Cubs

After pursuing Sanchez, would Cubs go all-in with Samardzija and Garza?

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After pursuing Sanchez, would Cubs go all-in with Samardzija and Garza?

The Cubs dont have a true Plan B after losing out on Anibal Sanchez, in that they dont see any other free agent on the market worth that kind of commitment.

But those negotiations which for team president Theo Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts ended last week at the walkaway point of five years, 77.5 million must have gotten the attention of the players already inside the clubhouse. The meter is definitely running for Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza.

While the Detroit Tigers rolled out Sanchez for Mondays news conference announcing a new five-year, 80 million contract (plus a club option for 2018), the Cubs continued with their incremental moves.

MORE: Cubs lose out on Anibal Sanchez

The Cubs confirmed the signing of Chang-Yong Lim to a two-year, minor-league contract. While rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the right-handed reliever gets a 100,000 signing bonus, and then monthly minor-league salaries (unless his contract is purchased). This is a low-risk investment in someone who has pitched professionally the last 17 seasons in Korea and Japan.

MORE: Taking a small risk, Cubs closing in on Chang-Yong Lim

The Cubs also made third baseman Ian Stewarts one-year, 2 million deal (plus incentives) official, while designating left-handed reliever Jeff Beliveau for assignment.

But as the Cubs try to build a rotation for October, the major decisions on the horizon will involve Garza and Samardzija.

Garza, who recently turned 29, is only three months older than Sanchez and entering the final year of his contract. In the past, general manager Jed Hoyer has said that the Cubs want more Matt Garzas, not less Matt Garzas. Its hard to distinguish the career numbers from Sanchez (48-51, 3.75 ERA) and Garza (57-61, 3.84 ERA).

But the options trade, extend, let the season play out appear to be on hold while Garza begins throwing again and lets the stress reaction in his right elbow heal.

The Cubs put a potential Samardzija extension on their offseason agenda, though there were indications a deal is unlikely this winter. That shouldnt set off any alarms, because Samardzija is a Chicago guy who has repeatedly said that this is where he wants to be. Epstein and Hoyer agree that he checks off many of their boxes, from raw talent to body type to makeup.

Just remember that All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro was in a different place last summer when he signed a team-friendly, seven-year, 60 million extension that contains a club option for 2020.

Samardzija has already made millions and likes to bet on himself. He did that when he decided to play baseball, turning down the NFL after an All-American career at Notre Dame. He did it again last offseason, lobbying Epstein for a chance in the rotation after he had established himself in the bullpen.

Samardzija recently went golfing in Arizona with manager Dale Sveum and Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney. Samardzija is expected to embrace a bigger leadership role, especially since Ryan Dempster wont be around to push the younger pitchers and take the ball on Opening Day April 1.

Obviously, its a little early to announce our No. 1 starter, but hes ready to go, Sveum said during an interview at the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. The biggest thing is he can go into this season knowing that theres not that 165th inning coming up soon.

Technically, Samardzija threw 174.2 innings last season, which ended for him with a dominant complete game on Sept. 8 at PNC Park, where the Cubs will coincidentally begin their 2013 schedule against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Samardzija didnt feel like he had to be shut down, and wants to be unleashed for 200-plus innings.

The swagger and confidence Cubs officials saw years ago is back. Some were said to be on the sidelines in South Bend, Ind., during the 2005 Bush Push Game against USC. Before Reggie Bush shoved Matt Leinart into the end zone for a 34-31 win, they loved hearing Samardzija scream at the defensive secondary and talk trash while notching six catches for 99 yards and one touchdown against the nations No. 1 team.

Hes such a competitive guy, Sveum said. Hes that horse. Hes that guy you want on your staff and now he can just go out and relax. He doesnt have to do anything except be Jeff Samardzija. He learned a tremendous amount about starting pitching. We all witnessed that.

What will that cost the Cubs if Samardzija continues on this trajectory? Hes eligible for arbitration the next three years, so theres no rush. But look beyond his 9-13 record and 3.81 ERA last season and youll see that he averaged 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched and posted a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star break.

Theres no question pitchers will benefit from the rapid inflation and the new television money flooding the game.

Zack Greinke got his six-year, 147 million megadeal from the Los Angeles Dodgers, who should be bankrolled by a potential 6 billion television contract with Fox Sports. Questions about how Dempster will perform in the American League East didnt stop the Boston Red Sox from giving him a two-year, 26.5 million contract, even though he will turn 36 in May.

The Cubs took a shot on Sanchez, even though they knew their interest would probably get leaked to the media. They braced for a second-place finish. They understood there was a strong preference to return to the Tigers, but thought it was important to send a message. It will be interesting to see if they have go-for-it urges with Garza and Samardzija.

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

In the wake of the cheating allegations surrounding the Houston Astros, multiple parties have weighed in with their takes on the situation, and this includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish. He stated that this past season, he had noticed "weird behavior" from batters. Bleacher Nation then tweeted out a video showing Darvish stepping off the mound in a matchup against Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers, stating that he stepped off the mound because Yelich's "eyes move first...I'm not sure what he is trying to do."

Darvish then went on to elaborate that he wasn't trying to accuse the Brewers of stealing signs, rather that he was just stating what he had noticed in terms of batter behavior. Darvish made a minor grammar mistake, saying "your" instead of "you're" and when he responded to try to clarify that, it may have accidentally caused more confusion, as some mistakenly thought he was saying that Yelich indeed was stealing signs, but this was not the case.

That didn't stop Yelich from sounding off on Darvish with quite a harsh response, a response that was so harsh that some were shocked at the nature of it.

MLB free agent Josh Donaldson chimed in, humorously stating that he could definitely  use some help hitting off of Darvish and jokingly asked for what tips Yelich might have. 

Darvish then retweeted a few tweets that illustrated the point he was trying to make. 

Darvish also responded to Donaldson, saying that he doesn't think the third baseman needs any help hitting off of him either. 

At the end of the Darvish seems to be in a good place, and from his Twitter interactions, it is clear that he was not as upset or offended over the situation as Yelich was. 

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