The Wild Card Game Is Next – Bring It On

By Todd Johnson

Well, game 163 pretty much was a microcosm of the past two months. Hopefully, the Cubs will have a short memory when it comes to tomorrow.

Starting pitcher Jose Quintana did his job. Reliever Jesse Chavez came on and did his thing that he does so well – shut the other team down. Anthony Rizzo kept the team in the game with a solo shot. But an overworked and undermanned bullpen gave it up when it mattered the most. Then again, the bats didn’t really do much of anything either. It’s a shame to lose the division at your own place, but life goes on and the playoffs officially begin Tuesday.

Luckily, the Cubs only lost home field advantage if they play the Brewers. That’s it.

For all other games, the Cubs will have the home field advantage including the tilt on Tuesday.

The Cubs should feel confident heading into the challenge as Big Jon Lester will be on the mound no matter who they face. Lester pretty much lives for these types of moments. He will be ready to go when the game begins.

While Manager Joe Maddon did go through most of the pen on Monday, the Cubs can adjust to a heavy bullpen tomorrow as the roster will be set for a 1 game series. No need for Quintana or Hendricks to be on that roster, nor Cole Hamels. The Cubs can even load Gore for tomorrow to get that one extra run. Just load up the pen and man all battle stations.

I don’t have a preference when it comes to whom the Cubs play. Just bring it on.

The game begins at 7 central tomorrow. It should be exciting.

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Playoff Roster Thoughts: 4-5 Spots Could Have Huge Implications

By Todd Johnson

maddon 65 2016

My baseball watching preferences are kind of weird. During the first week of the Cubs’ regular season, I watch every game. When the minor league season begins, I tend to wean myself off the major league club by the end of April. Then again, the Sunday afternoon MLB game is always my go to game and I catch games during the week when I can, especially during school.

And the opposite is true starting in late July after the All-Star break as the minor league season winds down, I start to watch more and more major league games. Right now, I don’t think I’ve missed a game for most of August. It’s been a pretty exciting stretch.

I am currently trying to figure out who should be on the playoff roster and who should not. The Cubs might make a roster move or two before the deadline on the 31st for a player to be on the roster and eligible to play in the playoffs. The Cubs could add a veteran catcher and they might even add another relief pitcher.

Here are the definite guys who will be playing in October:
Catcher – Willson Contreras
Infield – Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Daniel Murphy,
Outfield – Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, Jason Heyward, and Ian Happ
Starting pitcher – Cole Hamels, John Lester, Kyle Hendricks
Relief pitcher – Pedro Strop, CJ Edwards, Jesse Chavez, Steve Cishek, Brandon Morrow, and Mike Montgomery

Bote 65 2018 iowaLikely Guys:
Then there are players who are likely to be on the roster. One is Addison Russell (if healthy) while David Bote is a definite possibility. Based on the past month, I would lean towards Bote being there as well. It would be hard to pass up the defense that Addison provides which allows Baez to slide over to second to put the best defensive line up on the field. Don’t ask me where Murphy plays if those two are on the field.

As for starting pitching, Jose Quintana should also be placed in the likely category, although I am not too high on him right now. Currently, I am split between Montgomery and Quintana as the fourth starter. Thankfully, that decision doesn’t have to be made for a month.

The Bench Roles
The Cubs should be scouring the waiver wire the next two days to find a veteran catcher to complement Contreras or they could call up Chris Gimenez, who needs a 40 man spot. While I like Caratini a lot, I don’t know if he’s quite ready for postseason experience. The Cubs would be taking a huge risk, or they would just be playing Willson every game, which is not a bad idea. They would just have a back up catcher in case of emergency.

The Cubs did go out and get outfielder Terrance Gore and sent him to Iowa. He is someone who could be a base runner late in games. That might be fine for when the rosters expand on Saturday, the first of September, but when you have the kind of bats the Cubs have, it would be very hard to leave one of them off the roster. Right now, Tommy LaStella’s tenure on the bench is in jeopardy with the acquisition of Daniel Murphy.

Rosario 08 2018 IowaThe Bullpen
September should be an interesting month as the Cubs bullpen is still in a high flux position. Players are coming in and out, going on the DL coming off the DL. There are about seven names to fill two or three spots. Justin Wilson was left off last year and is a question mark again for this year. Jorge de la Rosa is more than likely to be left off the 25 man but will Randy Rosario? How about James Norwood? Tyler Chatwood and Brian Duensing are likely to not make it either. Luke Farrell and Brandon Kintzler’s roles are still up in the air. It does not look like Drew Smyly is going to be ready unless it’s going to be at the last minute. It could be a mess…or not.

It is a bit unsettling to have the bullpen so up in the air.

And then, Morrow’s availability for the postseason has not been answered, either. Joe Maddon has been able to mix and match fairly well so far. But will he be able to do that much longer.

As September approaches, the questions are few, but the impact of the decisions made about who gets to play in the playoffs could loom large.

A Decision About “Bullpen Men” Is Coming Soon

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, I talked about the dilemma for the backup catcher spot. Today, it’s all about the bullpen. Or, as Joe Maddon now refers to them, bullpen men. The Cubs are likely to take eight of them east to Miami. Seven of those have been pretty set in stone since the beginning of camp in Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Jr., Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing, Mike Montgomery, and Justin Wilson.

With just five days left until opening day, the Cubs have kept two spots open on their 40 man roster. One is likely for catcher Chris Jimenez and the other might be for one of the players they could be taking for the bullpen.

Lefty pitcher Randy Rosario has some MLB experience and is on 40 man, but I don’t think he wowed anybody this spring. As a result, he was sent down yesterday to trim the roster to 34. But pitchers Anthony Bass, Kyle Ryan, and Justin Hancock are still alive and all put together good springs.

Former starter Eddie Butler more than likely looks to have one spot locked up as he is out of options. Another spot could be open as Pedro Strop is not quite ready to return and could begin the year on the DL.

Just yesterday, reliever Justin Hancock pitched two scoreless innings to close out a game, even though it was against mostly minor league players. When spring training began, I didn’t think that Hancock stood much of a chance of making it through spring training, let alone this long. His ability to throw mid to upper 90s heat and to locate that heat made him an extremely viable candidate to make the team. According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Joe Maddon said the following about Hancock’s arsenal: “He’s got a lightning bolt for an arm” and “He’s got A-lister stuff.” A pitcher is not going to get a much better rec than that. Hancock would need to be added to the 40 man if he did.

When Theo talked about adding strike throwers, he wasn’t kidding. Anthony Bass fit that bill this spring along with Kyle Ryan. Ryan did not have a good 2017. However, he was pretty good before that in Detroit. Being a lefty gives Ryan a distinct advantage over the other two. The 6’5” 26-year-old is an intriguing option who put up a 3.07 ERA in 56 games in 2016. But will Joe Maddon want to go with four left-handers in the bullpen?

Ryan pitched just 8 innings so far while Bass only got in 5.2. Those totals don’t seem enough to judge an extra reliever/bullpen man.

Part of me also wonders how much the Cubs will be looking at the waiver wire here the next few days to see if there’s a player with substantial talent that gets cut right before the season starts.

Another part of me says the Cubs are going to go with the more experienced player. In that case Ryan has the most experience and has actually had some success at the major-league level. On the other hand, Bass had the best spring, but is the oldest player at 30. As for Hancock, I think he has the most talent. And to be honest, talent usually wins out.

In the end, though, the bullpen on March 24 is not going to matter that much in the big scheme of things. I look more towards how the bullpen develops over the course of the summer and the names that are going to be there in October.

At some point, Dillon Maples will enter the discussion later this year along with my guy, Dakota Mekkes. A lot can happen between now and August 31, the day playoff rosters are due. The Cubs have a lot of time to sort things out for October. For now, though, they will have to make a decision just about who begins the season on the 25-man roster.

How Might the Rotation Stack Up in the Playoffs?

By Todd Johnson

Right now I feel pretty good about 2/5 of the rotation. Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana are pitching very well at this point in the season. When it comes to Lester and Arrieta, I’m not quite as confident. Can they turn around? Yes, but the question should be, will they? I was hoping that Jen-Ho Tseng and Rob Zastryzny would each get a start this weekend against Cincinnati to rest Lester while also allowing Arrieta the time to make one more start, even if abbreviated.  Tseng is out after pitching 3 innings last night but there is hope that Zastryzny could start or even piggyback a start the next three days.

It is pretty much a given that the Nationals are going to trot out Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the first two games of the NLDS. If the Cubs can steal one of those two in Washington, I like the Cubs chances to win the series. Having to face either one of those arms a second time would be extremely hard to defeat. To win, the Cubs are going to have to beat one of them.

When trying to find a weakness of the Nationals, it is not that hard. They currently rank seventh in batting. However, against left-handers, they rank 24th. Against right-handed pitchers, they rank third in all of major-league baseball. A strange part of me says that maybe Montgomery should get a start and that maybe Justin Wilson could make the roster just for this series. But I’m not too comfortable in having the latter happen although the former doesn’t bother me much.

As it stands right now, the Cubs will have four days off next week before the series begins. This should allow them to lineup the rotation anyway they see fit. If the Cubs want to counter Scherzer and Strasburg with Quintana and Lester, I would be OK with that. Heck, you could even put Hendricks in at the #2 slot and I would be OK again. That would allow Arrieta and Lester to pitch at home. If Jake is not 100% when the playoffs begin, then Lackey seems to do very well at home or you could even throw Montgomery. I am hoping that Lester and Arrieta don’t pitch until they are absolutely needed. This would give them the time to properly recoup.

