Baseball

The Cubs got the three wins they needed to put them back over .500 and place themselves second in the division this week against the struggling Nationals. They did this while battling injuries; the injury bug continues to make its way around the clubhouse, as we continue to see new starting position players get injured in Anthony Rizzo and, most recently, Jason Heyward and Justin Steele. (Please can Kris Bryant NOT be next?)

Despite these injuries, the Cubs were able to outscore the Nationals 21-10 this series as the offense continues to putter along. The bullpen pitching is finally looking solid also, which is quite good considering our starters still can’t survive very long into any game, it seems. Without further ado, let’s break down this week’s games.

May 17, 2021
Cubs 4, Nationals 3
WP: Alzolay (2-3) LP: Lester (0-2)
Box Score

Things started off badly relatively quickly for Jon Lester, making his first start at Wrigley in a Nationals uniform. Just about everyone in the top half of the Cubs lineup was able to hit off him. First it was a couple of singles by the top of the order in the 1st and a sac fly by Anthony Rizzo to score a runner. Then Jason Heyward hit a two-run bomb to center to make it 3-0 Cubs in the 2nd inning. Contreras’s second hit of the night was a solo homer in the 3rd, and by this point just about everyone felt a little bit, just a teeny bit, bad for Jon Lester. But hey, at least Marquee didn’t cut to commercial in the middle of the 1st inning to show the fans of Wrigley giving Lester a standing ovation before he put up this performance!

That being said, our starter, Adbert Alzolay, wasn’t exactly nails either. Although he kept things scoreless through the first two innings, he allowed a Trea Turner home run in the 3rd inning to give the Nationals a little bit of life. To rub salt in the wound, Kyle Schwarber hit a two-run homer in the 3rd inning to cut the Cubs’ lead to only one, but the Nats’ bats would die after that.

The Cubs scored one run per inning in the 6th, 7th and 8th. Javy Baez hit a solo homer in the 6th to give the Cubs some insurance. Eric Sogard was able to single on a ground ball to Schwarber, which scored Nico Hoerner. Finally, in the 8th, a Heyward single was able to drive in Anthony Rizzo, who had a double of his own earlier in the inning.

Alzolay survived five innings and didn’t put up a single walk during that span. He had five hits and two home runs, and limiting those homers is something he can work on in the future. The bullpen pitchers that were trotted out after Alzolay did well allowed only one hit between the four of them.

The Cubs also saw a new pitcher make his major league debut, as Tommy Nance pitched the 8th inning. Called up since Alec Mills was put on the IL, Nance isn’t exactly young at 30 years old, but he’s definitely a new face to Cubs fans unless you frequent Iowa Cubs games. He struck out his first big league batter and had some pretty sweet pitches, including this nasty one:

May 18, 2021
Cubs 6, Nationals 3
WP: Thompson (2-1) LP: Harris (0-1)
Box Score

The Cubs put up another win in this game, pushing the team to back over .500…again. Zach Davies, the starter of the day, allowed all three Nationals runs in 5 innings pitched. He allowed a homer, a walk, and 7 hits total. Luckily for the Cubs, the bullpen and the offense were able to come through for the win this game.

Scoring for the Cubs started in the 3rd inning when David Bote and Nico Hoerner both singled. Willson Contreras singled after a Davies sac bunt to score both of them.

After the 4th inning, Anthony Rizzo left the game to deal with back tightness as a “precautionary measure,” because the injuries won’t stop rolling in for the Cubs. Kris Bryant moved over to first base, because the man can play anywhere nowadays, and Jason Heyward went to right field.

Immediately after, at the top of the 5th, the Nationals were able to get three singles in a row against Davies which tied the game up. Never fear, however; MVP Kris Bryant is here! (For a few more months, at least). He was able to bat in both Hoerner on a ground ball to give the Cubs the lead.

The game continued to stay tight as the top of the inning featured an immediate solo homer by the Nationals to tie the game up again. After Davies allowed another single right after that, he got yanked in favor of Keegan Thompson, who got the three outs for the inning with two strikeouts.

Bote homered at the bottom of the inning after a Matt Duffy walk, and the Cubs never looked back. Ian Happ had a solo homer in the 8th to make the final score 6-3. The bullpen pitched well generally, allowing two hits and striking out six batters between the four of them. They also allowed five walks, but the defense prevailed this game, as is wont to do with the Cubs.

May 19, 2021
Cubs 3, Nationals 4
WP: Scherzer (4-2) LP: Arrieta (4-4)
Box Score

Runners in scoring position once again killed the Cubs this game, as any other competent team would’ve made something happen in the bases-loaded situation in the 6th inning. However, Contreras and David Bote could not convert enough runs to beat the Nationals’ four. Ian Happ, at least, was able to single to make it 4-2 then, and Javier Baez hit a solo home run in the 9th to make this game at least seem close. However, when you’re facing really good pitching on the mound, sometimes the offense just shuts down.

Max Scherzer, hall-of-famer that he is, struck out eight Cubs, allowing five hits and only two runs. The Cubs had similar issues with the Nats’ bullpen tonight, not being able to convert when in RISP situations and getting struck out five times in the final 2.2 innings of the game.

At least Joc Pederson showed signs of life offensively, after being in the leadoff position for a few games. He had two hits today, leading the team. Poor David Bote was left on base on four separate occasions today, and Arrieta had a hit, surprisingly.

Arrieta’s pitching…well, it was not up to snuff when you take a glance over at the opposing dugout. He allowed seven hits and only struck out two runners. In fact, Tommy Nance again, the first reliever for Arrieta in the 6th, was able to strike out one more runner, and allowed no hits for another pretty impressive outing. More please.

