With Thursday night’s Cardinals loss to the Giants, the Cubs have clinched the Central Division title for the first time since 2008, leaving them with 16 now-relatively-meaningless (at least in terms of wins and losses) games on the schedule. So, with the division officially in hand and a couple weeks’ worth of games remaining, where do the Cubs go from here?
Below, I’ll lay out five things I’d like to see Joe Maddon do with his club over the course of the final 16 games of the season. But before I do, a point of order: These are not predictions, so much as things I’d like to see. While some of these things may be a given, I know that some of these probably won’t happen. As different as Maddon can be from your average MLB manager, I’m aware that a couple of these suggestions might be a bit too far off the beaten path, even for him.
- More rest for Rizzo, Bryant
Within reason, of course. But, this is one we’ve actually already started to see a little bit more frequently since the Cubs’ division clinch has been all but a foregone conclusion for a month. In the final weeks of the season, I’d like to see it a bit more. While I certainly want Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in the lineup 4-5 times per week for the purposes of keeping them in rhythm, I also want to keep them well-rested. More-frequent rest will accomplish that.
- Impose an 85-pitch/seven-inning limit on starters
This is the one that I sincerely doubt will actually happen. Even as conscientious as Maddon has been with pitch counts and pitcher rest, I admit that a hard 85-pitch/seven-inning limit is probably a bit extreme even for him. That said, I think it’s important. As we witnessed last year with Jake Arrieta, a long season can really wear on a starting pitcher, and that can lead to real issues in the playoffs. Similar to Arrieta last year – who threw a career high in innings – Kyle Hendricks (currently 173 IP) is quickly approaching, and is all but sure to surpass, his career high (180, last year).
As with Rizzo and Bryant, I understand the importance of keeping pitchers in a rhythm they’re comfortable with; but beyond starting them every fifth or sixth day, there’s no reason to leave guys like Arrieta, Hendricks, Jon Lester or John Lackey out there beyond 85 pitches or 7 innings, regardless of the game situation. Wins don’t matter at this point, being healthy and ready for the playoffs does.
- Find a way to work Hammel from the bullpen
Admittedly, this one’s a bit out of left field as well. But given that it’s pretty obvious at this point that Jason Hammel will be the odd man out in the playoff rotation, it may be worth trying some creative things in the final weeks of the season. Specifically, I’d like to see him come out of the pen in the second or third inning. Assuming that Hammel remains on the playoff roster, in the bullpen (which may or may not end up being the case, but it’s worth investigating), and understanding that many starters aren’t used to the process of warming up in the pen and coming into a game that’s already underway, I think this may be worth the effort.
What would that look like? In my mind’s eye, I see someone like Trevor Cahill or Rob Zastryzny starting the game and pitching an inning or two before Hammel enters the game from the bullpen. The intention here is to mirror a bad start from one of the other pitchers that might cause Maddon to go to the bullpen early in a playoff game. Will the experience of coming out of the bullpen into a game be helpful for Hammel? Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t see why it’s not worth a shot.
- Let Contreras catch Lester
I have no problem with Jon Lester having a personal catcher, especially since David Ross has played some of the best ball of his career this season. But what I don’t necessarily love is that neither of the other two catchers on the staff have much experience catching the Cubs lefty. Surely, Ross will continue to catch Lester in the playoffs. But let’s say that something happens – Ross gets injured or ejected – and Maddon is forced to move Willson Contreras or Miguel Montero (if he even makes the playoff roster…) behind the plate.
Given, again, that the final 16 games of the season don’t really matter in terms of wins and losses, I’d really like to see Contreras (and maybe even Montero) back there once or twice in Lester’s three-ish remaining starts. While I don’t imagine Lester is an incredibly difficult pitcher to catch – he hits his spots well and, though he keeps the ball low, he doesn’t frequently put balls in the dirt – I don’t see any harm in at least giving a guy like Contreras a couple of innings of work with Lester.
- Give Almora Jr. significant playing time
Soon, I’ll write an article regarding the 25-man roster for the opening round of the playoffs. As a sneak-peek, one argument I plan to make is that Montero should be left off the playoff roster in favor of Albert Almora Jr. While I hold no illusions that the Cubs’ young outfielder is ready to be a start in the playoffs, I think Maddon would be remiss to leave the young defensive wizard off the playoff roster. In terms of late-inning defensive replacements, there aren’t many more attractive options in the organization (or all of baseball, for that matter) than Almora Jr. The kid is a defensive stud, plain and simple.
Plus, he’s got a fair bit of speed to boot, even if he hasn’t been a prolific base-stealer to this point in his career (33 S, 17 CS in the minors, 0/0 in the majors), he’s still probably among the Cubs’ better options on the basepaths.
So, with this in mind, I’d like to see Almora get some more frequent playing time to continue to hone his defensive craft at the big league level while – just as importantly – continuing to work on his offensive game in case he is thrust into a late-inning at bat.
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