MILWAUKEE – It takes some imagination to picture the Cubs surviving three playoff rounds and winning a World Series Game 7 with this bullpen.
Starting pitcher Jason Hammel looks at rookie right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. and says: “He’s definitely not afraid. He weighs probably 140 pounds and he can attack a ton worth of weight.”
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein trades for lefty Mike Montgomery and looks back on how Andrew Miller reinvented himself with the Boston Red Sox, transforming into an All-Star reliever for the New York Yankees.
Now the Cubs are banking on a 41-year-old dude who hasn’t pitched in The Show in almost 16 months, trying to make a comeback from a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow.
The Cubs will activate Joe Nathan off the 60-day disabled list before Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, adding a six-time All-Star closer who ranks eighth all-time with 377 career saves.
“I do like the names,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Is it enough? I think it is. But you have to consider that with both Edwards and Joe, you would not really push, push, push, either.
“So you talk about consecutive appearances – or three-out-of-fours – that would be kind of tough to do with these guys. There are different little caveats attached that I have to be careful with (and) not push them too hard.
“I don’t know if there is enough yet – just based on the ability to use guys based on where they’re coming from physically.”
Epstein made it clear that the Cubs didn’t cut themselves off from bigger deals leading up to the Aug. 1 deadline by packaging two lower-profile minor-league prospects (first baseman Dan Vogelbach and pitcher Paul Blackburn) in the Montgomery deal with the Seattle Mariners.
Epstein has also pointed out that the Cubs won 97 games and two playoff rounds last year while rebuilding their bullpen on the fly, relying on guys like Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill (who’s rehabbing a knee injury at Triple-A Iowa).
And that you don’t really need an eight-man bullpen for October, because Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester should be pitching deep into games, leaving the high-leverage situations for Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and whoever else emerges across the next two-plus months.
Maddon sees the potential for Edwards – who has a 1.93 ERA and 16 strikeouts against four walks through 14 innings – to grow into an even bigger role out of the bullpen. Maybe the Cubs find another grab-bag surprise or two (Brian Matusz, Jack Leathersich) from a minor-league system that lacks premium pitching talent.
“You just don’t know,” Maddon said. “It looks good on paper, but you got to get them out there and play it. From my perspective, for them to be good, I think you can’t push their button too often. You got to hold back.”
Whether or not the Cubs have the trade chips and the appetite to deal with the Yankees or trade for another high-octane reliever, they need to find out what they have in Nathan, who made 11 appearances combined with Iowa and Double-A Tennessee.
“It sounds like he’s ready to rock and roll,” Maddon said. “We have to see what he looks like, first of all. You hear different things. But I would bet that whatever he’s been throwing, it’s going to be even a little bit more once he gets here with the adrenaline pumping back in the big leagues.”
MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans, Dexter Fowler feels your pain: “It sucks being on the couch and watching your team struggle.”
It only took five pitches on Friday night at Miller Park before Fowler answered the questions about how much this lineup missed his presence and how long it would take him to get back into a rhythm.
“You go, we go” is what manager Joe Maddon tells Fowler, and a sellout crowd of 42,243 roared when the All-Star leadoff guy hammered a 94-mph Jimmy Nelson fastball off the black batter’s eye in center field, setting the first-inning tone in a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I was just happy to be back around the boys,” Fowler said after going 3-for-4 with a walk, three RBI and two runs scored in his return. “It’s like being back home.”
Fowler’s strained right hamstring alone doesn’t begin to explain all this, because he had been hitting .207 in June, the rotation cooled off, the bullpen became unreliable and a 24-games-in-24-days stretch wore this team out before the All-Star break. But the Cubs were 27 games over .500 and had a 12.5-game lead in the division on June 19, the night Fowler went on the disabled list with what sounded like a minor injury.
If panic didn’t completely set in around a first-place team, underlying issues kept bubbling to the surface, the Cubs losing 15 of their last 21 games before that summer vacation.
