Cubs

Jon Lester doesn't see why throwing to Willson Contreras will be an issue

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USA TODAY

Jon Lester doesn't see why throwing to Willson Contreras will be an issue

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Who?

Jon Lester pretended he didn't know who a reporter was talking about in regards to a question about former personal catcher David Ross' upcoming spin on "Dancing with the Stars."

That's how much Lester cares — at least outwardly — about which catcher he's working with right now.

Lester made his spring debut Sunday, throwing two innings to Willson Contreras, giving up two runs on three hits with a strikeout. Lester has spent most of the last four years throwing exclusively to Ross, who is soaking up the limelight in retirement.

Last season, Lester threw three innings to Contreras across the span of two games and while the results were not encouraging — he allowed five runs on five hits and four walks — Lester believes a full spring of reps with the young catcher will help.

"Willy does a great job," Lester said. "I think it was hard on him coming in last year and not really catching a lot of guys and being a part of getting to know us and just getting thrown into the situation.

"Now we get to do a full spring with him. Obviously spring training is a little different — you don't have a scouting report, you don't have anything to go off of. You're just trying to go out there and trying to get through it and see what he feels comfortable with back there.

"I'll shake to some pitches here and there, but mainly just let him go about his deal and we'll figure it out. It's just a matter of throwing and innings and pitches and all that stuff. I'm not concerned with it at all.

"Willy's such a good kid and he cares and he wants to learn, he wants to get better. I don't see any reason why this is ever going to be an issue for anybody."

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Lester also balked at any notion of the running game emerging as a thorn in his side with Ross — who was adept at throwing out runners and fielding bunts in front of home plate, even in his age-39 season — now in the Cubs front office.

But remember: Contreras is the catcher the Cubs went to in the World Series when they wanted to slow down the Cleveland Indians' aggressive run game, as he drew every start behind the plate besides the times Ross was paired up with Lester.

"I forgot how good of an arm he's got until that throw down to second base," Lester said. "I gotta remember to get the hell out of the way. It's coming by pretty quick.

"It's definitely impressive to see him and his abilities. I don't think it will be an issue. Willy will take care of it."

As for how he feels after his first time throwing in a game since the World Series clincher, the 33-year-old lefty said he was mostly "just trying to get through it."

He felt good warming up, sitting back down and then going out for a second inning of work, mainly firing fastballs in an effort to build up arm strength/stamina again.

"I think every year is just unique," he said. "The recovery and the workouts in between, you have to stay on and make sure. When you're younger, you can skip a day here and there and think you need a breather, but when you get older, I don't think you can take that time. You just need to keep your body moving at all times.

"My arm feels fine, knock on wood. Nothing really came up last year as far as arm issues or anything like that. Just keep going forward. [Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio] has done such a good job with us this spring and hopefully that continues going forward."

Asked whether he would love to duplicate his 2016 season — arguably the best season of his 11-year career — as he works up to his Opening Day start, Lester chuckled and had a simple answer all ready:

"Hell yeah, man."

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

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.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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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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