How ex-Cub Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness

How ex-Cub Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness

LOS ANGELES — Here’s how Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness to start a playoff game at Dodger Stadium against the Cubs franchise that drafted him 14 years ago.

Hill moved back home to Massachusetts after getting released from the Washington Nationals last June in the middle of his ninth season spent on the Triple-A level. At the age of 35, he started working out with his old American Legion team again, hoping it would be a pit stop on a journey he didn’t want to end.

Hill contacted Jared Porter, the director of professional scouting for the Boston Red Sox at the time who now has the same job with the Cubs. They met at Milton High School — where Hill starred before moving on to the University of Michigan — and Porter can’t even remember who caught the 6-foot-5 lefty during that workout.

But it helped redirect Hill toward Dodger Stadium, where he will stand on a historic mound on Tuesday night and face a star-studded Cubs lineup in a crucial Game 3 in this National League Championship Series.

“Rich really believed in himself,” Porter said. “He deserves all the credit.”

Hill won 11 games for the 2007 Cubs team that captured an NL Central title — and lost Game 3 during that sweep by the Arizona Diamondbacks — but until this year had never again reached 20 starts or passed the 100-inning threshold. A series of injuries stalled his career — including Tommy John surgery in 2011 — and his blister issues will absolutely be something to monitor during this tied best-of-seven series.

But Hill was still convinced that he should work as a starter and throw from a higher arm slot. Porter stood behind him and watched him throw from the first-base side of the rubber, another technique teams had encouraged as a way to create more deception as a reliever.

“The first probably 10 or 15 fastballs he threw had tons of life on them,” Porter recalled. “Everything was starting on the outer half of the zone and tailing out of the zone. With Rich, he’s never really gotten hit (hard). He’s gotten in trouble in his career when he hasn’t thrown enough strikes.

“So I was like: ‘Hey, have you ever considered moving over to the third-base side of the rubber?’

“He tried it, and all those balls that were starting in the zone and going out were now starting and staying in the zone because he had the extra foot or so. (Like now) if you watch him now on the extreme third-base side of the rubber.”

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The Red Sox agreed to track Hill as a starter for the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League before eventually signing him to a minor-league deal and plugging him into their Triple-A rotation.

“There (were) absolutely humbling parts of being in the independent league,” Hill said, “whether it was traveling from Sugar Land (Texas) on a 6 a.m. flight (or) no bathroom in the dugout and peeing in a bucket.

“Things like that you have to take into account where you’re playing the game because you love it. But it’s also perseverance that you want to continue to get back to the highest level and not give up and continue to grind.”

The Red Sox also hooked Hill up with Brian Bannister, the pitching guru who combines big-league experience with a fluency in analytics, delivering the message that you can pitch backwards and revolve everything around that curveball. Bannister’s influence had once helped turn Zack Greinke into a Cy Young Award winner with the Kansas City Royals.

Hill parlayed last season’s four quality starts for the Red Sox between Sept. 13 and Oct. 1 into a one-year, $6 million deal with the Oakland A’s. Fourteen more starts (9-3, 2.25 ERA) with the A’s got him flipped to the Dodgers at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

“I watch video,” said Ben Zobrist, the most accomplished postseason hitter in this Cubs lineup. “And when I see (Hill) pitching up there, I’m like: ‘That ball should be going a long ways.’ And guys are getting jammed or popping it up. So there must be something with his spin rate or some deception there where it kind of gets above the barrel.”

Hill threw his curveball more than 42 percent of the time this season, and these Cubs haven’t seen his new left-handed look yet. It created seven perfect innings on Sept. 10 at Marlins Park — before Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Hill while fearing the blister problem and thinking about October.

An ex-Cub who almost completely fell off the grid could have a huge impact on this NLCS.

“Every pitch is its own moment,” Hill said. “It’s really taking that cliché of pitch-to-pitch process. But that’s really what I’ve been able to do — (and) that started in Long Island when I was in independent ball.