May 20, 2021
Cubs 5, Nationals 2
WP: Steele (2-0) LP: Ross (2-4)
Box Score

Despite the wind blowing quite strongly out of Wrigley Field, the Cubs were able to keep the Nationals to only two home run hits, by Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber…again. Sigh. However, Ian Happ was the star of the show today with two homers, solely responsible for three of the five Cubs runs.

Joc Pederson had another good day, also, with two hits total and an RBI. Anthony Rizzo also had two hits, coming back after sitting out the previous game due to the aforementioned back injury. Luckily for the Cubs, he seemed to get better just in time for Jason Heyward to be put on the 10-day IL today. Covering for him today and through the future is Nick Martini, who debuted quite marvelously with a sac fly RBI to score David Bote and put the Cubs on the board in the 2nd inning, along with scoring on a Joc Pederson single in the 4th to put the Cubs up 4-2.

Trevor Williams allowed the two Nationals’ runs, while also striking out five batters and allowing only two walks. However, he did not survive until the 5th inning, being replaced by Justin Steele. Steele was doing great, allowing no hits, three strikeouts, and only one walk through 1.1 innings until he exited the game due to an injury. Ryan Tepera replaced him, striking out three. Andrew Chafin was able to get out of his inning with no runs thanks in part to yet another amazing Nico Hoerner diving play to save a hit, and Craig Kimbrel got yet another save today with three straight strikeouts in the 9th inning.

After this three-win series, the Cubs have now secured themselves quite precariously in 2nd place in the Central Division, three games back of the 1st-place Cardinals, who the Cubs ironically face this weekend.

The Cardinals are much better than the rest of their division so far, being quite a few games over .500, unlike every other team in the division until the Cubs’ win today that put them over .500 again. The Cards most recently completed a two-game sweep of the Pirates (not hard at all to do) and got trounced by the Padres, getting spectacularly swept themselves last weekend.

On a personal note, I am going camping tomorrow in an area with no TV or internet, so I’m sorry to say I will be unable to cover this weekend’s excitement, despite this being the first series of any actual meaning we’ve had all season. Luckily for all of us, I’ll be back next week to cover the next three game series of the Pirates/Cubs series, because God knows we’d all like to watch more of that.

See you then, and go Cubs go!

Baseball

BOX SCORES

White Sox 4 – Indians 7

White Sox 3 – Indians 5

White Sox 2 – Indians 3

White Sox 4 – Indians 5

 

That…was not good. In a series that bare minimum needed to result in a split for the Sox to maintain their hold on top of the AL Central standings, instead saw Cleveland return the favor from the end of the season last year when the Sox swept them and crushed the Tribe’s playoff hopes. The Sox could very easily have won every game this series, and yet somehow managed to find ways to lose each one in increasingly frustrating ways. All of this culminating in Rick Renteria’s mystifying decision to throw Carlos Rodon to the wolves in the bottom of the 7th last night. Let’s put a bow on this box full of shit before we move on to the last series of the regular season, shall we?

 

To the bullets:

 

Numbers Don’t Lie

-Let’s get this out of the way to start: Renteria fucked up something pretty huge last night. Taking a returning Carlos Rodon (who hadn’t faced live hitting against legit major leaguers in over 2 months) and having him come it to try and get one out with the bases loaded in a game the Sox absolutely needed to have when he had Marshall, Bummer, Heuer and Foster available to him is inexcusable. The results were completely predictable, and I’m sincerely hoping this hasn’t broken Rodon’s brain. Ricky Renteria takes way too much shit normally from this fanbase and I think he actually does a pretty good job all things considered, but this dump truck full of criticism completely deserves to run him over. Even Frank Thomas in the post-game show was flabbergasted, and was more than happy to let his feelings be known. Not something you see every day.

-On the plus side, Rodon’s velocity was back, hitting the upper 90s with his fastball. Granted he was clearly overthrowing it, and 97 without movement isn’t gonna help anyone but the guy in the batter’s box but it’s the one small positive out of last night’s mess.

-Eloy came up lame after his double in the 7th, which was later revealed to be “foot soreness” (whatever that is). Fingers crossed it’s nothing that keeps him out too long as the Sox are about out of time.

-The Sox offense actually showed signs of life the last two games, which is a welcome sight after the previous 5. A lineup like this that doesn’t take or see many pitches is always going to be prone to slumps, so hopefully this is them coming out the other side of it.

-Luis Robert finally got a day off yesterday, and with 2 starts against left handed pitchers on tap this weekend I fully expect him to shake off his slump. Or not.

-Watching Yoan Moncada breathing heavily on the Sox bench for 10 minutes after his triple and needed to be fanned by Ricky Renteria is terrifying to see. COVID continues to be not something to fuck around with 8 months later and yet people are still fucking stupid about it.

-The Sox are now a game behind the Twins for the lead in the AL Central. 3 for us against the Cubs and 3 for them against the Reds. It’s not over yet, which brings us to:

 

Series Preview: Cubs at White Sox – Yes, It Actually Matters

VS

 

PROBABLE STARTERS

Game 1: Yu Darvish (7-3, 2.22 ERA) vs. Dylan Cease (5-3, 3.52 ERA)

Game 2: Jon Lester (3-2, 4.40 ERA) vs. Dane Dunning (2-0, 3.19 ERA)

Game 3: TBD vs. Reynaldo Lopez (1-2, 4.68 ERA)

Q&A With The Legendary Sam Fels

 

I really, really, REALLY was hoping this series wasn’t going to matter for either team and they could just play out the series with an eye on resting their players for the post season. The Baseball Gods have had other plans, however, so here we are. A series that actually matters for BOTH teams, despite them having clinched a postseason birth.

We all know the situation the Sox find themselves in, but the Cubs have somehow not managed to secure the NL Central title with the Cardinals 2.5 games behind them. The North Siders come into the series in similar straits as the Sox, losers of their last 3 and unable to find their offense without the aid of a GPS, having only scored 13 runs in their last 7 games.

The hottest hitter the Cubs have right now (and I say this with no measure of irony) is Jason Heyward, he of the .283 average and 6 home runs. The offense really just hasn’t gotten going on the North Side, and they currently rank 13th out of 15 teams in the NL for standard batting stats ahead of only the Reds and Pirates (who just took 3 of 4 from them).

On the pitching side, the Sox will face the rejuvenated Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish on Friday night. Darvish, despite having a few less than stellar (merely pretty good) outings in his last 3 still has to at least be in the conversation for the award that we all know is going to Trevor Bauer. The last time the Sox faced Darvish he held them in check, only allowing one dinger to Jose Abreu (he does that to people) and striking out 10.

Saturday is a different story, with Jon Lester making what is most likely to be his final regular season start in a Cubs uniform. Last time out the Sox torched him for 8 runs, 4 of which came from the long ball. More of this would be welcome this weekend.

The Cubs don’t have a starter listed for the finale this weekend, but if they lose the first two to the Sox and the Cards win both of theirs I would expect to see Kyle Hendricks on short rest. If that’s not the case I would think it would be Adbert Alzolay and Jose Quintana eating innings for game 3.

We know what this means for the Sox. A good weekend could be the difference between facing the Yankees in the first round and the Indians. Despite the fact that the Tribe just managed to steal 4 games in a row against them, I know I’d rather see them than Garrett Cole and that Death Star of an offense the Yankees field every game. Just get it done.

 

Let’s Go Sox

 

Baseball

We come now to the savvy veteran of the Cubs rotation, as we visit with the surprisingly-gracefully-aging Jon Lester. While Lester is certainly far from the pitcher he was during his first two years with the Cubs, he has done a good job avoiding completely falling off a cliff over the past few years, and in many ways improved over his 2018 campaign. Let’s dig in.

Jon Lester 2019

31 starts, 171.2 innings

4.46 ERA   1.50 WHIP   4.26 FIP

8.65 K/9   2.73 BB/9

43.3 GB%   14.6 HR/FB

102 ERA-   2.8 fWAR

So, Lester saw his ERA climb by more than a full point from ’18 to ’19, but in reality that was actually the result of incredible luck in 2018 keeping the ERA down. In 2018, his ERA of 3.32 was a full point below his FIP of 4.39, which is a major red flag. In 2019, though, he actually brought the FIP down to 4.26, and his ERA being above that is indicative of the actual results matching the expected results. He also saw a bit of bad luck, as evidenced by the ERA being just over the FIP, but also the fact that opposing batters had a .347 BABIP against him, which was far and away the highest mark against him in his career. Overall, 2019 should serve as an encouragement for Cubs fans for what Lester still might have in the tank.

YES! YES! YES!: Given that Lester is now 36 and has been worth less than 3.0 WAR three years in a row, it’s hard to dream too much on a best case scenario for 2020. In reality, the best case scenario is really just avoiding any wide variety of worst-case scenarios, which we will touch on more in a moment. If Lester can be worth more than 2.0 WAR this season, which he should be capable of, then it should be considered a good season from him given his age and lack of overpowering stuff.

The one big thing that the Cubs and their fans may hope to avoid is any chance of Lester somehow vesting his 2021 option. It’s unclear how exactly that would work out at this point, given the option vests if he throws 200 innings this year, and without a 162-game schedule there is zero chance of him getting there, but if that option did happen to vest, it would be bad news for the Cubs. They’d have to pay a 37-year old Lester $25-million in 2021, and while certainly none of us are going to cry tears for the Ricketts having to pay anyone, having that much payroll space taken up by an old pitcher who is just barely performing over league average would not be nice.

YOU’RE A B+ PLAYER: As I briefly mentioned, there are a number of potential worst case scenarios for Lester in 2020, and probably too many to try and get specific with them all. Suffice it to say they can all be summed up with this – it’d be really bad if his age really caught up with him really fast. Again, this could manifest itself in a multitude of ways. Maybe he walks a shit ton of guys. Maybe he is tossing home run derby velocity up there and Wrigley field looks more like a driving range than a baseball field when he pitched. Maybe neither of those things happen, but he still just can’t get anyone out and people just tee off on him. Again, there are many outcomes, but you just hope not to see any of them.

And while the aforementioned option vesting would probably only vest because Lester stays in games for a long time because he’s pitching well, it’s still best to avoid that.

DRAGON OR FICKLE?: I am not one to bet against aging curves, but I am also not one to ignore years of great performance. And while Lester is definitely not an elite pitcher anymore, he still has the pitch control, repertoire, and mindset to pitch well in the bigs. I think we see a virtual repeat of 2019 from Big Jon, though maybe with some ever so slight decline in overall value and production. Mark me down for an official prediction of 2.5 WAR, and I won’t go too far into the rest of the numbers, but if pitches well enough to produce that WAR, the rest of his stats should be satisfactory as well.

Baseball

I’m with you, dear reader. I know you’ve come here of late, perhaps the past couple months, and all you find is anger and despair. That’s not very fun. And we could sit here and say it’s not our fault. We didn’t make the Hawks, Cubs, and Bears so frustrating, and the White Sox a bit confusing. Thank god we don’t cover the Bulls yet! There’s probably a more reserved tone we could take at times, maybe see the long view a bit more. Find the positives. Find the path to happiness again and such.

