Cubs

Jake Arrieta's future and how Cubs plan to build their rotation for 2017 and beyond

Jake Arrieta's future and how Cubs plan to build their rotation for 2017 and beyond

Even if Jake Arrieta would never admit to feeling slighted, there were times where he almost appeared to be an afterthought during a playoff run where big, bad pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber were all supposed to shut down the Cubs and end their dream season.

"Not at all," Arrieta said after beating the Cleveland Indians a second time in the World Series to force a Game 7 for the ages. "I feel like I've already proved the naysayers wrong a long time ago."

If Arrieta's historic Cy Young Award performance in 2015 set impossible standards for the encore, he still won 18 games, put up a 3.10 ERA, threw a second no-hitter and earned his first All-Star selection. He showed durability by making 31 starts and accounting for almost 200 innings, finishing first in the majors in batting average against (.194) and second in opponents' OPS (.583).

Arrieta might not be truly appreciated until after the 2017 season, when he will become a free agent and the Cubs could be faced with replacing 60 percent of their rotation. That uncertainty surrounding the pitching staff might be the fastest way to silence the giddy dynasty-building talk that will fuel Cubs Convention this weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

"We knew this day was coming," team president Theo Epstein said after making this offseason's signature move, trading a wildly talented, inconsistent extra outfielder (Jorge Soler) to the Kansas City Royals for an All-Star rental closer (Wade Davis).

"One of the reasons that we've invested heavily in position players in the draft and in the international markets and some trades we've made is because they're good bets to return value.

"We've identified a core of guys who we really believe in and have gotten here and helped us win a championship already. Those guys are going to be guys who are really hard to move. We feel like some of our prospects have a chance to join that core. But other ones, we're going to end up trading. That was part of the plan all along."

A glamorous lineup obscured the fact that the Cubs really thrived as a pitching-and-defense unit. But by Opening Day 2018, Jon Lester will be 34 years old and feeling the strain of throwing more than 2,000 innings in The Show (plus so much accumulated playoff experience that it essentially equals another season of stress on his left arm).

John Lackey is 38 years old and entering the final season of a two-year, $32 million contract. The Cubs believe the pitching infrastructure that helped transform Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist will benefit Mike Montgomery, but the 6-foot-5 lefty is still a project with only 18 big-league starts on his resume.

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Reports continue to link the Cubs to Tyson Ross — who's making a deliberate decision while recovering from surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome — with Travis Wood (last seen shirtless holding the World Series trophy at the Grant Park rally) mentioned as a possible fallback option.

Of the organization's top-10 prospects on the Baseball America list released last week, only four are pitchers and none have played above the A-ball level yet.

"That’s the nature of it," Epstein said. "You can't necessarily develop all your position players and all your pitching both homegrown. The plan all along was to take some of the position players and turn it into pitching.

"We've done a good job building a young nucleus of position players, and then finding some more established pitching, whether it's on the free-agent market or in trade. That served us well, finding a way, year to year, of putting the pitching staff together around a nucleus of position players that is going to have a nice, long run together.

"I'm not saying it's on the immediate horizon. But over the next couple years, we'll certainly make more trades where we say goodbye to some position players who are hard to part with but bring us the pitching that we need.

"A lot of that was by design. We knew coming into this winter that we didn't love the free-agent market for pitching — starting pitching especially — and we planned in advance to not have to dive too deep into these waters."

MLB Trade Rumors projects Arrieta will earn a $16.8 million salary through his final year in the arbitration system. Super-agent Scott Boras has compared Arrieta to another Cy Young Award-winning client — Max Scherzer — who two winters ago signed a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

"Our attitude is that we're open to listening to the Cubs about anything they choose to do with Jake," Boras said during the winter meetings. "Like we did last year, we'll evaluate it. Our doors are open to listen to what they have to say."

There's also a sense that Arrieta simply wants to become a free agent and experience that process — and Boras Corp.'s track record certainly points in that direction. The Cubs have a fear of long-term commitment with over-30 pitchers and a strong belief that their scouting/game-planning systems can identify and shape a next generation of arms.

The Cubs also shouldn't take aces for granted or think that they can patch together a pitching staff every season with overpays, change-of-scenery guys and rehab cases.

"My main motivation now is just to win for the 24 other guys that I have in the clubhouse with me," Arrieta said. "I know (how) much guys appreciate it when they have teammates they can count on and trust that when they're out there, they're giving it everything they got. Whether they win or lose, they're giving us their best effort and best chance to win every time they go out."

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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