But the second-half Cubs (58-37) now look energized, beating the American League’s best first-half team (Texas Rangers) and the defending National League champs (New York Mets) at Wrigley Field before rolling up Interstate 94 for a virtual home game.
Now here comes Fowler, who jumpstarted the offense again with the bases loaded in the second inning, lining a two-run double down the left-field line and saying postgame that he felt no lingering issues with the hamstring.
“He’s an asset at the top of the lineup,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Tough at-bat. And he can get you. It was nice to see him run around out there again.”
Yes, Hammel (9-5, 3.35 ERA) ate a handful of potato chips to help prevent cramping in the 86-degree heat, lasting five innings before five relievers combined to hold the Brewers (40-54) scoreless the rest of the night. For all the buzz about Theo Epstein’s front office upgrading the bullpen by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Maddon may already have a shiny new toy in Carl Edwards Jr.
The skinny right-hander entered the game in the sixth inning, with a runner on second, and cut through the heart of Milwaukee’s order, forcing Ryan Braun to ground out and striking out Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter on six pitches combined.
Just like that, the Cubs are getting answers from within, after all the outside noise screamed: Do something! The fans chanted “Let’s go, Cubbies!” before closer Hector Rondon got the final out and his 17th save. This is again looking like the team Fowler envisioned when he turned down the Baltimore Orioles for a one-year, $13 million guarantee, shocking the industry by showing up in Arizona in late February.
“It’s really apparent how important he is to us,” Maddon said. “It just looked right.”
MILWAUKEE – “The next Andrew Miller” might be an unfair label for Mike Montgomery, who’s already been traded three times and still hasn’t completed a full season in the big leagues yet.
But Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein alluded to the possibility after acquiring Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners, projecting a 6-foot-5 lefty with first-round/top-prospect stuff who could thrive in the bullpen after struggling to make it as a starter.
Epstein had watched the beginning of the Miller reboot with the Boston Red Sox, and felt like the Cubs should trade for Montgomery this week, before the price skyrocketed beyond minor-league slugger Dan Vogelbach and minor-league pitcher Paul Blackburn.
Miller remains a target leading up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline – if the New York Yankees break up their dominant bullpen and sell off an All-Star reliever – but for now the Cubs will give a long runway to a pitcher who’s under club control through the 2021 season.
“I’ve seen his career,” Montgomery said before Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “I’ve watched a lot of his stuff, actually. He’s unbelievable with what he does. We’re definitely different types of pitchers. I don’t necessarily like to compare that much. I’m just going to try to be the best I can be with my style.”
Manager Joe Maddon noticed the differences in performance and maturity since seeing Montgomery as a minor-league pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays after that blockbuster James Shields/Wil Myers trade with the Kansas City Royals following the 2012 season.
“He’s got all kinds of potential,” Maddon said. “You talk about Andrew Miller: Did you see him when he pitched in Boston a couple years ago? It wasn’t as polished as it looks like right now.
“With Monty, I know a big part of his ascension has been better command out of the bullpen. The velocity is back up to where it had been. He’s got a really good curveball, man. And he’s got a very good changeup, too.
“Part of the process is to be patient. Give the guy opportunities. Don’t expect too much too soon. But if you do everything well, this guy could really build to something very special.”
The Cubs believe it’s already starting to click for Montgomery, who turned 27 on July 1 and put up a 2.34 ERA, a 59 percent groundball rate and 54 strikeouts in 61.2 innings with the Mariners this season.
“I got a lot of confidence in what I’m doing,” Montgomery said. “I really feel I can help this team out in any situation. I know they got a lot of good players here already. But (I’ll) just go about my business the way I have been and pitch the way I have been.
“However that shapes up, I think it’s going to help this team and be good for me. I think I bring value in a lot of different ways. It’s just going out there and being confident and doing what you do and making good pitches. It’s that simple. I try not to get too far outside of that. Just worry about baseball and keep that tunnel vision on my craft.”