But then I read this like this.

Let me help you out with the hammer:

Trading Schwarber and Bryant would seem excessive for a team that intends to contend in 2020. The Cubs, however, are hellbent on avoiding the fates of teams such as the Phillies, Giants and Tigers, who entered down cycles after going all-in for extended periods in recent times. The Giants and Tigers are headed for their fourth straight losing seasons. The Phillies have not had a winning season since 2011.

The Cubs are three years removed from their World Series title, and their window is starting to close. Left-handers Jon Lester and José Quintana are entering the final guaranteed years of their contracts. Schwarber, Bryant (assuming he loses his service-time grievance), shortstop Javier Báez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are under club control only through 2021, Contreras through ’22.

The clock is ticking. A recalibration is in order. Let’s not forget, the Cubs are changing managers from Joe Maddon to David Ross. If the front office does nothing, it would place unfair expectations on Ross to win with Maddon’s team, a team that was less than the sum of its parts in finishing 84-78 last season.

I don’t even know where to start. And this isn’t Ken Rosenthal’s doing, he’s just reporting what he hears. So let’s just take it in order.

First of all, the “intends to contend in 2020” is goddamn laughable when you’re out here so publicly flogging your best player, the best player you’ve had in a generation, and the best player you’re going to have in a generation. Even more so when you’ve made it clear you’re not trying to trade him for help right now. I would argue until my dying day, which the Cubs seem intent on bringing about sharpish, that this is still a team that needs more minor tinkering and moves around the edges to win the Central again, but we’ve been down that road.

It’s the “hellbent on not being the Giants, Phillies, or Tigers” that is just…I mean galling doesn’t even get there. Enraging? Exasperating? Utterly incomprehensible? Pure nonsense? You can mix and match your own adjectives and see what you come up with.

I really shouldn’t have to point out that the Giants won three World Series in five years, and their being bad now is a trade I doubt you’d find any Giants fan unhappy with. We all know there’s a price of success, especially success at that level. And the Giants certainly made their missteps afterward and maybe even during, though anything built on that level of power pitching has an itchy foundation. The Giants also had another playoff appearance two years later (you may remember it), so in total they had seven years of being a relevant team at worst. Seven, keep that number in mind.

So to the Phillies. They won a single World Series, just like the Cubs have and seem intent on only doing. Except they went to two consecutive Series, made the playoffs five straight years, and weren’t all that far from adding a second consecutive title. Yeah, the crash was hard, but the core of that team when it was all over were all in their mid-30s, something NONE of the Cubs current core will even be in 2021 or 2022. The Phils’ success came later in their careers. The oldest at that time of reckoning for the Cubs–or so they seem hellbent on telling you it will be– will be Rizzo at 32. The youngest of the Phillies was Utley at 33 when their cycle came to a close. It’s just not a clean comparison.

Right then, the Tigers, who don’t come with any of the flags that the previous three teams mentioned have. They do have two WS appearances, which the Cubs have yet to manage, but fine, no one cares when you only win a total of one game in them. The Tigers were competitive for seven season out of nine. A couple dice rolls here or there and they add a third or maybe fourth Series and maybe even win one. Again, nine seasons. Seven competitive.

The Cubs have managed five. That’s if you even include this past one, which I will because they were better than their record, or should have been. But you don’t have to, which makes it four. Five. How is five years an acceptable run at it? Especially what’s already here? And why would we assume punting on this one and maybe the next one guarantees anything beyond that, given that you still might see the Ricketts not pay whoever’s left or whoever develops into another piece in that time?

Rosenthal mentions their window closing, and uses Quintana’s and Lester’s contract situations as reasons why. Except they’ve pitched themselves to the bottom of the rotation and also their contracts ending opens up $35M+ of payroll that you could, oh I don’t know, improve the team with? I know, I’m fucking nuts and should be locked away from society for your safety. Out here with ideas like that. I mean, starting with Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Contreras, Schwarber, Hendricks, and Darvish with $35M in space to use however you see fit seems like a nice base to me, but again, the sky is plaid in my world.

The last sentence is just weird and paradoxical, because if last year’s team was less than its parts it would seem that David Ross is kind of in a sweetheart spot as the team would have an excellent chance of improving simply because of market corrections and health. Not that you’d want to count on any of that, but still.

And again, this is all horseshit, a word that’s becoming synonymous with everything Cubs right now. The Cubs aren’t trading Bryant because they think it improves anything, short-term or long. It’s because they don’t want to pay him what he will earn in two years, and they don’t even want to pay him what he will get this year in arbitration. It’s not a “strategy.” It’s simple greed. The new buildings are up, the luxury suites are in, and Ricketts doesn’t have to do much to watch the money flow in. So he’s not going to.

I recognize that Ryu at $23M a year or so is a risky investment, and he’s just about the only difference-making starter on the market right now. And I will accept a baseball trade of Contreras to find another starter, if possible. What I won’t accept is the idea of an extra $20M-$25M breaking the Cubs financially. There is nothing the Yankees have, or should have, that the Cubs don’t.

So fuck off with all of this.

Baseball

No one outruns time. We knew when Jon Lester signed this contract in the winter before the 2015 season, the end of it could get a little hairy. The Cubs have gotten just about what they could have expected, if not a little more. But the fear is that the END has come for Lester, and the Cubs and him are just going to have to survive the last year of it in 2020. Is there hope for better?

