Cubs

Could both LaHair and Rizzo find way into Cubs lineup?

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Could both LaHair and Rizzo find way into Cubs lineup?

The Cubs enter 2012 as an afterthought in the NL Central race after cutting ties with Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez who combined for 54 home runs and 173 RBIs last season. Those departures have some in Cubs Nation fearing that the Cubs will be completely devoid of power and have a very tough time scoring runs.

However, some of the newcomers in spring training like Bryan LaHair, Brett Jackson, and Anthony Rizzo can help to make up for that power outage and that combined with better starting pitching, improved defense, and better fundamental play can lead to a better on field performance.

The Cubs may see that Alfonso Sorianos below average defense in left field is greatly affecting their pitching staff and the Cubs' chances for victory. That could open up a scenario that if LaHair and Rizzo both get off to good starts the Cubs could move one to the outfield (most likely LaHair) to take advantage of improved defense and left-handed power.

Both LaHair and Rizzo have tremendous power but neither has ever proven that they can succeed at the major league level. Can either one be the long-term answer at first base? Can both succeed enough that one can make the move to the outfield to give the Cubs two young and left handed middle of the order hitters?

Rizzo has tremendous power and a great approach at the plate but it is his character and makeup that we are most impressed with, said Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. Rizzo was drafted by the Epstein-Hoyer-McLeod regime in Boston, acquired by Hoyer and McLeod from the Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal in San Diego, and then re-acquired from the Padres in a deal for pitcher Andrew Cashner.

It is great to know that I have people who are in the front office that are obviously in my corner. They believe in me and I am trying to do my very best to prove to them that they were right for believing in me, Rizzo said.

LaHair comes to camp knowing that he already has a job on the big league club after spending most of 2011 in Class AAA where he was named Minor League Player of the Year. He led the minors with 38 homers and set career marks in batting (.331), on-base percentage (.405) and slugging (.664) and was named Pacific Coast League MVP. He was only the seventh PCL player in the last 15 years to garner 300 total bases and his 76 extra-base hits were the most in the league since 2006.

So why do people doubt that he can be a productive major league player? Because he is 29-years-old and the list is extremely short of players that finally became big time major leaguers at such an advanced age. LaHair though believes he is ready for the opportunity. I am in great shape and I had a very good off season in winter ball in Venezuela (LaHair slugged an unheard of 15 HRs in the short winter league season) and I have prepared for this opportunity for my entire life. Now I have to go out and prove I can do the job, he said.

While Rizzo bides his time for a chance on the big league club he knows that LaHair is getting first shot to replace Pena. "Right now it's a concrete plan to just let Rizzo have another season in Triple A and let him be comfortable instead of moving him up and down and all that stuff," manager Dale Sveum said. "It's Bryan LaHair's job. It's not his to lose."

However, should Rizzo make it so difficult on the Cubs front office to keep him in Class AAA where he will begin the season then LaHair could make the move to the outfield. "Of course no one wants to play in the minor leagues, especially when you've had the taste of it," Rizzo said Tuesday at Fitch Park.

I can't control anything. I can go to the minors and do what Bryan did last year and still be there all season. I know that I can play up here but I will just continue working as hard as I can until I get my shot in the big leagues. I have never struggled like I did when I was called up in San Diego but I think that experience will help me when I do finally come up, he said before workouts on Tuesday morning in Mesa.

Whether it is one or both in the lineup in 2012 it does appear that the Cubs finally have some of the left-handed power that they have been searching for. In fact, the last legitimate left-handed run producer that the Cubs developed was probably Mark Grace and he left the organization after the 2000 season. Grace was a solid hitter but he never had a 100 RBI season or a 30 HR season so if you use those measuring sticks the last one that the Cubs had was Fred McGriff in 2002 when he had 30 HRs and 103 RBIs.

Balance in a lineup is essential for success and it appears that finally the Cubs have some power from the hard to find left side. The question is who will that be? LaHair or Rizzo? If both guys find their way into the lineup then the rebuild of Theo Epstein and Co. will go a whole lot quicker. That scenario would be just fine with both LaHair and Rizzo.

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

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USA TODAY

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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