Cubs

Brian Duensing: The unsung hero of Cubs bullpen

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AP

Brian Duensing: The unsung hero of Cubs bullpen

Brian Duensing thought he was being punked.

But there was no Ashton Kutcher or hidden cameras.

The defending champions really were going hard after Duensing on the free agent market over the winter.

"I asked my agent, 'What are we missing? I don't understand,'" Duensing said on this week's CubsTalk Podcast. "He said, 'Hey, when teams want somebody, they go after him.' I said, 'Alright, they must know something that I don't.'"

And they did. 

The Cubs front office was passionate about going out and getting Duensing as a veteran left-handed option in the bullpen.

"I know our scouts in the offseason felt really strongly about him," Joe Maddon said. "Coming into this season, that's all I heard about. Our guys loved Brian Duensing."

Duensing is a diamond in the rough, a guy who entered the winter with a 4.13 and 1.38 WHIP in 662.2 career innings, striking out an average of 5.9 hitters per nine innings.

This season, the 34-year-old has a 2.45 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and has nearly doubled his strikeout rate to 10.2 batters per nine innings.

"A lot of swings and misses — I don't know what that's about, to be honest," Duensing said. "I really don't know what's going on there. Just things are working really well right now and hopefully they continue."

Duensing had a stretch of 16.1 scoreless innings going before giving up a run and taking the loss Wednesday in San Francisco.

It all looks legit, too. Duensing's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (expected FIP) are at 2.99 and 3.34, respectively, meaning the peripheral numbers support his breakout season.

Based on FanGraphs' WAR, Duensing (0.7) is tied with Mike Montgomery and Koji Uehara as the second-best Cubs reliever behind only Wade Davis (0.9). Hector Rondon (0.5 WAR), Pedro Strop (0.5) and Carl Edwards Jr. (0.4) are further down that list.

Duensing admitted feeling a little unsure of himself when he first joined the Cubs, as he didn't want to be the guy not producing on a team vying for its second straight World Series. He battled a back injury and started the year on the disabled list before posting an 8.10 ERA in seven April games.

But since then, his ERA is at 1.54 with only 32 hits in 41 innings.

"When he started out this year, I was getting to know him, he was getting to know us," Maddon said. "He's really quiet on the surface, but an ingratiating, under-the-surface fellow. He's got a great personality.

"I wanna believe the way we do things has permitted him to be himself. And I think because of that, you're seeing the best side of him pitching-wise."

Duensing raved about the Cubs' pitching infrastructure, giving credit to pitching coach Chris Bosio, catching/gameplanning coach Mike Borzello and bullpen coach Lester Strode.

He's also fit in seamlessly with his teammates, who are doing everything they can to help keep Duensing going strong.

Even telling him he stinks.

"He's asked us not to say anything good about him," Davis said. "We keep telling him his stuff is no good and he stinks. He doesn't want to hear none of it, which is good. That's how you should think.

"People don't wanna hear they're doing good. Just to keep him away from it. You always wanna be able to live between both [good and bad] thoughts."

The Cubs bullpen has been under scrutiny lately with some late meltdowns that have helped to hand games away. But with Uehara on the disabled list and Davis and Edwards still searching for consistency, Duensing has been the unsung hero the Cubs bullpen has needed.

Even if nobody's really noticed.

"The other day, I walked out with Addison Russell," Duensing said. "Obviously, everybody's yelling for Addy and then as you walk by, you hear, 'Hey, who was that guy?'

"But it doesn't matter. That's good. If I'm doing my job, then no one knows I'm there, which is the way it should be. As long as I'm not getting recognized that's probably a good thing, so I'll take that.

"But maybe I'll start wearing my jersey out in public or something. I think I'm one of the most generic-looking human beings of all time or something."

CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role

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AP

CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull break down where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in the Cubs' pitching plans while Kyle Schwarber craziness reaches new heights.

Peter Gammons and Bob Nightengale weigh Schwarber’s trade value and how likely it may be that the Cubs could secure a Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer this winter. Nightengale also explains how Brandon Morrow could fill an Andrew Miller-esque role for the Cubs.

Plus, Cubs manager Joe Maddon stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly about his offseason gameplan and why he’s still such a staunch believer in rest even when away from baseball.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in Cubs pitching plans for 2018 and beyond

Where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in Cubs pitching plans for 2018 and beyond

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Brandon Morrow is officially official as a member of the Cubs pitching staff (finally), and the team also added another intriguing arm Tuesday night at the Winter Meetings.

The Cubs announced a two-year deal for Morrow with a club/vesting option for 2020. They also signed left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly on a two-year deal worth a reported $10 million, though the 28-year-old pitcher had Tommy John in June and likely won't contribute much in 2018.

The Cubs are looking toward the future with Smyly as a possible 2019 rotation piece. If he's able to return at all in 2018, it will probably only be as a bullpen option.

"This is a move that’s focused on 2019," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday night. "Really good high-quality starting pitcher, and we’re excited to get him on this deal, rehab him and hopefully get him back to exactly where he was.”

Smyly did not pitch at all in 2017 and was non-tendered by the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 1. He made 30 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays (and new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey) in 2016, going 7-12 with a 4.88 ERA. Joe Maddon also managed Smyly for a couple months at the end of the 2014 season.

“Both [Hickey and Maddon] liked him a lot," Hoyer said. "We talked to Jim about him, thinks really highly of him, says he’s exceptionally deceptive with how he pitches.

"Both his fastball and his curveball are really deceptive, good cutter and loves how he competes. So Jim was a big part of us wanting to do this.”

Smyly was one of the pieces that went from the Detroit Tigers to the Rays for David Price at the trade deadline in 2014. In his first 19 starts with the Rays between 2014 and 2015, Smyly went 8-3 with a 2.52 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 114.1 innings.

With Smyly not expected to impact 2018's rotation, the Cubs might still be in the market for another starting pitcher this winter, or they might choose to honor Mike Montgomery's wishes and insert him into the rotation full-time (and subsequently look for a potential swingman for the bullpen and rotation depth).

It'd be hard to just hand Smyly a spot in the 2019 Cubs rotation, but the Cubs committing somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million on a two-year deal indicates they're serious about his long-term potential. Plus, he won't turn 30 until June 2019.

The Cubs also have their other four starters — Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood — all signed through the 2020 season, so either they won't be in hard on long-term free-agent signings like Alex Cobb or would just stockpile pitching and sort out any possible six-man rotation issues a year from now.

As of right now, Morrow would serve as the Cubs' closer, but they're still in the market for impact relief pitching and are open to anything. Morrow is also a guy that could slot in as a setup man or high-leverage guy coming in at the most opportune time in the game, even if that means the fifth or sixth inning.

“Did an awesome job in the eighth inning last year for the Dodgers," Hoyer said. "We’re excited to have him. He’s going to pitch super high-leverage innings. If the season started tomorrow and we played a game, he’d be our closer.”