2019 Stats

31 starts  171.1 innings

4.46 ERA  4.26 FIP

8.65 K/9  2.73 BB/9  1.50 WHIP

1.36 HR/9  14.6 HR/FB%

102 ERA-  2.8 WAR

Tell Me A Story: Let’s start with the good stuff, just for funsies. Lester struck out more and walked less hitters in 2019 than he did in 2018. He had a better ground-ball/fly-ball rate. He gave up less line drives. So hey, that’s all good, right? Maybe he didn’t have as bad of a year as we thought?

That’s somewhat true. Lester was undone by a horrible BABIP of .347, 46 points worse than his career norm and a 57-point rise over 2018. That’s just luck…for the most part. Lester suffered from a bad hard-contact rate against, by far the worst of his career. Which followed ’18’s mark…which was also the worst of his career. That’s not luck. Lester gave up an expected average against of .282, which is some 60 points worse than his brilliant 2016 for comparison. It was a similar story with the expected slugging and weighted on-base against him, so though he probably could expect a few more balls to land in gloves, considering the amount of rockets he was giving up he can’t really depend on the good fortunes of BABIP Treachery either.

Lester tried to bat away the ravages of age by going less and less to his declining fastball and using a cutter more, probably to get in on righties a little easier. It did not go particularly well, as hitters went for a .294 average against it and a .506 slugging. Perhaps more worrying is this:

Whenever Lester threw that cutter in the zone, it got pulverized. And while Lester lives on the edges, he does have to throw a strike, y’know, occasionally. Whenever he did with the pitch he used most, it was plasma. This is a problem, and leads you to believe there will have to be a change in approach come the ’20 season. In previous seasons, Lester had found success by keeping that cutter up and in on righties. But even that, as you can see here, didn’t do much good this past season. Is he going to have to be Gio Gonzalez now, and just wager that hitters can’t stay patient enough to not swing at four balls before they get themselves out? It might be worth a shot.

It got to the point with Lester where the rotation was rearranged in September so that he wouldn’t pitch against the Cardinals in that series at home. Lester was ok in September overall, giving a good outing against the Reds in that Week-us Horriblus and holding the Mariners down on Labor Day. But he also got horsed by the Brewers and Pirates when the Cubs needed at least length against the latter and a win against the former. You always counted on Jon to somehow gut through a game the Cubs had to have, and either he didn’t at times or they stopped counting on him to do so. That’s probably the surest sign of age right there. Overall, Lester was blowed up in August and not much better in September, which again might have to do with age more than anything.

Contract: One more year at $20.0M, and a $10M buyout or $25M option in ’21 if he were to pitch 200 innings in 2020.

Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass: There’s no boot in the ass option, and as Lester’s salary drops to $20M this year it’s not really egregious at all for what he will most likely be. You can do a lot worse in the #4 or #5 spot in the rotation than what Lester looks lined up to provide, and seeking it on the open market would probably still cost $12M-$15M anyway. So an extra five or so isn’t really killing the Cubs, though that won’t stop them from claiming so. Lester isn’t going to make 200 innings, as he hasn’t done so in three seasons now. He may want to, and he may try and pitch through some stuff to get there, but that will only make things worse. And maybe one bonus of having David Ross as manager now is Lester is less likely to either want to or be able to bullshit his way back to the mound if something on him is barking.

The question is whether Lester can be anything more than a competent seat-filler at the back of the rotation, and if the Cubs will need more than that depending on what they go and get to fill it out, if anything. The declining stuff can’t be gotten around, and it’s not like Lester is some loaf who can invent a new offseason training regiment or something. He’s already a tireless worker. This is just what happens to pitchers in their mid-30s who have logged these miles (2500 career innings). It would appear Lester’s plan of attacking hitters on their hands just isn’t going to work anymore, because he simply can’t get in there with the velocity or movement he has. At least he can’t in the strike zone. Maybe he can tweak that cutter to get a little more movement, but we’ll have to see on that one.

Lester has a decent enough curve, but he’s not going to be Rich Hill and snapping it off nearly half the time. Perhaps Jon needs to hone in on the outside corner, and as soon as hitters begin leaning out there can surprise them with the cutter in instead of using that as his main office.

Whatever for Vaughn. The Cubs can’t count on anything more than #4 production from Lester, and plan accordingly. That said, this being his last year in a Cub uniform should be something of a love fest for him. It was his signing that signaled the Cubs were ready for deep shit. It was he who pretty much dominated the 2016 playoffs, staring down Johnny Cueto first, keeping the Dodgers at bay twice, and then gutting out six innings of one-run ball in Game 5 against the Tribe when the Cubs had no choice. He’s been more than just a loyal servant and usually found a way to give you something even as his stuff and health have slipped. He was definitely a tone-setter in the clubhouse as one of the few players who had been around a lot.

Yeah, he got a lot of money. I doubt there’s a Cub fan worth a shit that would do that contract over, though.

Baseball

We don’t need that many words now. This was a team that saw it season evaporate at home, and is trying to get to the door hoping not too many people are looking. They certainly weren’t in Pittsburgh. But that didn’t stop the Cubs from basically capitulating. The Pirates had lost a million in a row. But once the defense and Kyle Hendricks’s location went south on Tuesday, this team just wants it to be over. So let’s just do a few notes and get on with our lives.

-Jose Quintana is really backing the Cubs into a corner now. They have to exercise his option, as it’s only $11M. But his September of gasoline is not going to make him worth much in trade value, and they might already have a fifth starter in Jon Lester for next year. I would have to guess Q is hurt and has been, but his velocity has held steady. His change has lost fade, and his curve a little break, making both hard to locate or easier to hit. Which means keying on his fastball. He’s one of the bigger reasons this month went completely balls-up.

But what do you do? Even for a bottom of the rotation guy he’s affordable. You have to hope he figures out something in the offseason or in Mesa and can be the effective middle guy he was in the middle of the season. Otherwise the Cubs have a much bigger problem in the rotation than they already do.

