MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

5 key questions for Cubs down the stretch

5 key questions for Cubs down the stretch

CHICAGO -- A no-hitter at Dodger Stadium? Then a flight home on an airplane full of pajama-wearing ballplayers?

"As perfect nights go," Joe Maddon said, "it's hard to beat.''

Maddon has seen just about everything in baseball, but he had never seen a Sunday like the Cubs just experienced, thanks to Jake Arrieta's no-hitter. It ended a four-game losing streak and added to the feeling that something special is happening at Wrigley Field.

Maddon compared the significance of the Arrieta no-hitter to the excitement in Tampa Bay's clubhouse after Dan Johnson beat the Red Sox with a pinch-hit homer at Fenway Park in early September 2008. That would prove to be a key moment for a Rays team that went to the World Series after having lost 96 games the previous season.

"You feel it at that moment, but now you have to see if you're going to ride the wave," Maddon said before an ugly, sleep-deprived 13-6 loss.

Well positioned to win a National League Wild Card spot, the Cubs are continuing to evolve as they head into September. Here are five keys to watch down the stretch as they try to emulate the out-of-nowhere Rays of 2008:

1. How will bullpen roles shake out?
Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have been keys all season for a group that ranks in the middle of the NL pack with a 3.52 bullpen ERA, but Maddon is always juggling relievers and roles, never really even acknowledging that Rondon (24-for-28 in saves) is the closer. The Cubs have used 17 relievers, and they are likely to add one or two more now that September is here and rosters are expanded.

Their 13-man pitching staff Monday included three lefties (James Russell, Travis Wood and Clayton Richard), but none really qualifies as a shutdown guy. Maddon believes he has right-handers who are effective against hitters from both sides of the plate, including Justin Grimm, who at one point he labelled his "middle-inning closer."

While the bullpen has not been a major problem, injuries to Jason Motte and Neil Ramirez have left it in flux. That will have to change if the Cubs are to have significant shelf life in October.

Among the pitchers who could develop into keys are rookie Carl Edwards Jr., although he won't be in the first wave arriving from Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday, and 38-year-old Fernando Rodney, acquired last week after flaming out with the Mariners.

"I'm curious to see if we can get Fernando going and how we can get him going,'' Maddon said. "He could really add a lot in that seventh-, eighth-, ninth-inning mix.''

Rodney, who had a 5.68 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP with Seattle, worked a perfect seventh inning on Monday.

Rondon K's Maxwell, earns save

2. Will Javier Baez contribute?
None of the other 29 teams is promoting a player with more potential than the 22-year-old shortstop, who has homered an average of once every 17 at-bats over almost 400 Minor League games. This has been a difficult season because of the death of his sister and a broken left ring finger, but Baez hit stride in August.

A right-handed hitter, Baez will get playing time against left-handers, like the D-backs' Robbie Ray and Patrick Corbin this weekend. Maddon played Tommy La Stella at third base and Kris Bryant in right field on Monday, and he figures to give Bryant a lot of time in the outfield the rest of the way, with Jorge Soler sidelined by a strained oblique.

"I feel so comfortable putting Kris Bryant out there, it's ridiculous," Maddon said. "You shouldn't [feel that comfortable], but I do. He's played a great third base and you saw him in the outfield, how comfortable he is, how much ground he covers and how well he throws. His baseball acumen is so high, I feel really comfortable about that. Then there are all these options in the infield. When you put them out there, you get more bats in the lineup.''

Baez played second base when he was with the Cubs last season and has worked at third at Iowa. Maddon loves his instincts as much as his light-tower power, which is offset by a high strikeout total.

3. Can Starlin Castro hang onto second base?
The Cubs improved defensively when Addison Russell moved from second to short, and they could get better with Baez or La Stella at second instead of Castro or converted outfielder Chris Coghlan, who has played well in the 11 games he's started there. Castro, a three-time All-Star at short, makes good plays at times -- like a lunging grab of a liner in Arrieta's no-hitter -- but is never immune from the key error. He's made four the past two games, including two in an ugly ninth inning Monday, to raise his total to 23. Castro probably would not be in the lineup for a potential NL Wild Card Game against a right-hander like the Pirates' Gerrit Cole, but who would play second base? It's anyone's guess now.

Castro's nice play

4. Will the back of the rotation rebound?
While Arrieta and Jon Lester are solid as the No. 1 and 2 starters -- and, no, there's not much question that Arrieta would start the NL Wild Card Game at this point -- the rotation's depth is a major concern going forward. Kyle Hendricks did little to ease those concerns on Monday night, allowing three runs in five innings to the Reds.

Between them, Jason Hammel and Hendricks are 4-4 with a 5.19 ERA in 17 starts since the All-Star break. Fifth starter Dan Haren, acquired from Miami at the Trade Deadline, has a 6.31 ERA in his five starts for the Cubs.

Getting Hammel straightened out is imperative for an October run. The Cubs are promoting Tsuyoshi Wada and recent signee Trevor Cahill from Iowa, but how much can they help?

Hammel's solid start

5. Can Maddon steal some wins with his new toys?
Tampa Bay rarely provided Maddon with costly September callups, but the Cubs believe in a strength-in-numbers approach. Theo Epstein traded for outfielder Austin Jackson, the longtime Tiger, before Monday's game and announced after it that he's adding four players to the expanded roster, including potential postseason pinch-runner Quintin Berry, who stole 35 games for Triple-A Pawtucket this season.

When Iowa's season ends on Sunday, the Cubs will make another round of promotions, assuming they can work around 40-man roster issues. Two spots will have to be opened on Tuesday for Berry and Cahill.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.