Cubs

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

As the Cubs prepare for the winter meetings outside Washington, D.C., their messaging might as well be: It’s the pitching, stupid.

This is an arms race that will never end, the Cubs trying to defend their first World Series title in 108 years, build out a bullpen that looked pretty thin by November and target the kind of young starter who could help anchor their rotation for years to come, ensuring Wrigleyville remains baseball’s biggest party.

The Cubs signed Brian Duensing to a one-year, $2 million contract on Friday, placing a small bet on a lefty specialist who spent parts of last season on the Triple-A level but made a good enough impression during his 13-plus innings with the Baltimore Orioles.

As executives, scouts, agents and reporters begin to flood into National Harbor on Sunday, the Cubs will intensify their search for pitching, everything from headliners to insurance policies to prospects.

“That’s been the significant bulk of our efforts,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “It’s definitely not going to be through lack of trying on our part to make that kind of deal. That’s now. That’s at the deadline.”  

The Cubs are preparing for Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta will probably be in a different uniform after signing his megadeal, John Lackey might be kicking back in Texas and enjoying retirement and Jon Lester will be 34 years old with maybe 2,300 innings on his odometer. 

The Cubs have unwavering faith in their pitching infrastructure at the major-league level, from the scouting and analytic perspectives that identified the right sign-and-flip deals during the rebuilding years to the coaching staff that helped mold Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist and a World Series Game 7 starter.

Mike Montgomery notched the final out against the Cleveland Indians and the Cubs see him as their next big project. The lefty checks so many of their boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to pedigree (former first-round pick/top prospect) to the change-of-scenery confidence boost/mental reset.

Forget about the White Sox trading Chris Sale to the North Side and don’t just think about obvious names or trade partners. Maybe it’s making a deal for a guy you never heard of before and sifting through the non-tender bin. (As expected, the Cubs offered contracts to arbitration-eligible pitchers Arrieta, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm before Friday’s deadline. Their 40-man roster stands at 35 after non-tendering lefties Gerardo Concepcion and Zac Rosscup, right-hander Conor Mullee and infielder Christian Villanueva.)

Remember how team president Theo Epstein framed the Montgomery trade with the Seattle Mariners this summer – comparing him to All-Star reliever Andrew Miller – and that gives you an idea of how they can address their pitching deficit this winter. 

“If your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you’re willing to take a shot – sometimes there’s a big payoff at the end,” Epstein said.   

While the Cubs did Jason Hammel a favor by cutting him loose and allowing him to explore the market as one of the best pitchers in an extremely weak class of free agents, Montgomery has only 23 big-league starts on his resume. 

[SHOP CUBS: Get your World Series champions gear right here]

The Cubs had five starters make at least 29 starts this year, while four starters accounted for 30-plus starts in 2015, a remarkable run that led to 200 wins.

“As we’ve talked about so many times,” Hoyer said, “we do have an imbalance in our organization – hitting vs. pitching – and we’re trying to make sure we can accumulate as much pitching depth as possible. 

“We were very healthy this year, which was wonderful and a big part of why we won the World Series. I don’t think you can always count on that kind of health every single year. Building up a reservoir of depth – preferably guys you can option (to the minors) – is something (we’re trying) to accomplish.”  

The Cubs have Jorge Soler stuck in a crowded outfield plus the types of interesting prospects who appear to be blocked – catcher Victor Caratini, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, infielder/outfielder Ian Happ – to make relatively painless trades for pitching (if not the kind of blockbuster deal that dominates coverage of the winter meetings).

Lefty reliever Brett Cecil getting a four-year, $30.5 million deal and no-trade protection from the St. Louis Cardinals became another sign of how shallow this free-agent pool is for starting pitchers and a reflection of a postseason where the bullpen became a major storyline.

The idea of Kenley Jansen intrigues the Cubs – and Aroldis Chapman made a favorable impression during his three-plus months with the team – but Epstein’s front office already made the major upgrades for 2017 by spending nearly $290 million on free agents after the 2015 playoff run. Philosophically, the Cubs also see smarter long-term investments than trying to win a bidding war for a guy who might throw 70 innings a year. 