-As for Lester, the answer for him is just age. We saw last year he was getting hit harder and walking more guys, and there’s no reason that’s not going to continue into next year when he’s 36. This is the devil you meet when you hand a pitcher six years on a contract, and overall Cubs fans will be happy with what they got. But they still have next year to deal with, and the Cubs can’t go into next season thinking Lester is a #3 starter. Maybe he can find another mile on the fastball with different training or something. Or try a new approach, but the expectations should be low.

-I wanted Ian Happ to be good. He’s such an athlete, and you see where having him be able to play a few spots would have been a real boon. But it looks like the time in Iowa was for not. He can get beat in the zone with a fastball, which was the problem in the first place. Did he work on anything? His keen eye does no good when he can’t catch up to strikes. Along with Almora and Russell, you’d have to say his Cubs career is almost certainly toast.

-Other than that, who cares? It’s been over, and the Cubs played like it. One more weekend and then we all get sweet relief.

 

Baseball

It’s strange, because there’s not much more that’s new to say. I’ve written series recaps before that pointed out how that given series was a perfect demonstration of the systematic failure at every level of the Cubs this year. Ownership, front office, managing, training staff, players. Every single thing has simply not been up to par this season, and in some ways the Cubs are getting exactly what they deserve in the most humiliating fashion. And yet, I bet you and I are a lot more upset about it than the Ricketts family right now.

The thing I kept coming back to is arrogance. Arrogance of the whole organization that things would simply work out because it was the Cubs doing it. The arrogance of Theo Epstein that he would be able to buy his way out of all the mistakes he’s made, and then having no plan when he couldn’t. The arrogance that any player coming through the system would come good, simply because it was the Cubs system. The arrogance that not producing one pitcher until Rowan Wick would be fine. The arrogance of the manager who simply refused to learn how to adapt to a game that has rapidly changed on his watch. The arrogance of players who have burned through three hitting coaches now because they refused to change anything they did in the biggest situations. The arrogance of a medical staff that waited a week to get Javier Baez an MRI, or had Cole Hamels clearly pitching hurt for a month, which had its knock-on effects, or Kris Bryant on one leg for longer than that, or the more I can keep mentioning.

And that has led to a season of Hail Marys to try and save it. Calling up Ian Happ before he had really dominated at Iowa was a Hail Mary. Robel Garcia was a Hail Mary. Ben Zobrist after four months out was a Hail Mary. Craig Kimbrel with no spring training was a Hail Mary. Anthony Rizzo on one leg was a Hail Mary, though one that ended up pretty much working. The Cubs didn’t have a foundation, so they just had to throw everything they could at the wall.

And it’s come to a head over the last six games. And funny enough, it starts with the starting rotation, which was supposed to be the one thing they could count on. For weeks, Jon Lester has been a fifth starter, and given his age and odometer, that’s not really surprising. Jose Quintana decided that looked like fun and didn’t want to stick around for more than three innings. Hamels as previously mentioned.

Which meant that even a September bullpen was charred, to the point where the Cubs had no choice but to let Yu Darvish try and finish this one out today. There was no one else. It led to rushing Kimbrel back when he clearly was not ready on Thursday or yesterday. It led to Joe Maddon having to make a lot of in-game decisions, which isn’t what you want. Which is why you have a Make-A-Wish like Danny Hultzen trying to pull Q’s ass out of a jam yesterday to give up a lead.

Yesterday’s game is a stinger in another way, as when the Cards did take that 5-3 lead they did it by simply lining a single up the middle or the opposite way with men on base. If the Cubs had taken that approach more often this season and only trying for the world-ending bomb when it was on offer, where might they be? Nah, we’ll just whiff on another high fastball. It’s going great for us.

But hey, the offense put up eight runs yesterday. They just can’t string any innings from the pen together. Here’s a question, how does Tyler Chatwood throw a third of an inning this series? Is he hurt too? The Cubs had a chance to have a multi-inning piece all season with him in the pen, to shield all the things they didn’t have. Maddon refused because he doesn’t see the game that way. Let’s try James Norwood some more.

At the end of the day, I don’t know how upset at the offense I can get when Baez is out, Bryant is clearly hurt and not on cortisone shots anymore, and Rizzo is also on one leg. Might have helped if Willson Contreras took a pitch this week, which he didn’t. But it’s the rotation, rotation, rotation. It left Yu without a net. Final nail.

When you lose four one-run games, and as many as the Cubs have this year, it’s easy to point to luck, and that’s part of it. The bigger part for this team is the pen and they simply don’t make all the plays like they used to. They find a way to give up another run, or keep an inning going, or walk a guy to keep turning the lineup over. They haven’t been as locked in this year as they have been, and they’re now a middling defensive team. This is a big deal. It’s mostly the outfield, as the infield still ranks among the top in groundball efficiency. You’ve got to make the plays. The Cubs didn’t today, they haven’t a lot, and they lose.

They’re going to win less than 85 games, likely. That should never, ever happen with this roster.

Heads will roll now, unlike the only-promised bloodletting of last offseason. Maddon’s toast, to be replaced by whatever automaton that will run the team exactly how Theo sees it. I guess that’s fine, though I wonder how Theo sees the game now. It’s felt like he’s been caught and passed by other front offices, and without an unending checkbook, he can’t find a way back. We’ll see. For the first time here the daggers will be out this winter and a heavy focus on what they do.

