Cubs

Cubs keep hunting with Keppinger off the board

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Cubs keep hunting with Keppinger off the board

NASHVILLE, Tenn. The Cubs have been locked inside their suite here at the Opryland Hotel. They arent going to do anything for show or on someone elses timeline.

As general manager Jed Hoyer said Wednesday: I dont think you have to walk out of here with deer antlers.

This was the day after manager Dale Sveum shrugged off his Dick Cheney Moment quail hunting with Robin Yount in Arizona and hours after the Cubs lost out on Jeff Keppinger and Eric Chavez. Even if neither player was a huge trophy, theyre still looking for a third baseman.

Keppinger has bounced around six teams the past nine years and is recovering from a broken right fibula after falling down the stairs at his house. The Cubs still had confidence that he would be ready to go by spring training. He wound up taking a three-year, 12 million offer from the White Sox.

Chavez who was more of a secondary target grabbed a one-year, 3 million deal from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Its unclear where the Cubs will go from here. Kevin Youkilis isnt a fit. Yunel Escobar didnt want to move from shortstop to third base. There doesnt appear to be interest in Casey McGehee or Yuniesky Betancourt.

Its a super-charged market in a lot of different areas, Hoyer said. Were still on the lookout. We have a number of irons still in the fire when it comes to third base and were confident well land someone we feel good about. But its certainly a position of scarcity. Theres no question.

The Cubs flew into Nashville, Tenn., having already signed two starting pitchers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman and a potential closer in Kyuji Fujikawa, who could be introduced later this week. They have offers out to other free agents and are waiting for answers. Nate Schierholtz agreed to a one-year deal on Wednesday night and looks like your new rightfielder.

The Cubs have roughly 60 million committed to 10 players for next season, plus arbitration figures for Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, which still leaves a lot of open space in the budget.

Were certainly going to spend all the money we have to spend, Hoyer said. If we cant find wise ways to spend money, well hold it, and find wise ways in the next 12 months. I thought the Dodgers were a really good example of that in some ways. They had their offseason in August. Were not going to go on a binge just because we have money to spend.

The Cubs remain in contact with Ian Stewart, who was non-tendered last week and is exploring his options as a free agent. The third baseman fell off the radar after undergoing wrist surgery last summer and stayed away from the team while doing his rehab. That shouldnt be an issue now.

We feel like we have a good relationship with him at this point, Hoyer said. He went through a tough time with his wrist and I can understand that. We have no issues with how he comported himself.

Theres been a lot of talk this week about recruiting free agents to Chicago, whether or not they want to be part of rebuilding a 101-loss team. The city, the stadium, the restaurants, the nightlife thats all nice. But the bottom line is almost always years and dollars.

You try to be patient, Hoyer said. Its not a sexy thing to talk about being patient but Ill feel a lot better about that than I will about making a big splash on someone (youre not sure) about. Youre probably going to regret that move more than you will keeping your powder dry a little bit and maybe finding a more prudent way to spend it.

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

Sound the alarm, the Cubs’ bullpen issues are back. 

Friday afternoon’s culprits were Brad Brach and Steve Cishek, who together allowed three earned runs on five hits over 2.2 innings of work in the Cubs’ 6-5 loss. It was the second blown save of the season for both pitchers. 

“I was locked in today, I really was,” Cishek said. “It was just a lack of execution. I’m not going to make any excuses.” 

After spending much of the last six weeks being one of baseball’s most reliable groups, the Cubs’ bullpen has hit a rough patch of late. Over the last two weeks, only the Red Sox have more blown saves than Chicago. In that span they rank 21st in ERA, 16th in FIP, and most foreboding of all, 4th in BB%. 

“The last couple times around we’ve had shorter outings from our starters, and I think that’s kind of caused us to use them more recently,” Joe Maddon said. “But they’re fine. They’re fine. It’s just one of those days, man.” 

It’s true that the Cubs’ bullpen is still relatively fresh; they’ve pitched 168.2 innings in 2019, more than only eight other teams. Over the last two weeks, however, they’ve pitched 48.2 innings - which is 8th most in the league. They came into Friday’s game shorthanded, as Maddon noted that they were looking to avoid using Brandon Kintzler, Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Chatwood, and Kyle Ryan. 

“[Cishek] probably didn’t have a full tank,” Maddon said. “Probably ¾ maybe. So the stuff wasn’t as clean or crisp.”

