Cubs

Dexter Fowler announced his return to Wrigley Field by rekindling his bromance with Anthony Rizzo

Dexter Fowler announced his return to Wrigley Field by rekindling his bromance with Anthony Rizzo

Forget Bryzzo.

The Anthony Rizzo-Dexter Fowler bromance took center stage at Wrigley Field Friday afternoon. 

They don't have a sweet nickname though. Maybe "Fowzo"? "Rizler"? "Dexzo"?

Either way, Rizzo and Fowler couldn't help but show their appreciation for each other Friday afternoon as they basked in the joy from their separate ring ceremonies.

The day after getting engaged, Rizzo gave out his second ring in a 24-hour span when he presented Fowler with the World Series bling in front of home plate roughly 23 minutes before Fowler deposited John Lackey's sixth offering deep into the right field bleachers.

Fowler knew Rizzo was proposing Thursday evening and after it happened, he texted the face of the Cubs and said, "Good thing you practiced giving out rings."

Rizzo and Kris Bryant — aka the second-most popular baseball bromance (for one day, at least) — visited Fowler in his hotel room (he hadn't yet found a permanant home) in St. Louis early in the season and the former Cubs leadoff man asked how big the championship ring was.

"[Rizzo] took a glass of water and put it on my hand," Fowler laughed.

When fireworks went off at sunset over Lake Michigan Thursday night, Fowler knew it was for Rizzo's engagement, but still sent a text anyways asking if the fireworks were actually for his return to Chicago.

In celebrating Fowler, the Cubs captured how close he and Rizzo were — unleashing an onslaught of bro-hugs between the two in the one-minute Fowler tribute video before the ring ceremony:

The Wrigley crowd gave Fowler a standing ovation, fulfilling the prediction one reporter made when saying Fowler may be one of the only Cardinals players the Cubs faithful cheered.

"That's awesome," Fowler said. "That's good to hear. We did something that hasn't been done for a while."

The 2017 Cubs are still trying to find their way ... without Fowler atop the lineup as the steady "you go, we go" presence.

The 31-year-old centerfielder was asked several times about how his former team is currently underperforming without the .367 on-base percentage he posted in two years with the Cubs. 

Of course, Fowler took the high road, content with his decision to sign a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Cardinals in the offseason.

"It's all hindsight," Fowler said. "You never know if I was in there if [the struggles] would've happened. To think about that would be kind of selfish.

"It's a good team over there. I'm sure they'll figure it out. ... Every team goes through a rut, but that's why we play 162 games. I'm sure they'll snap out of it sometime."

Fowler said he still chats often with Rizzo and Jason Heyward plus the retired backup catcher-turned-author-turned-dancer-turned-ESPN-analyst David Ross. 

Back when Fowler strolled across the back fields at Cubs Park in spring training 2016, he said had unfinished business he needed to attend to with the Cubs.

Now that that's been "finished," he is ready to move on.

"[Those are] memories that you'll never lose," Fowler said. "It's all a blur. You look back at the video and it starts coming back to you. It'll be good to get [that chapter] closed."

As for Rizzo, he's ready to start a new chapter in his life.

When asked how he's feeling post-engagement, Rizzo said he's "relieved." He didn't lose the ring or drop it in the lake and his girlfriend, Emily, was "totally surprised, which is what I wanted."

A reporter asked Rizzo if he has a date yet.

"A date? Yeah, it's June 2," Rizzo quipped. "We're in no rush."

Asked before the game if he had any advice for his newly-engaged friend, Fowler just flashed his iconic smile and said simply:

"Yeah, he better be ready to give me MY ring."

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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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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