Cubs

Cubs prospect Dan Vogelbach can't worry about the DH or Anthony Rizzo

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Cubs prospect Dan Vogelbach can't worry about the DH or Anthony Rizzo

You know the baseball world is going stir-crazy when a new story pops up almost hourly about whether or not the designated hitter will - or should - come to the National League.

With less than a month until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, the DH debate rages on, with Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred clarifying his comments this week and admitting pitchers will still be hitting in the NL for the foreseeable future.

That can't be the news Dan Vogelbach wanted to hear. Not if he still has dreams about breaking into the big leagues with the Cubs.

[RELATED - How Cubs rebuilt their pitching staff without a David Price]

Vogelbach has to keep improving and would need either a trade or an Anthony Rizzo injury to eventually find his way into a big-league lineup spot. There's no other way around it until the DH comes to the NL.

"Quite frankly, I can't worry about that type of stuff," Vogelbach said during Cubs Convention earlier this month. "I'm just going to continue to play first base and be the best first baseman that I can and learn from Rizzo.

"Obviously, Rizzo is the first baseman of the Chicago Cubs and that's not going to change. So I can't worry about what he does or how he performs. I can only worry about what I do. So if [the DH] opens up, that's another chance and another bat in the lineup. But right now, I'm just going to continue to try to be the best first baseman I can be."

Rizzo is only 26, a two-time All-Star and under team control through the 2021 season. And Vogelbach hasn't forced the issue yet, reaching the Double-A level for the first time in 2015 before missing a month-and-a-half with a torn oblique.

Vogelbach said he's 100 percent healthy and ready for what figures to be a pivotal year in his development. Now 23, he hasn't really shown off the kind of power the Cubs expected when they drafted him in the second round in 2011, 59 spots after Jim Hendry's front office took Javier Baez with the ninth overall pick.

In five minor-league seasons, Vogelbach has hit 60 home runs, or roughly one every 25 at-bats. It hasn’t quite been the light-tower power he was known for during his high school days in Florida.

But Vogelbach has proven he’s more than just a power hitter, putting up a career .382 on-base percentage in the minors with 239 walks and only 292 strikeouts in 411 games.

In some ways, Vogelbach resembles Rizzo as a left-handed hitter. That's by design.

"The way Rizzo hits, he's not scared to go to two strikes," Vogelbach said. "He knows when he needs to hit and when he can let it go to hit a home run.

"That's the stuff that I look at. Everybody hits differently, but when it comes down to it, approach-wise is how you're going to hit and how you're going to be successful."

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs spent big this winter (and won't be major players next offseason)]

Vogelbach talked about understanding the situation, how swinging for the fences in a tie game with a runner on second and two outs is silly when a single can give his team the lead.

Vogelbach is an intense competitor, the type of guy who hates to lose and won't try to hide it. But he prefers a quiet approach when putting in the work.

"I'm not big on asking questions," Vogelbach said. "I just like to watch [Rizzo], how he battles with two strikes, how he doesn't do too much. That's why, every single year, he hits for a high average and his on-base percentage is so high.

"And that's what I pride myself in. I get to watch him and the way he takes pitches the other way. He doesn't chase pitches and that's the way I like to be."

It would make sense if Vogelbach returned to Tennessee to begin this season before making the jump to Triple-A Iowa. He is listed at 6-foot, 250 pounds on his Baseball-Reference page but looks more streamlined now. He also heard all the Kyle Schwarber comparisons throughout Cubs Convention weekend.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

"Coming out of high school, I was obviously overweight and I wasn't in shape," Vogelbach said. "In high school, you can get away with anything. So coming here, they had a plan for me and basically told me I didn't have a choice.

"So I took that to heart. I have to do whatever I can to play. That was the first step. I had to change my eating habits. I worked out a lot more and kind of made it a lifestyle.

"Since losing weight that year, it's really helped me in every aspect of the game. I'm healthy, I feel good and I'm ready for the season."

Stay tuned to see if that means wearing a Cubs uniform or becoming part of a bigger trade for pitching.

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."