's start pushed back to Tuesday instead of Monday, the Cubs now need an extra guy in the rotation.

The Cubs' probable starters for the rest of the week: Jon Lester (Wednesday), Kyle Hendricks (Thursday), Jose Quintana (Friday) and then a question mark Saturday before Chatwood would be ready to throw again on Sunday.

One option could be a "bullpen day" for the Cubs, but given how much they'll need to lean on that unit with the doubleheader and no off-days this week, that seems like a risky option.

The Cubs could also call somebody else up from Triple-A, but the options, such as Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills or Duane Underwood Jr.

Tseng has an ugly 8.21 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in the minors this year and gave up 3 runs on 4 hits in 2 innings in a spot start earlier this season.

Mills has limited big-league experience and had been pretty solid for a while with Iowa, going 3-3 with a 3.39 ERA averaging nearly 6 innings an outing over a 10-start span from late-April to early-June. But he got shelled his last time out (6 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks in 2.2 innings on June 17).

Underwood — the Cubs' second-round pick in 2012 — also had a really nice stretch with Iowa for a while (3.08 ERA over 9 starts from April 14 to May 28), but has regressed in June (14 runs on 18 hits and 7 walks in 13.1 innings).

Either way, this is a really tough stretch for a Cubs team that was just beginning to find its groove and get on a roll.