The domino effect from Cubs adding Aroldis Chapman to playoff bullpen

The domino effect from Cubs adding Aroldis Chapman to playoff bullpen

The domino effect from the Aroldis Chapman trade would push Hector Rondon into an eighth-inning role, knock Pedro Strop into earlier setup situations and propel the Cubs through October.

“When it first happened, my goodness, this was like bullpen utopia,” said Joe Maddon, an outside-the-box manager who would signal for the superstar closer to face the best hitters in the most crucial moments.

Except the Cubs live in an imperfect world, rationalizing Chapman’s 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy to start this season because he’s a left-hander with 100-mph velocity and unbelievable athletic gifts.

The Cubs made that blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees on July 25, believing Chapman could change the shape of three postseason series and help them win 11 playoff games before cashing in as a free agent.

Two weeks later, Strop tore the meniscus in his left knee. Nine days after that, the Cubs placed Rondon on the disabled list with a sore right triceps. Chapman preferred to work one inning at a time instead of getting four-out saves. A team that would finish with a plus-252 run differential can only create so many pressure-packed situations. A 103-win season saw the Cubs clinch the National League Central by the middle of September.

Now the Cubs will flip the switch on Friday night at Wrigley Field and see if their bullpen can overpower the San Francisco Giants in this best-of-five series.

“That’s an unknown right now,” Maddon admitted. “That was kind of a comforting thought from a bullpen perspective, but we didn’t get a chance to really run through that.

“I have a lot of confidence and faith in these guys, but we got to get them out there and do that. That’s going to be interesting.”

Those injuries to Strop and Rondon allowed Justin Grimm (4.10 ERA) and Carl Edwards Jr. (3.75 ERA) to gain confidence and experience and show off their swing-and-miss stuff (117 strikeouts in 88-plus innings).

To get ready for the playoffs, Strop (2.85 ERA, 21 holds) made four scripted appearances within the last 10 days of the regular season. Rondon – a 30-save closer last season – gave up eight runs and 13 hits in nine appearances since coming off the disabled list.

“The high-leverage bullpen dudes like that moment,” Maddon said. “They want that adrenaline flow, so maybe we didn’t see them as well as we could possibly see them in those moments.

“They’re still going to be put in those moments now. We’re going to find out. You may have to be less patient with that moment. In other words, you might have to have somebody backing him up, even from the first pitch they throw in a particular inning, because you just don’t know. They haven’t had that normal level of work.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs still have an edge with Chapman, a player the Giants tried to acquire around the trade deadline, leaving them with a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves. The Cubs were 21 games over .500 when they finalized the Chapman deal, knowing they could maximize the closer by accounting for all the off-days built into the postseason schedule, their best starting pitchers working deeper into playoff games and a manager known for pushing the right bullpen buttons.

Already the bullpens factored prominently into both wild-card games, with Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter getting torched for not using Zach Britton in an 11-inning loss to the Toronto Blue Jays and the Giants waiting out Noah Syndergaard before winning with Conor Gillaspie’s three-run homer off New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia in the ninth inning.

“It was a different trade season for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Because we were in first place, we felt like we had a really good chance to win the division and we were not looking at the one-game playoff. We were looking at a playoff series. It’s been shown – when the Giants had those three (World Series) teams, they had great bullpens (in 2010, 2012 and 2014).

“Even the way the Mets used Familia last year, he was kind of their eighth- and ninth-inning guy in one, and they used him as a real weapon.”

The Cubs envision Chapman (career average: 15.1 strikeouts per nine innings) giving them a psychological advantage, getting in the Giants’ heads and making them believe this isn’t a nine-inning game anymore.

At full strength, the Cubs believe this group can be just as good as the bullpen the Kanas City Royals deployed during last year’s run to a World Series title.

“That’s what we’re hoping for,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “We got to do it on the field. (And) I really like our chances if we can just give them those opportunities.”

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


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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