Cubs already running out of buttons to push with this team: 'These are our guys'

Cubs already running out of buttons to push with this team: 'These are our guys'

NEW YORK — John Lackey became the snapshot of frustration on the Citi Field video board, a TV camera capturing his “God damn it!” reaction after Asdrubal Cabrera hammered an 88-mph fastball over the center-field wall for a four-run lead in the fourth inning.

Seeing the New York Mets might evoke memories of the 2015 team that caught fire and won 97 games before fizzling out in the National League Championship Series, but these Cubs have already played most of their cards, pushing the buttons struggling teams push to jolt the clubhouse.

Simon the Magician isn’t walking through that door, because the Cubs have largely outgrown Joe Maddon’s stunts. Theo Epstein hasn’t gone Full Metal Sveum, threatening to send struggling hitters down to Triple-A Iowa, mostly because the Cubs don’t have better internal options.

Another classic Lackey response after Monday’s night 6-1 loss, when a reporter mentioned that Maddon suggested pregame the veteran pitcher might change his approach this time in Queens: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching. I don’t know what he’s talking about there.”

The St. Louis Cardinals just rearranged Mike Matheny’s staff and put their manager on notice, but the Cubs obviously can’t fire a three-time Manager of the Year two months after Maddon and his coaches got their World Series rings for ending the 108-year drought.

The Cubs already promoted Ian Happ in the middle of May — and it’s hard to envision another top prospect giving this team a shot of adrenaline and becoming this summer’s version of Kyle Schwarber or Willson Contreras.

Between Brett Anderson’s ineffectiveness/inevitable injury and Kyle Hendricks’ tendinitis, the Cubs have already dipped into their reserve depth for the rotation, and the drop-off from Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery would be extremely steep if any of these 30-something pitchers (besides Lackey) feel their age.

The July 31 trade deadline is seven weeks away, and what will the sense of urgency or desperation feel like in the front office if the Cubs keep playing like this? Of course, the Cubs are interested in controllable starting pitchers, which is like saying little kids like ice cream, because 29 other teams have the same general idea.

The big team meeting near the end of an 0-for-6 West Coast trip in late May didn’t lead to a breakthrough, the Cubs now 31-32 with 16 of their next 19 games on the road. These players will either figure it out or they won’t.

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“The group’s so damn young,” Maddon said. “You’re not looking to move them out and bring this new guy in. There’s really no reason to really want to look, other than an injury right now. These are our guys. And I believe in these guys a lot.

“Of course, I’d like to be 10 games over .500. But we’re not. We’ve earned it. We’ve earned the right to not be 10 games over .500 right now. But we’re capable of doing that.”

Not when Lackey (4-7, 5.26 ERA) gives up three homers and needs Jason Heyward to make two catches at the warning track in right-center field. After Cabrera’s second home run, Contreras had to walk out toward the mound in the fourth inning and stand in between Lackey and home plate umpire Mike Winters.

“You guys like to compare,” Lackey said. “We don’t have to be last year’s team. We just got to be better than the teams in (our division).”

Good point. The Cubs are only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, and this looks and feels nothing like the NL Central of two years ago, when the Cardinals won 100 games and the Pittsburgh Pirates won 98.

That 2015 Cubs team also watched Jake Arrieta turn into the most dominant pitcher on the planet, Dexter Fowler get hot as the you-go, we-go leadoff guy, the pitching infrastructure rebuild the bullpen on the fly, Addison Russell transform the middle-infield defense and Starlin Castro accept his new role and go on one of those crazy streaks after the initial bruise to his ego.

“What it would take?” Maddon said. “Just that we get back to our offensive DNA — that guys who have not really performed to their level would. I think that’s the next thing that needs to happen and will happen, because once that happens, then the energy throughout the entire everything will accelerate.”

Jacob deGrom made this feel like the 2015 NLCS all over again, throwing a complete game, getting double plays in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings and limiting the damage to Russell’s solo home run.

“We can’t keep using that as an excuse — that the other team’s pitcher is good,” Maddon said. “We got to start beating some better pitchers. Period. You don’t get to the promised land without winning games like that.”

At what point would you become concerned?

“Whenever how many games back you are is more than how many games you got left,” Lackey said. “I don’t think we’re that close yet.”

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

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.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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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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