Cubs

Kyle Schwarber damages Wrigley video board as order is restored in Cubs universe

Kyle Schwarber damages Wrigley video board as order is restored in Cubs universe

This is an oversimplification. And sometimes only the loudest voices get heard on social media. But where so many Cubs fans and enough of the Chicago media put blind faith and absolute trust into the rebuilding years, there now seems to be some general skepticism and a when-is-it-time-to-panic countdown.

Don’t mean to spoil the ending of David Ross’ new book, but the Cubs won the World Series.

Last year is over, but the Cubs still have an explosive collection of hitters, a playoff-tested rotation, a significantly better bullpen and money/prospects to spend at the trade deadline.

[CubsTalk Podcast: Jason McLeod on Ian Happ, Dylan Cease and MLB Draft]

The signs even showed up before Wednesday’s 7-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds, when Kyle Schwarber crushed a ball in batting practice and knocked out part of the lighting for the Budweiser script atop a Wrigley Field video board.

“I hope I won’t get the bill,” Schwarber said. “It had some wind behind it, I guess, and got up there, and you could see some wires fall. I apologize in advance.”

Schwarber damaged the first two letters and part of the “d” out in right field, or roughly the same spot where one of his home-run balls landed during the 2015 playoffs. If Schwarber doesn’t have a Budweiser deal yet, “I should,” he joked.

If you needed another reality check and a reminder of the uncertainty the Cubs used to face, Scott Feldman stood 6-foot-6 on the mound in a gray uniform. This is the answer to the trivia question, the sign-and-flip guy traded along with Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop in the middle of a 96-loss season in 2013.

The Cubs knocked out Feldman in the third inning, pushing their record to one game above .500 and seeing the correction they predicted. Except for Ian Happ, the Cubs don’t have that many other cards left to play in the middle of May. And manager Joe Maddon doesn’t really think about the point where he would start doing things differently.

“It would have to take a lot, honestly, because they’re so young,” Maddon said. “This is our World Series group and this is our future group. So part of it is you have to understand they have to feel confidence and consistency from me and the organization.

“If you just start haphazardly picking names out of a hat or trying to create a different method when it’s really not necessary — that’s what you have to be careful about.

“When you have young guys in this position, the big picture would be that you would not want to influence or dent their confidence in any way or have them lose faith in you.

“There’s a lot of patience from me right now for the whole group. This is our group. And they’re going to keep getting better.”

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After all the noise about whether or not Maddon should stick with Schwarber (.188 average) at the leadoff spot, he ignited the five-run burst off Feldman in the second inning when he smashed a two-out, two-run, bases-loaded single past Reds first baseman Joey Votto.

“It’s really hard for human beings to process a 162-game season and see it in its entirety, see it from 10,000 feet,” team president Theo Epstein said. “The game wouldn’t be as fun if you could do that. I remember right around this time last year we were 25-6 and I was getting asked non-sarcastic questions about how are we going to manage the push for the greatest record of all-time vs. resting our guys for the playoffs. I called BS on that.

“And now I’m getting asked about if we’re going to send everyday guys down to Triple-A. (And) I was asked by someone else if we were going to consider selling and things like that. So I call BS on that, too.”

On an 83-degree night with 24-mph winds gusting, Kyle Hendricks again looked like the guy who impersonated Greg Maddux and led the majors in ERA last season. Hendricks is 2-1 with a 1.82 ERA in his last five starts after limiting the Reds (19-20) to two runs across six innings. The rotation is beginning to trend in the right direction and that is how the Cubs will take off from 20-19.

“Ultimately, you are how you play over the course of a season,” Epstein said. “But you also have to look at the amount of talent on a club and whether you trust their makeup and whether they care and whether you think we’re going to reach our level, because we’re going to work really hard to make adjustments and overcome whatever adversity is presented us.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m blind to what’s gone on or sort of like overly faithful in certain guys. (But) you also have to trust what you believe about players and what you see and understand the season is 162 games for a reason, because it tends to be a meritocracy.”

The Cubs are also getting under people’s skin again. After another stress-free ninth inning ended for Wade Davis (9-for-9 in save chances, zero earned runs in 18 appearances) with an overturned replay call, Reds manager Bryan Price had this to say to reporters:

“Two teams are trying to win that game. As much as it’s ‘Hail to the Cubs’ and they’re the World Series champs and they’re great, we’re trying to win the ballgame, too. Until I see that, I’m going to be more than upset. That's not a way to end a ballgame, unless they can show us something that's definitive. If they can't, shame on them."

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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