‘Too early to panic,’ but John Lackey wants to see Cubs match other teams’ intensity

‘Too early to panic,’ but John Lackey wants to see Cubs match other teams’ intensity

On Monday morning, posted a story that asked: "Are .500 Cubs an Average Team?" That afternoon, the multi-screen wall in the hallway that leads from the Wrigley Field clubhouse to the home dugout showed an MLB Network segment comparing World Series hangovers between the Cubs and Cleveland Indians: "Which Team Are You More Concerned About Moving Forward?"  

The Cubs can always answer those types of questions by flashing their championship bling and reminding everyone that they still have almost 92 percent of a 162-game schedule remaining. 

If the Cubs didn't freak out about the possibility of facing Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and the even-year San Francisco Giants in an elimination game, or fold after a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, or panic down 3-1 in the World Series, then they won't sweat a four-game losing streak in the middle of April.

John Lackey didn't exactly storm into the interview room after a 6-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, turning to a Cubs media relations official as he sat down at the table and saying: "It beats working at Sears, huh?"

"It's too early to panic about anything right now," said Lackey, a three-time World Series champion. "We got, obviously, a lot of talent on this team and we'll just get into it a little bit here. The last 10 years or so, I kind of break the season up into quarters. Until you get to about 40, 50 games – we'll see where we're at then."

The 2016 Cubs played like a team on a mission, winning 25 of the season's first 31 games, building up a double-digit division lead in June and spending 180 days in first place. After the Pittsburgh Pirates swept a weekend series in Wrigleyville, Ryan Braun played the villain, getting booed before his first at-bat and then smashing a Lackey pitch into the left-field bleachers for a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

"People are going to come in here gunning for us, for sure," Lackey said. "We're the world champs, and people want to come in here and play well. We're going to have to match that intensity and play better." 

The Brewers (8-6) found the video board sweet spot and launched three homers off Lackey on a night with 37-degree wind chill. Lackey barked at home plate umpire Carlos Torres in the third inning after an Eric Thames blast flew over the basket and bounced into the left-field bleachers, making it five games in a row with a home run for the slugger who reinvented himself in South Korea.  

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After six innings, Lackey (1-2, 4.00 ERA) handed a 4-3 game over to a bullpen still taking shape. Mike Montgomery – who got the final out in a World Series Game 7 – couldn't keep it close in the eighth inning. What's supposed to be a shutdown defense got sloppy when Braun sprinted to steal third base and catcher Willson Contreras threw the ball into left field, allowing an insurance run to score.

"When you go 6-6 in the middle of the year, nobody notices," manager Joe Maddon said before the game. "You're going to see more consistent hitting as we move it along. Remember I talked about (how) it takes about a month to figure out your bullpen. We're still in the process of getting everybody comfortable out there. 

"So I think as the hitting peaks a little bit more, which it will, and we really establish getting the bullpen guys comfortable, that's when we're really going to take off."

Whether it's reacting to Milwaukee's defense, looking for a spark or playing the long game against scouting reports, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo, two of the most dangerous hitters in the game, bunted on their own against the shift. 

"There's no panic on our side at all," Schwarber said. "We know that we're a good baseball team and we'll bounce back."

The 2016 Cubs also looked completely winded after a 24-games-in-24-days stretch that ended in the middle of July. The 2017 Cubs already have the muscle memory and can look at their ring fingers if they ever need a reminder. But the rest of Major League Baseball has also noticed the victory tour. "Embrace The Target," right?

"I'm sure that we'll turn some things around," Schwarber said. "Obviously, when you're a competitor, you want to win. That's why we're out there – we want to win. Losing's not our strong suit, I guess you would say, as baseball players. 

"Obviously, it stinks, but we have to turn the page. This happened to us last year right before the All-Star break. We hit the skids. So hopefully we're hitting it maybe early." 

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 reportedly made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

According to MLB Insider Robert Murray, the Cubs have reached an agreement with right-hander Daniel Winkler on a one-year deal.

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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