Cishek declined to comment about how energy he felt he had on Friday. Only Tyler Chatwood has thrown more relief innings than Cishek over the last week, and both Chatwood and Kintzler rank among the top-20 most-used relievers going back to mid-May. 

“Those guys always get it done,” Kyle Hendricks said. “They’ve been being used a lot in the last few days, so they can’t come in every time and get the job done. But they’re making their pitches, and attacking, and there’s nothing more you can ask for. We know they’re going to be there for us, and they have been all year.”

Late innings have been especially difficult to navigate over the last few series. After the two blown saves today, the Cubs are now 9-for-20 in save situations on the year. There are internal reinforcements coming, though, as Pedro Strop is close to returning from his hamstring injury. 

“It’s more experienced guys coming back into the fold,” Maddon said. “Guys that have done that.

“When Strop comes back, then all these guys get pushed back. It’s just lengthens your bullpen. It lengthens it. By having him there, with what he’s able to do in the last inning or two. Stropy will lengthen us out.”

And while the noise to go get another proven reliever grows, and the date that signing Craig Kimbrel without losing a draft pick nears, the Cubs are confident that a few rough outings from a good group, going through a tough stretch, is no reason to panic. 

“I still think we’re in a good spot,” Cishek said. “As the fans ride the roller coaster, we do too. There’s ups and downs throughout the long season. We started off slow, then we rode a hot streak for a long time. It’s going to happen again, we’re going to be fine.”

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

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USA TODAY

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

There’s no one reason that you could point to that explains why the Cubs have gone 27-12 since their horrid first road trip. You could point to Javy Baéz’s continuous star turn, or the rotation exceeding even the loftiest expectations so far. You could point to Kris Bryant’s healthy shoulder, or Brandon Kintzler’s sinker -- like plenty of people have -- and you’d be right. What’s gone under-discussed, at least in the eyes of some, is just how good the Cubs’ outfield defense has been.

“Who doesn’t love defense?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier in the week. “This group here, when everyone’s on the field and the really good defenders are out there, it’s as tight as I’ve had. The difference being I think is that the outfield defense has gotten better in the last couple years here.”

The numbers back it up. MLB keeps a statistic called Outs Above Average (OAA) that tries to convey just how good an outfielder is vs. replacement level. For the Cubs, Albert Almora is doing much of the heavy lifting, as the center fielder is worth 4 OOA -- good for 4th best in baseball -- on his own. Jason Heyward is holding is own with 2 OOA so far, and Kyle Schwarber continues to struggle (-2 OOA). As a team, here’s how many Outs Above Average the Cubs have been worth since they started keeping track in 2016:

2016: 22 (2nd)
2017: - 7 (20th)
2018: 0 (14th)
2019, so far: 4 (6th)

“I think we’ve got a lot of great athletes on our team,” Almora said. “We’re playmakers and I think we have a great coaching staff that puts us in the right spots.”

Another useful metric that Statcast keeps track of is called Directional OOA. Basically, MLB designates six directions (front right/middle/left and back right/middle/left) and gauges which direction certain teams and fielders are best at running. Almora, at least this year, has been strongest running in and left:

That was on display yet again on Friday, when Almora broke in and left to rob Derek Dietrich in the second inning:

When asked, Almora admitted that he was surprised to learn that, instead thinking that he was better in and to the right. He’s not wrong, either: in each of the previous three seasons, Almora’s finished with the most OOA coming in and to the right.

“I think most [routes] are pretty instinctual to me,” he said. “I kind of sell out when it’s a little runner. Sometimes I dive and don’t get to it because in my mind I’m programmed to where, if it’s hit to me, I’ve got to catch it.”

Heyward, on the other hand, has been stronger to his right his year:

“I just think it’s about your position” Heyward added. “You can say someone is really good at one thing, but if they don’t get as many plays to this way, or that way, you don’t really know.

One interesting wrinkle about the Cubs’ outfield is that neither Schwarber, Almora or Heyward have been worth an Out Above Average going straight backwards, and generally haven’t been great going backwards in any direction. One explanation? Between an unforgiving brick wall and the outward-jetting net that sits on top of it, robbing homers basically isn’t possible at Wrigley. Knowing that drastically changes the read on fly balls.

“You know you’re not going to go back as hard,” Heyward said. “If someone hits the ball over your head, most likely it’s going to be a double if it’s off the wall. There’s definitely differences between here and and the next place.”

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