With that in mind, the Cubs could get creative and have looked at free agent Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer with the Kansas City Royals who didn’t pitch this year after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.  

Remember that Chapman left the New York Yankees and joined a team that had a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. If Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. can’t handle the late shifts, then the Cubs could always go out and trade for another closer in the middle of a pennant race.    

The Cubs have the luxuries of time, zero pressure from ownership, their fan base or the Chicago media and a stacked, American League-style lineup. 

“Right now, we could go play from an offensive standpoint and feel very good about our group,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to still continue to look to improve the depth in our bullpen, improve the depth in our starting rotation. Those are things that probably never go away. You probably never stop trying to build that depth.” 

7 Cubs takeaways from the MLB Winter Meetings

7 Cubs takeaways from the MLB Winter Meetings

The Cubs didn't leave Las Vegas with a new superstar to add to their lineup or even a new arm for Joe Maddon's bullpen.

In fact, the Cubs are actually heading back to Chicago with one fewer person in the organization than they began the week, as bench coach Brandon Hyde is expected to be officially announced as the Baltimore Orioles' new manager soon. 

However, the Cubs front office insist they had a productive week even if they don't have any moves to point to.

Part of that production, apparently, is the organization's desire to improve communication with all their millennial players. So much so that Maddon is actually reading a book called "Managing Millennials for Dummies" and that's not a joke. 

But it's not just that. Theo Epstein's front office is trying to find ways to help all their young players develop and improve and digest the insane amount of information baseball teams have at their disposal nowadays. 

Here are 7 other takeaways from the 2018 Winter Meetings:

1. Yawwwnnnn

The 2018 Winter Meetings had the potential to be the most exciting December event yet with Bryce Harper — maybe the biggest free agent ever — possibly announcing what team he was going to spend the next decade of his life with while in his hometown of Las Vegas.

Instead, the Meetings wound up becoming the baseball version of the sloth from "Zootopia."

Case in point:

Take away waiver moves and that's only 6 free agent signings, 3 trades and the release of Troy Tulowitzki. Over what has historically been a week filled with a mind-bending flurry of deals.

That's...something.

Now, there were more moves on Thursday (including the Brewers' trade for a reliever) and there are still deals that have yet to be made official (including Hyde becoming the new Orioles manager), but this is as slow as it gets.

Even Cubs GM Jed Hoyer acknowledged the snail's pace of the market:

"The dialogue has been good for the whole industry, I just think it's been slow," Hoyer said Wednesday evening. "I think sometimes, it probably takes a couple deals to break the ice and it hasn't happened yet."

2. Maybe that means it's time for a change in how we approach MLB's offseason.

Baseball is the only major American sport with an offseason market that truly lasts months. In the NFL and NBA, most deals are done in the first day or two once free agency is open while MLB teams can be talking and negotiating from the first week of November all the way until early March (as we saw last spring). Even trades take a long time to come together. 

Former MLB GM Jim Bowden threw out an idea on Twitter at the end of the meetings and honestly, it's an interesting thought:

The other American professional sports leagues don't have trade deadlines in their respective offseasons, but they don't have the same issue of slow-moving markets, either.

Maybe MLB should take one or two weeks in early January as the official "offseason" where that's the only time moves can be made. That would allow teams plenty of time to prepare for their offseason, give everybody the holidays off in both November and December and then also still leave plenty of time for players to get acquainted with their new teams.

The free agenty market crept along at a record-breaking slow pace last winter and the 2018-19 offseason somehow seems to be surpassing that.

MLB has a problem with a lack of action during games with fewer balls being put in play than ever before and now the league has a problem with a lack of action during the offseason, too.

3. The relief market could eventually start moving quickly, which is good for the Cubs.

While the market has been slow to date, we may soon see a flood of moves in one particular area — bullpen additions.

In the wee hours on the morning of the final day of the Winter Meetings, a few relievers finally started to come off the market with Joe Kelly going to the Dodgers and Jeurys Familia headed back to the Mets.