With the way Quintana is pitching, I really hope that he is the difference in this series. Over his last 33.2 innings, he’s struck out 40 with a 2.14 ERA and only has walked 4 batters in that span.

Hendricks has been outstanding lately, too. In September, he’s tallied 31.1 IP with 29 Ks against a 2.01 ERA and 5 walks. Before his hamstring, Arrieta had ERAs of 2.25 in July and 1.21 in August.

The pitching could be there for the Cubs to get back to the NLCS for the third straight year. It should be very interesting to see how it all will line up.

 

Trying to Build a Playoff Roster: Three Tough Choices Ahead

By Todd Johnson

It has been quite the run. In the past three years, the Cubs have won 290+ games. In the divisional era (since 1969), this is the second time the Cubs have won back-to-back division titles (2007-2008). It is their third playoff appearance in a row. And, this team is built for many more seasons of postseason play.

For me, it was pretty sweet that the clincher came in St. Louis. It had been a tough year to be a Cubs fan as the team did not live up to expectations in the first half. The Cubs were two games under .500 and 5.5 GB Milwaukee. How they have played since the All-Star break has been very gratifying and exciting to watch.

It is now time to turn attention to who should be the 25 players on the playoff roster. I think 22 players are pretty much a given. So, it all comes down to adding three players. What position player will get the nod and what 2 relief pitchers will make the squad?

Sure Shots to Make the 25
Position players: Wilson, Avila, Rizzo, Baez, Zobrist, Russell, Bryant, Schwarber, Jay, Almora, Happ, Heyward
Pitchers: Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Arietta, Davis, Strop, Rondon, Montgomery, Edwards, Duensing


Making the Case: Position Players
Who is out? – Rivera, Davis, Freeman, Martin
Outside Looking In: La Stella, Caratini, and Rivera

With the core of 12, I’m not sure whether manager Joe Maddon would rather carry an extra bat or an extra catcher. If it’s a bat, Tommy let Stella would be the best answer. If it’s a catcher, then he goes with Rene Rivera. I tend to think that Maddon will lean catcher but ultimately La Stella’s patient approach will work better in the playoffs. Caratini would be a long shot and would be my personal second choice as he can switch hit. If the Cubs go with La Stella, and an emergency catcher is needed, then Joe has to go with Schwarber. The most logical bat is Tommy La Stella.

Making the Case: Pitchers
Who Is Out: Wilson, Tseng, Zastryzny, Maples, Pena

I do think Dillon Maples making the roster would be amazing. While his stuff might be ready, he is not. I do hope he gets a lot of work the next five days and gets to experience the postseason even if he is not on the roster. As for Justin Wilson, I don’t think he is consistent enough to get on the roster. He was pulled in the middle of a batter Monday night.

That leaves Grimm, Lackey, and Uehara.

This is a tough call. Part of me says that maybe the Cubs should bring Lackey on as a long man rather than pick either of the other two. At times, Uehara has looked good this year and at other times, he’s been very hittable. Grimm, meanwhile, has looked like a train wreck most of the second-half. It doesn’t look like this will be a win-win situation.

I am not sure how this will all shake out over the next week. While I feel pretty good about the La Stella pick, I also know that Rivera is also a good choice based on Maddon’s preferences. As for the pitchers to be on the roster, Maddon could pick any two of them. I do not feel good about those selections at all.

We shall see. Part of me hopes for a surprising pick….or two.

Here is the schedule so far. Times to be released later.

Game 1: 10/6 at WSH

Game 2: 10/7 at WSH

Game 3: 10/9 at CHI

Game 4: 10/10 at CHI

Game 5: 10/12 at WSH

 

Do the Cubs Have Enough LHRP Depth?

By Todd Johnson

 

With the arrival or Brian Duensing in Chicago, the Cubs’ bullpen now contains two actual left-handed relievers and Koji Uehara, whose stats versus lefties make him appear to be left-handed, even though he is a righty. With Duensing at 34 and Uehara at 42, the thought of injury is not far away from my mind. In fact, Duensing just came off the DL. Do the Cubs just ride with these two all year? To me, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Based on the roster makeup this year, I thought the Cubs would go out and get another lefty reliever at some point during this summer. I think that’s a good way to look at it. In the meantime, the organization would try and develop one, just in case of an injury. Maybe Theo and Jed thought that one of the pitchers they signed at the winter relief pitcher extravaganza would pull through. Maybe they thought they would give their signings and prospects a few months to earn that coveted spot or two.

Here is what the Cubs have at each level when it comes to left-handed relievers.