“That mindset (carried over to) every single opportunity that I’ve had, every single outing that I’ve had. And not getting outside of that is what I believe has made me successful.”

Cubs and Rockies have reportedly discussed a 1-for-1 Kris Bryant-Nolan Arenado trade

Cubs and Rockies have reportedly discussed a 1-for-1 Kris Bryant-Nolan Arenado trade

The dust is beginning to settle Wednesday following news that third baseman Kris Bryant lost his service time grievance case against the Cubs. The case argued the Cubs purposely kept Bryant in the minor leagues to open the 2015 season to gain an extra year of control on his contract.

Bryant will remain under team control through 2021, rather than see his free agency get pushed up to next offseason. However, the outcome doesn’t end the saga; the Cubs could still move Bryant to gain young assets with an eye towards long-term sustainability.

During an appearance on NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan’s “Kap and Co." Wednesday, ESPN’s Jesse Rogers reported the Cubs and Rockies have discussed a 1-for-1 deal involving Bryant and Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado. Rogers added Colorado would pick up salary in such a deal. 

Oh my.

The Cubs have been linked to Arenado multiple times over the past month, but the logistics of a deal would be tricky. Arenado, who signed a lucrative extension last February, is owed $234 through 2026 — including $35 million annually through 2024.

All of the Cubs roster moves this winter have been budget-driven, as the club is looking to remain under the luxury tax threshold. Adding Arenado’s salary would put the Cubs well into the red. Even if Colorado picked up salary, the Cubs would have to shed money through another trade, if they truly wish to remain under the threshold.

Arenado told on Jan. 21 “There’s a lot of disrespect from people there that I don’t want to be a part of. You can quote that.” The comments came after Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich put trade talks involving the superstar to bed.

The Cubs’ motivation in this hypothetical would be cost certainty. Trading Bryant would ensure they don’t lose him for nothing — should he depart in free agency in two years — if they feel they won’t be able to extend him.

However, Arenado has an opt-out in his deal after 2021, so the Cubs could face the same fate if they acquired him.

Worth noting: ESPN’s Jeff Passan told Kaplan multiple times Wednesday Arenado would love to be a Cub. Rogers also opined he believes Bryant will be dealt, but not for Arenado.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks, and it feels like the grievance outcome is only the start of what’s to come for the North Siders. 

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Kris Bryant reportedly believes Cubs 'openly lied' during arbitration hearing

Kris Bryant reportedly believes Cubs 'openly lied' during arbitration hearing

There’s a reason why teams try to settle with players before going to arbitration. It’s a messy process that doesn’t necessarily involve being friendly to the other side.

The resulting tension from having to argue against your own player is something the Cubs are apparently dealing with in the aftermath of the Kris Bryant service-time grievance. Bryant lost the case and, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, does not sound happy with his organization.

The basis of Bryant’s case was that the Cubs were deliberate in keeping him in the minors longer just so they could have an extra year of contract control. That’s not starting from a point of good intentions.

Nightengale is reporting that the Cubs “lied to him.” Bryant “feels unwanted, underappreciated, and believes the organization openly lied during the arbitration hearing.”

In reality, none of this should be surprising. If Bryant didn’t feel like he had been wronged, he wouldn’t have filed the grievance in the first place. Once at the hearing, the sides are literally arguing against each other, which can easily lead to more contention.

Bryant may have already been on his way out of Chicago, whether via trade or eventual free agency. But reports that the former MVP is unhappy with the Cubs won’t help their chances of re-signing him.

What it does perhaps change is the Cubs' urgency to trade Bryant. Bringing back an unhappy player may not be the best way to move forward. It could hurt the market for Bryant because teams will know the Cubs are motivated to trade him. The Cubs, however, don’t necessarily need more leverage in trade talks. Multiple suitors should provide plenty of that, competing with each other to get the winning bid.

Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times has a contradictory report, with a source claiming there is "no ill will whatsoever" between Bryant and the Cubs.

The Bryant grievance case has been viewed as the key starting point for the Cubs' offseason, and it does look like the stage is now set.

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