Cubs

Trevor Cahill beats Brewers in Game 1, looking like good insurance if Cubs put John Lackey on DL

Trevor Cahill beats Brewers in Game 1, looking like good insurance if Cubs put John Lackey on DL

In a perfect world, the Cubs wouldn’t need to start Trevor Cahill again, riding arguably baseball’s best rotation into October and then figuring out which pitcher to drop for the playoffs.

But everything hasn’t gone according to The Plan, even as the Cubs pile up the most wins in baseball and the computer simulations on Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs almost give them a 100-hundred percent chance to win the National League Central.

Whatever the Cubs decide to do with their 25-man roster crunch, Cahill made a strong impression in Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader at Wrigley Field, shutting down the Milwaukee Brewers for five innings during a 4-0 victory.

The 26th man maxed out at 84 pitches and allowed only two hits to a weakened lineup that no longer has Jonathan Lucroy (traded to the Texas Rangers) while Ryan Braun came off the bench to get booed as an eighth-inning pinch-hitter.

“It’s obvious he gave us something to talk about,” Maddon said. “We will discuss that. And we have to have an answer by tomorrow.”

One potential way to keep Cahill around would be putting John Lackey on the disabled list after the veteran right-hander exited Sunday night’s start against the St. Louis Cardinals with a tight shoulder.

“No clarity yet” on Lackey’s health situation, Maddon said. “He felt a little bit sore today, so we’re still talking about it, and we haven’t concluded anything yet.”

Cahill stretched out with six starts at Triple-A Iowa after going on the disabled list with patellar tendinitis in his right knee on July 15, becoming an insurance policy the Cubs hoped they wouldn’t really need, but might have to cash in again if Lackey’s shoulder issue is more serious than first believed.        

“We’re absolutely looking at different scenarios,” Maddon said. “Those are different things that are within our purview right now – poom! – Larry David (reference). The fact that (Cahill) pitched as well as he did today – and he’s as stretched out as he is – just opens up possibilities.” 

A strong pitching infrastructure helped Cahill revive his career and reinvent himself as a playoff-caliber reliever late last season – after getting released by the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers – and score a one-year, $4.25 million contract to return to Chicago.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]​

Maybe Cahill can again help stabilize a bullpen filled with questions marks, though Mike Montgomery and Hector Rondon did combine for three scoreless innings before Aroldis Chapman (fifth save in a Cubs uniform) bailed out Joe Smith (two walks) in the ninth. 

“Who knows?” Cahill said. “Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do it. I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate. Whenever you speculate, it always seems like it ends up completely different.”

While Cahill, a one-time All-Star, rebooted his game, Matt Garza (4-5, 4.87 ERA) has struggled to find focus and consistency since getting traded from the Cubs to the Rangers in the summer of 2013, one of many win-later deals that transformed this franchise. The Cubs wore down Garza, making him throw 103 pitches across five innings and manufacturing three runs with an Addison Russell sacrifice fly, a wild pitch that scored Dexter Fowler and Cahill’s RBI sacrifice bunt.

For all the contributions they’ve gotten from all over the roster, Cahill is only the eighth starting pitcher the Cubs have used this season. Veteran catcher Miguel Montero – who worked with Cahill extensively on the Arizona Diamondbacks – briefly turned away from some of the reporters at his locker and did the knock-on-wood motion.    

“We count on every single individual in the clubhouse,” Montero said. “Everybody has to contribute someway, somehow. Cahill stepped it up.”

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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