Jon Lester, Edwin Jackson and a Cubs rotation that keeps rolling

Jon Lester, Edwin Jackson and a Cubs rotation that keeps rolling

SAN DIEGO – The Cubs completely whiffed in their evaluation of Edwin Jackson and still built the best rotation in baseball, one filled with Cy Young Award candidates.

Whether or not This Is The Year, the Cubs will feel confident in any October matchup, even with John Lackey (strained right shoulder) on the disabled list, reliever Rob Zastryzny (2013 second-round pick) finally becoming the first pitcher from the Theo Epstein regime’s five draft classes to play for the big-league club and Jackson on his third team since getting released last summer in the middle of a $52 million contract.

The Cubs kept rolling through this summer of great expectations with Monday night’s 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, or about a mile from the Manchester Grand Hyatt, where team executives did shots in a hotel bar to toast the $155 million Jon Lester megadeal during the 2014 winter meetings.

Lester limited a rebuilding (again) Padres team to one run across six innings, giving the Cubs 15 quality starts through 20 games this month. The rotation has gone 13-1 with a 1.89 ERA in August, making the downturn that gave Cubs fans and the Chicago media All-Star-break fodder seem like ancient history.

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Lester’s All-Star season in Year 2 (14-4, 2.81 ERA) might get more attention if Jake Arrieta (15-5, 2.75 ERA) wasn’t the National League’s defending Cy Young Award winner and Kyle Hendricks (2.16) didn’t lead the majors in ERA. Take away two bad starts – a 10-2 loss to the New York Mets and Sunday’s clunker at Coors Field – and Jason Hammel would be 13-4 with a 2.14 ERA. Not that Lester – who comes from the Lackey School of Big Boy Games and Not Coming Here for a Haircut – feels overlooked.

“I don’t really care,” Lester said. “I don’t care what’s being said or what’s being looked at or whatever. I just try to do my job. That’s all I worry about. At the end of the year – like I’ve said before – the main number for me that I’m always concerned about is 200 innings. So if that’s there, then all the other stuff is kind of gravy.”

Lester has accounted for 154 innings this year and his 20 quality starts are tied for the major-league lead with Justin Verlander and Madison Bumgarner. Not that Lester – who brought a sense of purpose and a competitive drive into this clubhouse – is satisfied with that or happy with a 100-pitch count on a night where he had bat-breaking stuff.

“I don’t really like quality starts,” Lester said. “I think it’s kind of a made-up stat that helps guys that don’t go deep into ballgames. I think quality starts should go to the seventh inning.”

Jackson – who went 16-34 with a 5.37 ERA in a Cubs uniform and whose four-year deal will finally come off the books after this season – couldn’t navigate this lineup. Jackson got through five innings and gave up five runs, including homers to Addison Russell (18), Kris Bryant (32) and Jason Heyward (after a Joe Maddon-imposed four-game mental break).

“I wasn’t here when Eddie came in, but I can understand why the guys did it,” said Maddon, who managed Jackson with the Tampa Bay Rays. “He’s got that kind of ability, man. It’s in there. There’s no question it’s in there.

“He’s had a couple really wonderful years where expectations and reality came together. But overall with him, it’s just a matter of command and where his fastball is going. Stuff-wise, athletically speaking, he is one of the better young pitcher athletes to come around in a long time.”

That never happened in Chicago. The Cubs once dreamed about Jackson’s under-30 potential, giving a long-term deal to a player who had already bounced around to seven different teams. The Cubs understood you have to take risks in the free-agent market and projected a durable right arm. The Cubs got a good clubhouse dude who’s not a front-of-the-rotation leader.

Lesson learned. In Lester, Epstein’s front office could leverage all their shared history with the Boston Red Sox – makeup, medical, big-market/championship experience – and have a much better idea of the return on that investment.

“He’s just been really rolling them out there,” Maddon said. “Game after game after game, you kind of know what to expect from him right now.”

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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