Trying to save their season, Cubs stretch the possibilities with Aroldis Chapman

Trying to save their season, Cubs stretch the possibilities with Aroldis Chapman

The Cubs imagined all the possibilities in October when they made that blockbuster trade for Aroldis Chapman – and now they will be playing in November.

Chapman’s 42nd and final pitch registered at 101 mph on the big Wrigley Field video board late Sunday night as the superstar closer struck out Jose Ramirez swinging to preserve a 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians and force a Game 6 in a World Series that has absolutely lived up to the hype.

Chapman notched the last eight outs in a must-win game, showing the kind of creativity, flexibility and presence that didn’t automatically come in that deal with the New York Yankees in late July. Where the Indians keep pushing bullpen limits, there were times where Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn’t quite know how to use his shiny new toy.

All along, Chapman’s preference has been working one inning at a time, without traffic on the bases, his powerful left arm unleashing fastball after fastball. But down 3-1 and on the brink of elimination, Maddon discussed this exact scenario before the game with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and brought the idea to his closer.

“Joe talked to me this afternoon,” Chapman said through a translator. “He asked if I could be possibly ready to come into the seventh inning. Obviously, I told him, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready to go.’

“Whatever he needs me to do, or how long he needs me to pitch, I’m ready for it.”

With a one-run lead, Maddon pulled Jon Lester – the $155 million ace with two World Series rings already – after 90 pitches and gave the ball to rookie Carl Edwards Jr. for two hitters. Mike Napoli’s single and Willson Contreras’ passed ball put a runner in scoring position before Edwards forced Carlos Santana to fly out to left field.

“Joe’s a wizard,” Edwards said. “I feel like he’s been doing this for a hundred years.”

Chapman hadn’t pitched in the seventh since 2012 with the Cincinnati Reds and would have to throw a career-high 2.2 innings. He escaped this jam, striking out Ramirez the first time and working around the 99.3-mph first-pitch fastball that drilled Brandon Guyer.

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In front of an anxious crowd of 41,711 watching the Cubs one final time before Wrigley Field goes dark this year, Chapman didn’t cover first base when Anthony Rizzo made a diving stop in the eighth inning. Rajai Davis took advantage of that infield single – and Chapman’s slow delivery to home plate – to steal two bases.

But Chapman responded by striking out Francisco Lindor – Cleveland’s No. 3 switch-hitter and an emerging playoff star – looking. As Contreras, the rookie catcher, said: “He banged the outside corner with 102 miles an hour. That’s impossible to hit.”

“I don’t know if you ever anticipate asking a guy to get eight outs, but he was phenomenal,” Epstein said. “He really embraced the challenge and pitched. He threw a huge changeup to Napoli. He threw a bunch of really good sliders. He blacked out an amazing fastball to Lindor in a big spot. It was a great performance.”

The Cubs passed when the Yankees wanted Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez as the starting point to any multiplayer deal for Andrew Miller, who wound up with Cleveland by the deadline and has given up one run during 17 postseason innings, getting at least four outs in each of his nine playoff appearances and becoming such a weapon for Indians manager Terry Francona.

Chapman answered the doubts about whether or not he could leave his comfort zone and stretch out like Miller – and now the Cubs get another chance to do it again on Tuesday night in Cleveland.

“It was a big ask,” Francona said. “We’ve done it here, too. Nobody’s ever just run into the bat rack when Chapman comes into the game. I can guarantee you that.”

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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