Iowa: Jack Leathersich, David Rollins, Rob Zastryzny
Rollins is standing head and shoulders above the other two right now, who have been knocked around pretty good in just 10 days. Rollins has yet to allow run in three appearances. When it comes to Zastryzny, he is having trouble locating. Last year was such a big year for him as he changed his grip on his cutter which revolutionized his arsenal. Hopefully, he can turn it around and make it back to Chicago before the All-Star break. I thought he was excellent last year and was surprised he did not make the club.

Tennessee: Gerardo Concepcion
Concepcion made it all the way to Chicago and had a cuppa coffee in the show. He didn’t stay there, but he did have the step to get there. This year it appears he’s going to have to go through two levels to get back to Chicago. He needs to get his fastball back up to 93 and to continue to be aggressive. So far at Tennessee, it is not going well. He’s made for appearances with a 5.40 ERA.

Myrtle Beach: Jordan Minch, Tommy Thorpe, John Williamson
I really like to watch Jordan Minch pitch. He is deadly against left-handers and if it were not for an injury last year, he would more than likely be in Tennessee this year.  So far he’s pitched 4.1 innings and he’s only allowed two hits. Thorpe and Williamson are also loogy specialist but not as dominant as Minch has been the last year.

South Bend: Marc Huberman, Jose Paulino, Wyatt Short
Although Paulino has yet to debut, ’ I think he has the most potential as a reliever from the left side in the Cubs’ system. He throws 93 to 95 with a wicked awesome slider/curve. He dominated in the first half of Eugene’s’ dominating run to a championship before coming to South Bend. He was OK as a starter at South Bend but has been moved to the bullpen this past off-season. He stayed for a little extra time and extended spring training and I cannot wait to see what he does in 2 to 3 inning stints this summer. Short and Huberman are also very dominant. Both have been excellent so far this season. Combined, the trio makes up the best collection of left-handed bullpen arms in the system.

Injured: Manny Parra
I have not heard of a timetable for his return as he is recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Right now, it would be hard to make a judgment just based on three or four appearances. I think Rollins and Zastryzny would be the clear two front runners for the summer. While Rollins is pitching well, I do not think he is the dominant picture of the Cubs are looking for to use in the playoffs. However, he is good enough to help them get there if needed. The same is true for Zastryzny.

As a result, I think the Cubs will be looking to acquire a lefty sometime by the end of July. Next year, however, we could be looking at Paulino, Minch, Short, and maybe even Huberman, as possible options for a left-handed reliever(s).

Next Up: Ian Happ Better Suited for a Roster Spot in October vs April

By Todd Johnson

It’s not uncommon for a Cubs prospect to come up to spring training and do well. Last year was Jeimer Candelario. This year it is Ian Happ. Happ has been crushing the ball to the tune  of a batting average over .400 with some serious power and the ability to play second base and the outfield.

Happ is currently is one of the 40 players still on the Cubs spring training roster. If he were to make the club, a 40 man roster spot would have to be made available. I don’t see that happening. At all. And like Candelario from last year, Happ will eventually be set back down to the minor leagues. His season will most likely begin in AA Tennessee where he has some unfinished business.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

On the other hand, I think Ian Happ could return to Chicago to make another roster, the one for October.

A month ago, no one would’ve asked the question about whether Ian Happ could break camp with the big league club. While Happ is an incredible talent, he’s also is streaky one.

After an amazing June and early July last summer, he was promoted from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee. In that span between the two clubs, he hit over .600 with an OPS well over 1.000.

While Happ has only been a professional for year and a half, he does have many attributes the Cubs are looking for, especially for October. One is he is a switch hitter who can play all three outfield spots and second base. He’s an exceptional athlete who is probably going to hit better the higher he progresses through the system. The reason I say that is that the pitchers will be around the plate more. It’s hard to hit well A ball when some pitchers are just randomly wild.

I have been critical of Happ’s streakiness at times and I think it was warranted. I do think he needs to be a more consistent player and I think this is the year that will happen. Being a professional is not easy. Considering Happ’s first year, he had to deal with the death of his father. Last year saw him taking on his first year of full season baseball. That’s an adjustment for anyone. Now that he’s got that under his belt, I think he will be physically and mentally stronger for it.

Why I like him so much is I think he can hit for average and for power and get on base at a high clip. At every level he has shown a propensity to take his walks despite a fluctuating batting average. His power, like any power hitter will come and go. I think the ability to see balls and strikes is something that never changes.

While I don’t think he’s ready for the grind of a major league season just yet, nor would he see the playing time he probably needed, I do like him for October much more than La Stella and/or Szczur. There’s just something about the way he hits the ball and hits it hard. Watching his hands go through the zone is perfection. It is the sweetest part of his swing.

While his name has been bandied about in trade talk for the past six months, I don’t think the Cubs are quite ready to send him off after the spring he’s had. In fact, I think they would rather see him in Chicago, especially in October.