There will be talk of trading a major piece. I don’t see how you get equal value for any of them and not create a hole in your lineup you can’t fill properly. If I had to wager, Contreras’s name will be the one you hear most, and I guess if you get a genuine centerfielder out of it, and maybe a pitcher, you’d have to listen. I don’t know that Victor Caratini wouldn’t be exposed with a full slate of ABs, and just how many .900+ OPS catchers do you think there are out there?

Still, these questions would have easier answers if the Cubs had produced anything out of their own system the past few seasons. The Dodgers can’t fit all of them in. Neither can the Astros. The Yankees had a whole team injured and might end up with the best record in the game. You have to keep reloading. The Cubs gave you Robel Garcia.

And I don’t know the future is any brighter in that sense. It would be the same mistake the Cubs made on Almora, on Happ, even on Russell back in 2015, to just hand the 2nd base job to Nico Hoerner in Mesa. He has too little experience. But the Cubs might have to given financial restraints. Which are in place because they’ve blown so many big contracts.

There’s a way out of this. But it’s an awfully dark tunnel to get there, with a lot of pits and wrong turns that have to be avoided. I can’t tell you I’m 100% confident the Cubs can negotiate it, given what we’ve seen over the last eight months.

But as always…

Onwards…

Baseball

When you score 55 runs over four games, your other foibles tend to be overlooked. That’s an old baseball cliche, y’know. So this morning, everyone’s a little less concerned about the Cubs being without half of their “core four” for the rest of the regular season because of all the runs pouring like an avalanche comin’ down the mountain. On the other side, the Cubs will soon stop seeing the confused and despondent cooking-school rejects that have taken the mound for the Pirates and Reds the last four games. It actually starts tonight with Sonny Gray, and the Cardinals will sport real live pitchers for those seven games to decide the fate of us all.

So the worry is that when the Cubs need to fight fire with fire, pitching-wise (which is probably ice with ice given that offense is always considered the hot weapon and defense the cool one so “fight Sub-Zero with Sub-Zero?”), they only have two of five guys who can do it right now. If it wasn’t for Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish, this season may have already been taken out to the curb. The three lefties have been woeful of late. Now maybe that’s something you can paper over for 12 more games, which is all that’s left. But the Cubs have been trying to get around it for a few weeks now, so there just might not be that much sand left in the top chamber here.

Two of them are easily explicable. Jon Lester might simply be past it, and the thin margins of error he already had the past couple seasons are simply now imperceptible and unreachable. His fellow over-35 southpaw, Cole Hamels, is coming back from an injury that derailed his career once already for a year and a half, and he seems completely lost or hurt or both. To expect these two to be anything more than what we’ve seen is almost certainly optimistic at best, deluded at worst. We have the evidence of why this is happening.

Jose Quinana, on the other hand, is a stranger case. There’s no injury that we know of. He’s only 30, though has certainly piled up his share of innings. So health and age aren’t the concerns for him that they are for Lester and Hamels. And yet his recent stretch is worrying as well. With three starters rolling, you figure the Cubs could close this season out triumphantly. With only two, it becomes more of a stretch of imagination as the Cardinals spend a majority of those games making sure the Cubs aren’t actually putting up a touchdown or two.

It’s easy to forget, even if it was just a month ago, how good Q was in August. He had an ERA of 2.02 with 39 Ks and only six walks. He had a four start stretch where he gave up just four runs over 26 innings. And the numbers could have actually been better. He had an extremely weird start against the Nationals where he literally did not give up one hard-hit ball, almost all of it was on the ground, and yet it all found holes or the Cubs starting throwing it around like a shuttlecock. Even his last start of that month was good, though Maddon got a little panicky and pulled him with two outs in the sixth even though he hadn’t given up a run.

But September has been puke-tastic. He’s only seen the 4th inning once, and has given up 13 earned runs in just 10.1 innings. Again, some of this is weird, as his start in San Diego was essentially sabotaged by defense again. But it’s not like Q to fall apart after something like that, which he promptly did after Ben Zobrist did a fine Mitch Trubisky impression on a double-play ball (too soon?).

So is there something going on? On the surface, there’s isn’t a lot of change. There’s no velocity drop, it’s not like his walks have risen hugely, or anything else we jump to first. When digging around a bit, it does look a little like his change-up has flattened and lost some drop:

The past two starts he hasn’t gotten a swing-and-miss on it, which is a problem.

Still, there’s an element of weirdness, as there always is in baseball. Quintana in his last three starts has been getting way more ground-balls than he did during his brilliant stretch in August, which you would think should be a good thing. In those August starts he only got half of his contact-against on the ground once. He’s done that in every start since and including that Washington one, but with these results. Does he miss Baez the most?

What he hasn’t gotten in his last couple outings is any whiffs on anything but his four-seamer, and that’s got to change. As you’d think, or hope, that with the greater amount of grounders, even adding a smidge of Ks to it would get Q back on top sharpish. It’s likely the Cubs will need that.

Baseball

vs.

Records: Reds 70-80  Cubs 81-68

GAMETIMES: Monday-Wednesday 7:05

TV: NBCSN Monday, WCIU/ESPN Tuesday, WGN Wednesday

NOT READY FOR FULL-TIME DALTON YET: Blog Red Machine

DEPTH CHARTS & PITCHING STAFFS

Note: Due to scheduling and traveling, there isn’t a Reds Spotlight today. Picture one in your head if you must. Maybe Votto’s regression or Aquino’s 12 wRC+ in September. Choose your own adventure. 

After 47 runs in three games and thoroughly burning any sense of self-worth the Pirates might have thought about having, the Cubs will look to keep it going against the Reds. The challenge with the Reds is they have one real live pitcher starting a game this series, and a couple ones in the pen, neither of which the Pirates can claim right now. And the Cubs might be without their linchpin.