That's good news for the Cubs, who are absolutely looking for another reliever or two this winter. But Theo Epstein and Hoyer will not be shopping at the top of the bullpen market (more on that later), so they had to see how things played out before truly jumping into the pool.

As more of the top relievers come off the board, expect the Cubs to make a move or two to add more arms to compete for high-leverage spots in Joe Maddon's bullpen.

We could even see a move before the week is over, but maybe that's just wishful thinking...

4. Maybe the trade market could be a better avenue for the Cubs this winter.

We've already talked a lot about the slow-moving market, but it's also understandable. In the history of the sport, we've never seen anything like two of the best players in the sport available on the open market at the same time in the midst of their prime (age 26). 

So until Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign, free agency is still going to be held hostage by those two guys given the amount of money they're about to command. 

That means we've actually seen quite a few trades this winter...thanks to Jerry Dipoto. The Mariners GM has been wheeling and dealing like a fantasy baseball owner this winter and even made a trade with the Indians and Rays Thursday from his hospital bed. (Which, ironically, was the first Winter Meetings move made from a hospital bed since Cubs GM Jim Hendry signed Ted Lilly in 2006.)

The Cubs haven't made any moves yet on either front, but with such an active trade market over the last few weeks, maybe that's the avenue Epstein and Co. utilize to add to the roster or free up some payroll. 

It certainly doesn't seem like the Cubs will be outbidding many teams on the free agent market...

5. Either the Cubs are serious about their budget constraints or they deserve Oscars.

The Epstein family already has an Academy Award (Theo's grandfather, Philip, wrote "Casablanca") and they should add another if the Cubs somehow shock the world and sign Harper this winter.

Over the last 6 weeks, Epstein and Hoyer have maintained a lack of payroll flexibility at every turn. If this is all a smokescreen or an act to throw competitors and agents off, then they seriously deserve an Oscar. 

Don't put all the blame on Jason Heyward and his $184 million contract for that, either. Sure, all the money he's owed over the next 5 years is a huge factor, but there are so many other reasons, too. 

Chief among them is the failures of last offseason, as Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow are combining to eat up a huge chunk of payroll while entering 2019 as major question marks and forcing Epstein's front office to pick up the $20 million option on Cole Hamels to boost the rotation.

The money issues continue to make it seem as if the Cubs will have a quiet offseason and will spend most of their time trying to improve from within.

6. The NL Central is going to be the best division in baseball in 2019.

The Reds were one of the most active teams in the rumor front this week, even if the only major move they pulled off was trading for pitcher Tanner Roark. 

Cincinnati has been competing for the worst record in the division the last few years, but they sure seem like they want to form a new narrative and are exhausting every avenue to try to improve a pitching staff that has ranked among the league's worst recently.

That means there are currently zero teams rebuilding or "retooling" or tanking in the NL Central which is the only division in baseball that can make that claim.

7. Chicago baseball could be very fun in 2019 and beyond.

People seem to forget the 2005 World Series championship a surprising amount, but make no mistake — the White Sox are not under the radar any longer.

The South Siders have been listed as the "frontrunner" for the services of Harper this winter and they were linked to just about every available player this week at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. 

The White Sox have money, young talent, one of the best farm systems in the game and clearly seem motivated to join the ranks of baseball's contenders sooner rather than later.

All told — this could shape up to be a fun next few years in Chicago baseball...especially if the Sox can somehow land Harper or Machado.

Cubs stat mailbag: The best pinch-hitting seasons in team history

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USA TODAY

Cubs stat mailbag: The best pinch-hitting seasons in team history

Welcome to the first installment of my Cubs stat mailbag. My mailbag will tackle stat, trivia and history-based questions. I figured I’d try something different. Who knows, maybe I’ll do one of these each month. Thanks to everyone who reached out to ask questions. Let’s get started.

@DrCubColclasure asks:

Which Cubs Pitcher of All-Time is the Oldest to Record a Strikeout in a Cubs Uniform?

Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm. At age 48 years, 61 days on Sept. 25, 1970, Wilhelm struck out the Phillies’ Don Money to end the seventh inning. Wilhelm appeared in only three games for the Cubs and that was his only strikeout.

