Chris Coghlan embraces intermittent role with Cubs

Chris Coghlan embraces intermittent role with Cubs

Chris Coghlan had, by WAR, the best year of his career in 2015. By the same measure, 2016 has been among his worst seasons since he broke into the majors and won the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year. 

But the 31-year-old still has an important role as part of a deep, flexible Cubs bench that should be an asset as Joe Maddon looks to keep his team fresh for the final weeks of a season that should result in a second consecutive playoff appearance. 

Coghlan started and batted sixth for the Cubs in Sunday night’s series finale against the St. Louis Cardinals, three nights after he pulled off a season highlight: With the Cubs down 2-0 in the sixth inning Thursday, Coghlan tried calling for time and stepped out of the box — but his request wasn’t granted, and Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez quick pitched him. Coghlan quickly got both feet into the batter’s box and roped a game-tying two-run single to right. 

“Fortunately it worked,” Coghlan said. “… Hopefully I don’t have to do that again.”

The Cubs re-acquired Coghlan June 9 from the Oakland Athletics, and he’s been more productive since returning to Clark and Addison. Coghlan entered Sunday hitting .208/.387/.292 in 25 games with the Cubs — as opposed to his .146/.215/.272 line with the A’s — and has more walks (12) than hits (10). Those consistently-competitive at-bats have been helpful in pinch-hitting spots and when manager Joe Maddon calls on Coghlan for a spot start. 

What’s impressed Maddon is how Coghlan hasn’t tried to do too much in those intermittent at-bats, which could be the case for a guy who’s pressing to earn a starting role back, either this year or next. Coghlan played in 148 games for the Cubs last year but is on pace to barely play over half a season in 2016.

“His attitude’s been fabulous, he’s been a great team guy when he’s not playing, he’s ready to pinch hit when it’s possible,” Maddon said. “He’s undergone a lot of changes over the last couple years but I know how much he likes being here. We love having him here.”

Still, Coghlan isn’t the first, second or even third choice to come off the Cubs’ bench in a neutral setting. Matt Szczur has been one of baseball’s most prolific pinch-hitters this season and homered twice in his start Friday, and all that positional flexibility means some combination of Coghlan, Szczur, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Miguel Montero and David Ross will be available off the Cubs’ bench on a given day (all but Coghlan and Montero are right-handed hitters. 

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Maddon prefers to rely on matchup planning to determine when to deploy those guys. Coghlan got the start Sunday due to his success against Cardinals right-hander Mike Leake (10/16 with two home runs and no strikeouts in his career), and who starts or gets used in high-leverage pinch-hitting spots will be partly dependent on that matchup factor. 

That means Coghlan’s playing time will remain sporadic as the Cubs churn toward clinching the National League Central. But Coghlan, at least for this season, is accepting of that role. 

“It’s easier to do, to put your ego aside, when you’re chasing history,” Coghlan said. “And as close as we are, and we feel like we’re pulling for each other, and as good as we are — you’re chasing to win a World Series. So it’s easier to put your ego aside and do whatever you can and think of it as this year, this is your role, and the role’s not going to define me for my career but this is what I need to do for this year to be the best for this team.” 

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 made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

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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