How Cubs built a bigger and better version of last year’s NLCS team

How Cubs built a bigger and better version of last year’s NLCS team

The Cubs are a bigger, better version of the team the New York Mets swept aside in last year’s National League Championship Series, no longer just happy to be here and now fully expecting to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers this time.

“A lot of us have a sour taste in our mouth from last year,” Kris Bryant said. “We’ll be ready for it. I definitely can’t wait.”

That doesn’t guarantee the franchise’s first NL pennant since the year World War II ended, or its first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. But the Cubs upgraded a 97-win team in all phases of the game, not overreacting to that four-game sample against the Mets as much as reinforcing what they already knew.

Those young players who kept hearing how special they are – and how good this team should be for a long time – didn’t take the opportunity for granted and played with passion and focus. The media crush and every-pitch intensity won’t be intimidating or a shock to the system during Game 1 on Saturday night at Wrigley Field.

“It’s great to have that experience,” said Jason Heyward, who played on the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced from last year’s playoffs. “And not the ‘wow factor’ of doing it for the first time. And then it’s like: ‘Hey, we expect to be here.’

“Nobody’s surprised to be here.”

To get back here, the final bill for free agents came in at almost $290 million, an itemized list that had a meet-the-Mets-again feel to it.

Suffocated by New York’s power pitching, the Cubs added two switch-hitters to their lineup by winning the Ben Zobrist sweepstakes (without making the highest offer) and bringing back Dexter Fowler (in a shocking stealth-mode deal days after the you-go, we-go leadoff guy reportedly reached an agreement with the Baltimore Orioles).

Stretched thin in the rotation, the Cubs signed John Lackey – the most valuable pitcher on that St. Louis team – and can now use the two-time World Series champion as a Game 4 starter. Shaky in the outfield, the Cubs added a three-time Gold Glove winner in Heyward to change their defensive identity.

[RELATED: Cubs in 'better place' after 2015 NLCS experience]

Vulnerable in the running game, the Cubs fast-tracked Willson Contreras after only 55 games at Triple-A Iowa, promoting the dynamic catcher in the middle of June. By late July, the Cubs finalized a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees for Aroldis Chapman, giving manager Joe Maddon a game-changer like Mets closer Jeurys Familia. 

“You just look up and down,” Bryant said. “This team’s a whole lot better. Just look at each individual player and how much better we are than we were last year.

“I can say that for myself – I’m a way better player than I was last year. Look at Kyle Hendricks – unbelievable. Look at Jon Lester – he’s having a way better season than he had last year, too.

“That just gives us all the confidence in the world knowing that each individual guy in here has done something this year to get better than they were last year.”

Bryant topped his Rookie of the Year campaign with a 39-homer, 102-RBI MVP-caliber season. Hendricks went from a being a nominal fifth starter to winning the ERA title. Lester, the Game 1 starter, looked and acted far more comfortable during Year 2 of that $155 million megadeal, which might translate into a Cy Young Award.  

Addison Russell – who didn’t make last year’s NLCS roster while dealing with a strained hamstring – became a 21-homer, 95-RBI All-Star shortstop at the age of 22. Javier Baez, who looked rattled at times while filling in for Russell against the Mets, became the breakout star of this year’s NL Division Series, delivering big hits, making spectacular defensive plays and getting under the skin of the San Francisco Giants.  

“It’s hard to focus in the postseason with the loudness of the fans, but I’ve been working on slowing the game down,” Baez said. “That has been big for me (since) I was coming up to the big leagues. Now, I’m really good at it. Obviously, there’s still a little pressure and nerves. But you still have to play the game and keep slowing it down.”

In a hypothetical best-of-seven series between the 2015 Cubs and the 2016 version, Bryant said, “We’d crush that team.” Now let’s see if these Cubs can handle another playoff-tested cast featuring Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzalez.

“Expectations and pressure,” Maddon said, “that’s the baseball fossil fuel right there.

“My initial message to the boys was: Why would you ever want to be in a situation that doesn’t require a little bit of pressure added to it, or expectations? I would not want to go into a season having zero expectations and zero pressure applied to you because you’re going to finish fourth or fifth in a division. I mean, that’s a bad way to live.

“Listen, if you hear the word pressure, you got to run toward it. That’s a good thing. That means we’re good and something good is attached to it.”

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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