@PassonJim asks:

After Miñoso gets in the Hall of Fame, will Stan Hack be next on your list of players to support for Cooperstown? #AskKamka

No. Dick Allen is next, so let me address who the next former Cub could be. One could argue for Sammy Sosa, but I feel no matter how good a case I might present, it all hinges on a voter’s stance on the PED question, so I’ll pass. I think constructing a case for Rick Reuschel might be fun… but I think if I were to choose a former Cub to campaign for, it might be the Crime Dog, Fred McGriff. One of the National League’s finest first basemen for a long time.

@bleedcubbieblue asks:

Tommy La Stella set the #Cubs record for pinch hits in a season in 2018. He broke a record shared by Thad Bosley & Dave Clark. Who are the next 10 (or so) players on the #Cubs single season PH list? #AskKamka

I used the baseball-reference.com play index for recent seasons, and for the older seasons I relied on a great SABR article on pinch hitters. With everything I had to work with, here’s the list to the best of my ability.

Most Pinch Hits in a season, Cubs history

24 Tommy La Stella. 2018

20 Dave Clark, 1997

20 Thad Bosley, 1985

17 Jim Bolger, 1957

17 Merritt Ranew, 1963

17 Bob Will, 1962

16 Thad Bosley, 1986

16 Jesus Figueroa, 1980

16 Babe Twombly, 1921 (the SABR article says 15, but his gamelog says 16)

15 Champ Summers, 1975

15 Frank Baumholtz, 1955

14 Albert Almora Jr., 2017

14 Blake DeWitt, 2011

14 Dwight Smith, 1992

14 Chick Tolson, 1926

@Vndr3w_ asks:

Didn’t Derrek Lee set the record for most home runs with the fewest RBIs in a season? I swear i heard that somewhere.

No. Lee had 107 RBIs with 46 home runs in his fabulous 2005 season, which is 2.326 RBI for each home run (107 divided by 46). Only once has a Cub ever had at least 10 home runs in a season with fewer than twice as many RBI as home runs. That’s Kyle Schwarber with 30 HR, 59 RBI (1.967 RBI/HR) in 2017. And even that’s not a record. Here’s a chart with the fewest RBI per home run in a season, for minimum 10, 20 and 30 home runs:

Lowest season ratios of RBI to HR, MLB history

Players with at least 10 HR in a season: Wayne Gross (1985) 11 HR, 18 RBI, 1.636 RBI/HR ratio

Players with at least 20 HR in a season: Matt Olson (2017) 24 HR, 45 RBI, 1.875 RBI/HR ratio

Players with at least 30 HR in a season: Barry Bonds (2001) 73 HR, 137 RBI, 1.877 RBI/HR ratio

@PrazMaster asks:

At 2-0 all-time in the month of November, are the Cubs the only team in the 4 major sports leagues that is undefeated in a singular month over the course of an entire franchise history? #AskKamka

They are not. In baseball alone, the Cubs (2-0) are joined by the Astros (1-0), Royals (1-0) and Giants (1-0) in the “undefeated in November” club. The Cubs are the only one in this group with multiple wins though.

@maddon4prez asks:

Late last year, the #Cubs had 4 LHP in their starting rotation (Lester, Q, Monty & Hamels). I don’t recall that ever happening before on the north side. Was it the first time? #AskKamka

There had been a few times throughout history where the Cubs had four consecutive starts by lefties, but there were always spot starters mixed in. Once Cole Hamels joined the mix in August, it was the first time the Cubs ever had four lefties in a regular rotation.

@mikewiz1 asks:

#askkamka What was the Cubs record (and runs per game) last year with pitcher batting 8th vs 9th?

The 2018 Cubs had 153 games in which the starting pitcher batted. While they had a better record when the pitcher hit eighth, they scored over a run more per game when the pitcher hit ninth. In my opinion, I think it’s a coincidence; I don’t think the spot in the batting order could possibly account for anywhere near a run scored per game. Either way, here are the numbers:

Pitcher batting 8th: 32-22 (.593), 3.96 runs/game

Pitcher batting 9th: 57-42 (.576), 5.06 runs/game

 

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