McNutt among first cuts in Cubs camp


McNutt among first cuts in Cubs camp

GLENDALE, Ariz. Trey McNutt cleared out his locker on Friday morning at HoHoKam Stadium. He packed his bag as the most high-profile player among the four the Cubs cut and sent down the street to minor-league camp.

Almost no one had heard of McNutt when he fell to the Cubs in the 32nd round of the 2009 draft and signed for a six-figure bonus. The kid from a small town in Alabama made the industry take notice in 2010, going 10-1 with a 2.48 ERA combined at three minor-league stops.

If McNutt had continued along that very fast track, it wouldnt have been out of the question to see him at Wrigley Field when injuries devastated the pitching staff last season, and competing for a rotation spot this spring. But that would have been the most aggressively optimistic timeline, and there were no guarantees.

McNutt had to deal with his own health issues that put him on the disabled twice at Double-A Tennessee a blister problem on his right middle and index fingers and an abdominal strain. Yet he was still the prospect the Boston Red Sox targeted this offseason in the Theo Epstein compensation negotiations.

Everybodys got to go through some type of adversity in their career, so Im kind of glad it happened (already), McNutt said recently. Im not saying something to that extreme happening again. But a little adversity Ive mentally been through it before and I know that I can overcome it and pitch my way out of it.

The Cubs also sent pitcher Marco Carrillo, infielder Jonathan Mota and outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha to minor-league camp, cutting their spring roster to 59 players. At the age of 22, McNutt still has room to grow.

Hes got the stuff, manager Dale Sveum said. Hes got the makeup to be a big-league starter. Hes just got to be more consistent with his breaking ball. Hes got a really good (one). He just has to understand how and when to use it. But hes that kind of kid whos on a mission. He works as hard as anybody.

Its just a matter of going out there and being more consistent on an every-start basis in the minor leagues.

McNutt was philosophical about last year. He had never developed blisters like that before (April), and then he suffered an abdominal strain (June). He accounted for only 95 innings, going 5-6 with a 4.55 ERA.

It was very frustrating, but you go through those things sometimes, McNutt said. There were a lot of mechanical issues, a lot of things that get in your head with so many injuries. You just got to be strong enough to overcome those things. Last year was a really good learning curve and I think Im going to bounce back.

It was just one freaky year. I wasnt walking under any ladders, opening any umbrellas indoors. It wasnt meant to be last year. Things werent going my way.

McNutt rose so fast that it would have been difficult to keep up that momentum. Baseball America ranks him as the No. 5 prospect in the Cubs organization.

The Red Sox thought enough of McNutt to put him at the center of the Epstein compensation dispute that dragged out for months. (The Cubs system is also thin in terms of high-level pitching prospects, which only complicated the matter.)

Instead, it was one of McNutts roommates reliever Chris Carpenter who had to move out of their North Scottsdale condo last month and head to Red Sox camp in Florida.

Im putting last year behind me, McNutt said. Im just trying to work my way up the ladder to get up there someway, somehow.

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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