Cubs

Playoff audition? What a bad game in Milwaukee means for Cubs and Jason Hammel

Playoff audition? What a bad game in Milwaukee means for Cubs and Jason Hammel

MILWAUKEE — This sure looked like Joe Maddon proving a point, leaving Jason Hammel out there in the middle of Miller Park, the subtext screaming: You want to pitch deep into games? OK, fine, here’s your chance.

Maddon didn’t exactly manage this one like the Cubs were playing Game 7 of the World Series, refusing to give Hammel the quick hook during Tuesday night’s 12-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Of course, Maddon had all the answers during his postgame press conference, patiently giving detailed explanations after Hammel surrendered six hits and a walk to the first seven Brewers he faced. Without any feel for his slider, Hammel gave up a leadoff homer to Jonathan Villar, spiked two wild pitches and didn’t get his first out until Martin Maldonado’s sacrifice fly gave Milwaukee a 5-1 lead in the first inning.

That usually gets Maddon’s mind racing, especially with an expanded September bullpen and his awkward history with Hammel, which dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays. Hammel (14-8, 3.50 ERA) is no longer that unproven pitcher, now a respected veteran teammate and a major reason why the Cubs are on the verge of going back to the playoffs for the second straight year.

But Hammel didn’t have it against the rebuilding Brewers (61-77), giving up at least nine runs for the third time this season, and he might not have a spot on the postseason roster, depending on how everything shakes out across the next month.

“I’m not trying to pitch for anything,” Hammel said. “That’s a decision that comes at the end of the season. We got plenty of capable guys here that can pitch in big games. Obviously, you want to be a part of that. But I’m not trying to pitch for a chance to pitch in the postseason.”

“No, not at all,” Maddon said, this isn’t an audition for October, before listening to the follow-up question and not automatically ruling out the idea of putting Hammel in the bullpen to see what he could do there.

“I haven’t even thought about that,” Maddon said. “Absolutely, you could do that, no question, if you chose to look at it that way. But for right now, we haven’t even talked about that.”

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Maddon saw enough on Aug. 27 at Dodger Stadium that he pulled Hammel after only 39 pitches, which led to a meeting in the manager’s office and left the pitcher still seething by the time reporters walked over to his locker.

This time, Maddon kept Hammel out there with two outs in the sixth inning, when Ryan Braun hammered a 92-mph fastball into the picnic area beyond the right-field fence for a two-out, three-run homer that made it a 9-2 game.

The reasoning: Milwaukee presents “entirely different” than a Los Angeles lineup stacked with left-handed hitters, making lefty swingmen Travis Wood and Rob Zastryzny less appealing. Hammel had been 10-1 with a 2.50 ERA in 14 previous career starts against the Brewers. Plus, Maddon wanted to rest certain relievers and not burn out his bullpen.

If this seemed like Maddon thinking big picture and not pressing quite as hard and not going all-out to win that night ...

“There was nothing to press with,” Maddon said. “There was nowhere to go with the full-court press. It was a great lineup for him, and he’s done really well against the Brewers. He had a bad first inning, and he settled in. And then the homer makes it look really bad at the end.”

Take away those three starts with at least nine runs — and that early exit at Dodger Stadium — and Hammel would have a 2.11 ERA that would rank second in the majors behind teammate Kyle Hendricks.

“The (tale) of the tape for me this year is when I’m bad, I’m really bad,” Hammel said. “The overall body of work is really good, so I’m not going to beat myself up.”

With a division lead over the St. Louis Cardinals that’s now 15 1/2 games — and a magic number to clinch the National League Central stuck at 10 — the Cubs can afford to rest the All-Star left side of their infield (like they did with Kris Bryant and Addison Russell), experiment with their pitching staff (Mike Montgomery will start Wednesday night in Milwaukee opposite Matt “I’ll Pitch on the Freaking Moon” Garza) and hold auditions for the playoffs, no matter what they say publicly.

“I didn’t really set the tone for us early, so this one’s on me,” Hammel said. “It obviously doesn’t sit well, but we’re fortunate to have a very comfortable lead right now. Just brush this one off and move on.”

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

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USA TODAY

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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