Cubs

Cubs focusing more on finding the next great closer than Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen

Cubs focusing more on finding the next great closer than Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Cubs are trying to find the next great closer – not repay Aroldis Chapman after an epic World Series celebration or reward Kenley Jansen for what he’s already done with a Mariano Rivera-like cutter.

Chapman is looking for $100 million, said one plugged-in agent posted up at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa during the general manager meetings. If Chapman’s camp can draw the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers into a bidding war, then maybe the 100-mph closer gets a five-year deal and doubles the $50 million guaranteed the Philadelphia Phillies would regret giving Jonathan Papelbon after the 2011 season.

The Cubs will be “targeted” in their approach this winter, GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, after essentially combining two offseasons into one as a hedge against a weak overall free-agent class. “I don’t think it will be an extravaganza, as it was last year. We don’t need to do that. But we are going to be looking at a lot of ways to acquire pitching.”

Because manager Joe Maddon could write out a 2017 Opening Day lineup on his iPad Pro tomorrow. And Theo Epstein’s front office sees enough rotation options to feel comfortable declining a $12 million option on Jason Hammel, buying out a 15-game winner for $2 million.

The Cubs will still make their bullpen a priority as they put the finishing touches on the team that will defend the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years. Just don’t think only in terms of brand-name closers, a group that also includes three-time All-Star Mark Melancon.

“We’re going to explore every avenue,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, there’s an appeal to guys in the free-agent market that have had great track records. But I think closers come from all over. Generally – when you sort of start looking at where those guys come from – some (have) had some bumps along the road and established themselves later on.”

Before Andrew Miller became an American League Championship Series MVP with the Cleveland Indians, he had been a failed starter with the Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins. Within a matter of weeks after the 2010 season, Epstein’s Boston Red Sox traded Dustin Richardson for Miller, non-tendered him and then signed him to a minor-league deal, allowing the 6-foot-7 lefty to finally blossom.

“Andrew Miller’s the perfect example,” Hoyer said. “Trying to be creative in finding bullpen pieces is something that we should always challenge ourselves to do, because the great reliever of next postseason may be a guy no one’s even thought of right now.”

Hoyer pointed out how Wade Davis had been “a secondary consideration” in the December 2012 trade between the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays. While James Shields and Wil Myers made all the headlines, Davis became an integral part of Kansas City’s lights-out bullpen, helping the Royals win back-to-back AL pennants and the 2015 World Series.

The Cubs once discovered Hector Rondon – a 30-save closer last year – through the Rule 5 draft. Rondon didn’t complain when the Cubs acquired Chapman from the Yankees in late July, though a triceps injury and uncertainty about his role would ultimately limit his effectiveness.

It’s a different look, but Maddon already sees right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. as someone with the potential to make a Miller-light impact with his explosive fastball, feel for pitching and ability to throw multiple innings.

The Cubs also completely rebuilt their bullpen on the fly during last year’s 97-win season, acquiring Clayton Richard for a dollar from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate, signing Trevor Cahill to a minor-league deal (after he was released by the Atlanta Braves and Dodgers) and scooping up Fernando Rodney when the Seattle Mariners designated a two-time All-Star for assignment.

“You never know who that guy’s going to be,” Hoyer said. “If you stop thinking that way, you have no chance to find that guy. You always want to think like: ‘OK, who is going to be that next Andrew Miller? Who’s going to be that next Wade Davis?’”

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

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USA TODAY

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

The NL Central keeps getting better this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the Reds have traded for pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees.

The Reds have been active this offseason and adding a former all-star to their rotation would be another big step towards turning the Reds into contenders in what is shaping up to be a very tough NL Central in 2019. They already added Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers.

Gray is 29 and has a career ERA of 3.66, but isn't coming off a good year. With the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, the second-highest of his career, and didn't pitch in the postseason. The last time Gray had a bad year, he bounced back. Gray had a 5.69 ERA in 2016, the year after his breakout all-star campaign in 2015, but was solid in 2017 with the A's and Yankees.

Coming off a 95-loss season, the Reds had a long way to go, but look to be improved on paper with those additions.

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals already added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending division champion Brewers added marquee free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Meanwhile, it has been mostly crickets for the Cubs this offseason. Owner Tom Ricketts recently defended the team's financial situation, which has led to the team appearing to be less aggressive this winter.

It looks like the Cubs will face increased competition in the division this season. Will that force the team's hand to be more aggressive before spring training?

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Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader."