Chicago Cubs

Why Joe Maddon and The Geek Department think this Cubs lineup could be more explosive than last year’s team

Why Joe Maddon and The Geek Department think this Cubs lineup could be more explosive than last year’s team

MESA, Ariz. – The Geek Department has spoken, reaffirming Cubs manager Joe Maddon's belief that Kyle Schwarber should be the leadoff guy atop another monster lineup projected to score more runs than the 2016 World Series champions.

"I'm all about the geeks," Maddon said. "Everybody should have their own geek."

Before the Cubs even reported to Arizona for camp, Maddon assigned a project to the research-and-development wing inside Theo Epstein's front office, asking what the simulations looked like with Schwarber at leadoff and the pitcher hitting eighth in front of Jon Jay or Albert Almora Jr.      

"Really hot, really hot," Maddon said. "If that number's right, I'll take it."

Would that projection be north of 800 runs?

"I didn't get an actual overall number," Maddon said. "I got a per-game number. That's what I like."

Maddon sort of smirked when asked if the per-game average would be north of five: "I don't know. It's a good number." The Cubs led every National League team except for the Colorado Rockies with 808 runs scored last season. Pitcher Mike Montgomery batted eighth in Sunday's prime-time lineup against the Kansas City Royals at Sloan Park, where 2 through 7 the Cubs looked like an Opening Night cast: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward.   

The Cubs are banking on a full season/good health with Schwarber, Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors and continued growth from their young talent. Even with Dexter Fowler taking his you-go, we-go act to the St. Louis Cardinals, the internal forecast has the 2017 Cubs scoring more runs than last year's 103-win team.

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"With Schwarber hitting first, yeah," Maddon said. "I think that's accurate. I don't remember that number being on last year's lineup. They gave me a sheet with different scenarios. It was pretty heavy. 

"Dexter was awesome, obviously. But (it's) Schwarber with the power potential, the home runs coming out of that spot with the extra at-bats, the natural rebounding of Jason. You just think that Jason's going to be a better hitter, production-wise, than last year, (plus) some of the younger guys, like Willson as an example, in his second year in the big leagues. 

"I've been talking about bearing down on defense and pitching, because I think naturally the hitting's going to get better, based on these guys are good and they have more experience. 

"All those things indicate that if we set it up this way, we should have a pretty good offensive year, especially against a right-handed pitcher."

Schwarber might get the day off against tough lefties, which would push the pitcher back down to the ninth spot. But the Cubs aren't an NL West team that will regularly have to face a Clayton Kershaw or a Madison Bumgarner. And the facts on the ground are constantly changing.

"I talk to the guys upstairs: 'This is what I'm thinking. Tell me where I'm wrong,'" Maddon said. "Like I said a couple years ago when Schwarber finally came up, I thought of hitting Schwarber first there and Dexter second. But they insisted the other way around. They were right. 

"So, listen, I have no problem with that stuff. Believe me, that's the one thing I have learned: You can have all the great feelings in the world. It still might not be the right thing. Like a guy comes up to me and says: 'I have a good feeling about today.' Oh my God, I want to run. 

"How do you know? There are so many times I've come to the ballpark, felt like crap, and we'll play the best game of the year. That has no correlation. You can feel all you want. (But) they gave me some solid information. I'm open for all that stuff."

While "Bryzzo," an American League-style lineup and a franchise built around hitters drew more attention, the Cubs rolled up a plus-252 run differential last year with consistent pitching and the best defensive unit in the majors, meaning this could actually be a different dimension for the defending champs.

"Everybody talked about the offense," Maddon said. "We pitched and caught the ball so well that the differential spread based on that. It wasn't just purely beating people up offensively."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.