We all are holding our breath to hear news of Anthony Rizzo, which will come down after this goes to print. Everyone’s expecting the worst, because when a player is helped off the field that generally means a week or two, maybe more. The Cubs don’t have two weeks or more, and face the apocalyptic seven games with the Cardinals. As if the Reds haven’t been enough of a headache. The simplest solution is a lot of Victor Caratini at first, though you may see some of Happ and Bryant there too. The latter gets David Bote’s bat into the lineup, though Caratini and Contreras both being in the lineup doesn’t leave you offensively short either. It just leaves you short of what Rizzo would provide.

Of course, another wonderful aspect of a Rizzo absence is more debate about the leadoff spot,, which has become the Cubs’ TIF funding. Rizzo moved there for the Pirates series, suddenly they turned into Loyola-Marymount, but now they have to figure it out again. Mostly you can count on Zobrist being there, and he can at least be representative. It’s basically a “So What Don’t You Want?” situation. Heyward has proven he can’t do it and doesn’t like it. They won’t try Bryant there, especially as he’s rediscovered some of his power over the weekend (if results against the Pirates even count). Contreras is another candidate against lefties, as long as we never see Almora there again. Go down the list and you see there aren’t a lot of answers.

Still, time moves on, and the Cubs have games to win. And as you know, the Reds are a spikier outfit than the Bucs. They’re coming off taking two of three from Arizona, seriously denting their charge to the wildcard. And they’ll have no compunction about doing the same to the Cubs. At least the Cubs will duck Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo. But they’ll get Sonny Gray, who’s been one of the best starter in the NL and especially of late. Gray has quality starts in 11 of his last 13, and he had a 0.74 ERA in August. His two September starts have seen him give up four runs…so he’s slowing down? Maybe? We’re trying here. Needless to say it would behoove the Cubs to get Monday and Wednesday and consider anything off of Gray a bonus.

The rotation is another problem the Cubs have to solve. All of Quintana, Hamels, and Lester have been backing up for weeks now, and while they got to save the relievers who matter (such as they are) due to the offensive supernova against Pittsburgh, they don’t want to go to that well any more than anyone’s stomach can handle. Hamels doesn’t look healthy, and Lester might just be running out of racetrack in his career. They are wheezing to the finish line and have to find something this series and in the season’s last two weeks, even if it’s just a death rattle.

It’s only two games now. It’s one and a half behind DC while one ahead of Milwaukee. But if the Cubs can at least hold that two games behind St. Louis, that basically puts it all on the seven games they have left together. Let’s do that.

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: Pirates 65-82   Cubs 78-68

GAMETIMES: Friday 3:05, Saturday/Sunday 1:20

TV: Friday/Saturday NBCSN, WGN Sunday

MOURNING THE DEAD: Bucs Dugout

SERIES PREVIEW POSTS

Depth Charts & Pitching Staffs

Pirates Spotlight: Bryan Reynolds

The optimistic out there, and let’s face it, they still make up a large portion of Cubdom because they had to for so long, will tell you that returning home for 10 games is where the Cubs finally charge. They’ve been great at home all season, they’re playing two doormats before welcoming The Red Menace for a true NL Central Main Event, and if it’s ever going to turn around, it’s now.

Those of you like me can’t help but feel the winds of 2004. The Cubs returned home for four with the lowly Reds, still the wild card in their grip even after the disaster at Shea. They promptly lost three of four in the most pathetic way possible, and the season was over and basically the whole thing was broken for two more years. You feel a similar pivot point here, where if the Cubs don’t use these 10 games to springboard into at least a stranglehold on the wildcard spot, and really launching themselves up to and past the Cardinals, the effects could be felt for years.

So it starts with a team already frayed and dead, the Pittsburgh Pirates. They’re fighting with each other, they’re fighting with their coaches, they hate everything, they throw at people, but mostly they just want to go home. This season has been utterly miserable for them since like May 1st, the organization seems directionless, and any hope for the future is curbed by the knowledge that Bob Nutting won’t let that future happen.

Somehow, the Bucs have managed a 6-5 record in September, though it’s buffeted by getting four games with the similarly dead Giants. They lost two of three to the Cardinals last weekend, and that’s the absolute minimum requirement here. They’ll start with Steven Brault, who handcuffed the Cubs a couple weeks ago for seven innings, so get your bomb shelters ready for the hot takes that will be spilling should he do it again. James Marvel will only be making his second career start, and we saw how well that went with Bolanos in San Diego earlier this week. The Cubs have cuffed around Trevor Williams a couple times this year, so there’s your hope.

But mostly what the Cubs have to watch out for is their rotation disintegrating beneath Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. Jose Quintana fell apart when Ben Zobrist couldn’t locate Nico Hoerner for the second straight night. Jon Lester has been more bad than good for months now and melted down against the Brewers on Sunday. The Cubs just can’t have any of that this weekend. They’ll have to duck around Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman, who are the hottest Pirates at the moment. Josh Bell clearly just wants the season to end, as he’s been average for a while now. But you don’t have to go far to picture him with a big homer somewhere over these three days.

The Cubs need their starters because we’ve seen the pen is still a mess without Craig Kimbrel, and it wasn’t all that orderly when he was around anyway. Once again, Steve Cishek has been turned into paste, and Wick has been adventure-prone of late (and is probably down for today after yesterday’s theatrics). Get runs off this team that doesn’t want to be there, and only ask your pen for six-to-eight outs or something. It’s not hard, but the Cubs have made it look exceedingly so for four months now.

These 10 games are about way more than the 10 games. The entire direction of the organization is in the balance. Maybe the Cubs will finally play like it, or we’ll know something has been truly rotten in Denmark for a while.