Celebration time over, Cubs beat LA and focus on defending World Series title

Celebration time over, Cubs beat LA and focus on defending World Series title

The banner-raising ceremony at Wrigley Field, the championship-ring unveiling, the hovering TV crews and surging energy from the fans could have been distracting, emotionally draining and disruptive to the routines that players obsess over every day.

But if there's been any sort of hangover, it's hard to tell with the Cubs players who appear to be picking up where they left off last November. It's largely the same group that stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series – and could be playing together with that sense of confidence through 2021.

"It's been kind of a whirlwind, obviously, the last couple days, but we'll get back used to it," manager Joe Maddon said. "Great moment in Cubs history and now it's time to move forward."

The Cubs responded in every phase of the game during Thursday afternoon's 4-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning this National League Championship Series rematch with a good-enough start from Brett Anderson and a four-inning bullpen combination for October featuring Carl Edwards Jr., Koji Uehara and Wade Davis.      

The Cubs played spectacular defense – even though a replay review overturned Kyle Schwarber's ivy-touching bobble catch at the left-field wall – and the offense is showing signs of life in the cold weather. Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell drilled their first home runs this season into the right-field bleachers and onto Waveland Avenue, knocking out Dodger lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu in the fifth inning.

[MORE CUBS: Albert Almora Jr. is a big believer in defense wins championships]

The Cubs are 6-3 and have won each of the season's first three series, trying to distance themselves from 2016 and create a new identity.

"It was great to celebrate what we did," Schwarber said. "Now it's time to focus on trying to get back there and do it all over again, because that's the best feeling in the world, winning a World Series. It's a long road. We got to take it game by game. But we're really looking forward to the challenge."

Anderson had been part of the Dodger traveling party last October but not on the playoff roster when the Cubs won their first pennant in 71 years. The injury-prone lefty signed a one-year, prove-it deal and has now allowed one run through two starts (10.2 innings). An observer by nature, with a sarcastic sense of humor, the last few days left him with…

"A lot of envy," Anderson said, "especially now being the only guy on the active roster without a World Series ring. That's not fun. (Everyone else) got one yesterday or years prior. But I think (GM) Jed (Hoyer) said it right: It gives me personally that much more incentive to do my part or fill the holes that need to be filled going forward to hopefully give this team a chance to win another one."

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move


Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have reportedly made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

According to MLB Insider Robert Murray, the Cubs have reached an agreement with right-hander Daniel Winkler on a one-year deal.

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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