Joe Maddon might need armor for playoff pitching decisions

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon talks to starting pitcher Jon Lester after pulling him in a game against the Dodgers on Aug. 28. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Cubs president Theo Epstein calls baseball a meritocracy. The players who perform the best get the at-bats, the innings and probably the girl next door.

That’s what makes the debate over postseason pitching spots so fascinating. A meritocracy would argue strongly that Kyle Hendricks, with a best-in-baseball 2.07 earned-run average, has earned the right to be the Cubs’ Game 1 starter in their opening series. But you tell Jake Arrieta he’s not the team’s ace.

And while we’re about the business of telling somebody something they don’t want to hear, you tell Jon Lester he’s the No. 3 pitcher. And I dare you to tell Captain Ornery, John Lackey, that there’s a chance his work will be limited in the playoffs.

All of these decisions could present themselves to manager Joe Maddon, and it’s a very real question whether he’ll remember the whole meritocracy concept when he’s sitting across from Lackey’s perpetual scowl. Something tells me Maddon will cave in to the veteran.

Telling Jason Hammel he won’t have much, if any, of a postseason role will be easy, just as it was relatively easy for Maddon to pull Hammel after 2 1/3 innings and three earned runs a few starts ago. That’s because Hammel is the guy who often has been on a leash the length of a shoelace, despite a successful season. The way Maddon left Hammel in to get drilled against the Brewers on Tuesday night looked a bit like punishment for Hammel’s recent unhappiness over getting pulled early. But giving Lackey bad news is a whole other story. Anybody who has to do that might want to nail down the furniture first.

Managers and coaches in all sports pray for their athletes to make the decision-making process easy. Hendricks’ surprising season certainly hasn’t made Maddon’s life easier, as far as the playoffs are concerned. Lester has excelled in the postseason much of his career, but he certainly didn’t last year. And Lackey signed with Cubs not just to win another World Series but to be an integral part of things in October.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario based on merit in which Hendricks doesn’t pitch Game 1 or Game 2. But it gets back to Maddon’s stomach for telling two emotional veterans that they’ll have to take a backseat. No easy thing. There’s the respect component. And there’s the possibility of upsetting the entire staff.

Maddon might see it as a tight-rope act. Looks more like a slam dunk from here. If you make a decision based on someone’s career record and reputation, not on who is deserving, that decision can come back to haunt you.

All Maddon has to do is pull out Hendricks’ stats and plop them in front of Lester, should the left-hander balk at the idea of a Game 3 start. The Cubs almost surely will have home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs, which means the first two games of their N.L. Division Series likely will be at Wrigley Field. Hendricks is 9-1 with a 1.21 ERA at home this season, compared with a 5-6 record and a 3.09 ERA on the road.

But Lester, too, is significantly better at home (1.91 ERA) than he is on the road (3.40). Do you start Hendricks and Lester at Wrigley, followed by Arrieta on the road for Game 3? Again, who wants to tell Arrieta he’s pitching third after a very good season that followed up last year’s Cy Young Award?

Do you really trust Hendricks to pitch a huge game on the road in the first series? What if – and I want you to sit down for this, Cubs fans – Arrieta and Lester lose the first two games of a best-of-five series? How would you feel with Hendricks on the mound with the season on the line?

What if the Cubs are down 2-1 in the series? Would you start Lackey in Game 4 or would you think about bringing back Arrieta on three days’ rest to help save the day? Does the idea of starting your Game 1 pitcher in Game 4 reek of panic? Who cares about panic or hurt feelings after 108 years without a World Series title? But what about the way Arrieta tired in the postseason last year? Would the Cubs want to go down because Arrieta is pitching on fumes again?

They have decisions to make. They have problems that other teams would love to have, but they’re still problems. And they’re problems involving flesh and blood and ego.

If a meritocracy suddenly gets kicked to the curb, then the players will know the idea of it was bogus in the first place. I’m not sure I’d want to be in Maddon’s shoes, no matter what kind of shoes a $5 million salary can buy.

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