New CBA changes the game for Cubs


New CBA changes the game for Cubs

Chairman Tom Ricketts personally encouraged his scouts to be aggressive last summer and close in on players who had leverage and were perceived to be difficult to sign. The Cubs wound up spending a franchise-record 12 million in the draft.

There was an optimistic sense around the organization (most didnt know at the time that Jim Hendry had already been fired): Hope we can do it again next year.

The commitment from ownership is still there. Theo Epstein left Boston for the chance to build something from the ground up on the North Side. But the rules of engagement have changed with the unveiling of a new collective bargaining agreement that will run through the 2016 season.

Commissioner Bud Selig sat side-by-side with Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Michael Weiner at Tuesdays news conference in New York. They took a victory lap on the 29th floor of MLBs Park Avenue headquarters.

By the end of this contract, the two sides will have gone 21 years without a strike or a lockout. It will have a direct impact upon the Cubs.

Selig is still hopeful for two wild cards in each league in 2012, saying that March 1 is the deadline to decide. Epsteins vision is to have the Cubs playing annually in October, and getting there with homegrown players.

But this summer the Cubs will not be able to sign drafted players to major-league contracts, and each club will be assigned an aggregate signing bonus pool.

If a team goes up to 5 percent beyond that amount, there will be a 75 percent tax on the overage. If a team goes up to 10 percent, the same tax will apply and they will lose a first-round pick. Go beyond 10 percent and the penalty jumps to a 100 percent tax on the overage and the loss of multiple draft picks.

The Cubs have got creative in the past with Jeff Samardzija and Matt Szczur, paying them to give up their NFL ambitions. Under Epsteins leadership, the Red Sox were known for paying over slot and convincing football players to play baseball.

The agreement that was bargained leaves a lot of room for clubs to decide how much to pay for an individual player, Weiner said. The restraints are on aggregate spending, not individual spending, so if a club believes that its appropriate to make an offer that is necessary to sign a two-sport athlete, it will enable them to do that.

One unintended consequence suggested independently by an agent and a general manager could be diluting the talent pool because the same financial incentives might not be there.

Selig predictably dismissed that theory: I have no concerns about that at all. Ive read that. Im trying to be kind enough, not my usual sarcastic or cynical self. I dont believe thats a possibility. The sport is on an upgrade at every level.

Scott Boras, the most powerful agent in the sport, got on a roll when the topic came up last week at the ownersgeneral manager meetings in Milwaukee.

The NBA (and) the NFL (have) 25 million offerings that go to student-athletes, Boras said. The NCAA has rigged the system to where the sport of baseball has been damned at the collegiate level. The other sports are drawing the great multi-sport athletes because they can offer full rides that baseball cant.

In the past, Cubs executives had also grumbled about how they were stuck in a six-team division. But the Astros will move to the American League West in 2013, creating a 15-15 split between the two leagues (and interleague play throughout the season).

Beginning in spring training, all players will be tested for HGH. Reasonable cause will trigger the blood test for a particular player throughout the year. Both Weiner and Rob Manfred MLBs executive vice president of labor relations and human resources see the possibility of in-season HGH testing during the course of the agreement.

The message weve been communicating to fans for a number of years, Weiner said, (is that) players and the owners jointly have an intolerance for use of performance-enhancing drugs.

But at this moment, the biggest takeaway from a Cubs perspective will be the changes to the draft and the international market.

Baseball America recently released its list of the top 10 Cubs prospect in the system, and three were high school players from the 2011 draft: Javier Baez; Dan Vogelbach; and Dillon Maples (who had already begun practicing with the University of North Carolina football team by the time he signed).

This certainly isnt the end of the world for the Cubs, because they will be pouring money into new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic, plus what Epstein has called a vertically-integrated system of player development. And who knows how these changes might handcuff small-market franchises.

But while the NBA season appears to be disappearing, and the NFL had labor battles in court, this business is booming.

Nobody back in the 70s, 80s (or) early 90s, Selig said, would ever believe that we would have 21 years of labor peace.

There is a generation of baseball fans that never sat through a work stoppage and only knows that truce. If they ever see the Cubs win it all, it will likely be because of the investments made in the draft and the international market (plus tax).

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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