Cubs

Waiting on Edwin Jackson, Cubs close in on Carlos Villanueva

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Waiting on Edwin Jackson, Cubs close in on Carlos Villanueva

The Cubs did not simply have money leftover after losing the Anibal Sanchez sweepstakes.

Those were unique circumstances for the right player. The Cubs just didnt feel the same sense of urgency as the Detroit Tigers, who were willing to go to 80 million on a five-year deal.

As the Cubs remake their rotation, they will continue with the lower-risk investments. An industry source confirmed on Wednesday night that they were finalizing an agreement with Carlos Villanueva, to add depth and create some competition.

The financial details werent immediately known, but this will almost certainly fit into the sensible, cautious approach team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have taken this winter. It was harder to gauge their true interest in what would be a bigger catch: Edwin Jackson.

The Cubs acted decisively in November before the market accelerated and signed Scott Baker and Scott Feldman to one-year deals that combined included only 11.5 million in guarantees.

Villanueva figures to at least get a shot in the rotation, considering Baker is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and Matt Garza will have to answer questions about his right elbow.

But versatility has to be part of the appeal. Villanueva is only 29 years old and has made 56 starts and 245 appearances out of the bullpen during his big-league career with the Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays (33-35, 4.26 ERA).

In the Milwaukee organization, Villanueva overlapped with Cubs manager Dale Sveum and pitching coach Chris Bosio. Perhaps they can tap into the starter who appeared to be rolling last season in July (4-0, 1.93 ERA) and August (1-4, 3.41 ERA) before fading in September (0-3, 8.10 ERA) with the Blue Jays.

If you were a swingman looking for the chance to prove yourself as a starter, would you sign with the Cubs if they were about to add Jackson?

Baker and Feldman were sold on the opportunity to showcase themselves on the North Side. The uncertainty surrounding Garzas health would seem to eliminate the possibility of an offseason trade.

Jeff Samardzija could be the Opening Day starter. Travis Wood is an option as a No. 5 starter. Arodys Vizcaino will be taking it slow after Tommy John surgery, but team officials are hoping that he can join the big-league rotation at some point in 2013 and show why he was once one of the top prospects in the Atlanta Braves system.

You can only sell so many spots in the rotation, right?

Of course all together now you can never have enough pitching. And there are enough red flags within this group not to mention the general rate of attrition to make you think the Cubs will never quite feel like theyre done.

Jackson turned 29 in September, which makes him almost six months older than Sanchez. Jackson has made at least 31 starts in each of the last six seasons, proving hes durable. That begins to fit the profile for Epstein and Hoyer, who didnt sign Jackson when he was a free agent last winter.

Jackson took a one-year, 11 million deal with the Washington Nationals the seventh team hes played for in the big leagues and went 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA. That just about falls in line with his career numbers (70-71, 4.40 ERA) as a talented, mid-rotation guy who hasnt quite put it all together yet.

Jackson was involved in the three-way trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the New York Yankees, Ian Kennedy to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Max Scherzer to the Tigers (December 2009).

The White Sox got Jackson from Arizona in the Daniel Hudson trade (July 2010). And the St. Louis Cardinals fortified their bullpen for a run to the World Series title by packaging Jackson in a deal with the Blue Jays (July 2011).

Its worth noting that people whove known Jackson say hes a good guy in the clubhouse, that moving around so much shouldnt be viewed as a mark against his personality.

The Cubs, Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians are among the teams rumored to be in on Jackson, who could be looking for a home after pitching for six teams in the past five seasons.

Jackson would have to take a leap of faith with this front office, which refuses to give out no-trade clauses, views no one as untouchable and wont be afraid to sell off pieces at the deadline if it fits their long-term vision.

The Cubs have no doubt analyzed the numbers and decided how Jackson could provide value and where it no longer makes sense. They wont feel desperate or be forced into doing something. The Sanchez negotiations last week again showed they know how to walk away.

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

In the wake of the cheating allegations surrounding the Houston Astros, multiple parties have weighed in with their takes on the situation, and this includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish. He stated that this past season, he had noticed "weird behavior" from batters. Bleacher Nation then tweeted out a video showing Darvish stepping off the mound in a matchup against Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers, stating that he stepped off the mound because Yelich's "eyes move first...I'm not sure what he is trying to do."

Darvish then went on to elaborate that he wasn't trying to accuse the Brewers of stealing signs, rather that he was just stating what he had noticed in terms of batter behavior. Darvish made a minor grammar mistake, saying "your" instead of "you're" and when he responded to try to clarify that, it may have accidentally caused more confusion, as some mistakenly thought he was saying that Yelich indeed was stealing signs, but this was not the case.

That didn't stop Yelich from sounding off on Darvish with quite a harsh response, a response that was so harsh that some were shocked at the nature of it.

MLB free agent Josh Donaldson chimed in, humorously stating that he could definitely  use some help hitting off of Darvish and jokingly asked for what tips Yelich might have. 

Darvish then retweeted a few tweets that illustrated the point he was trying to make. 

Darvish also responded to Donaldson, saying that he doesn't think the third baseman needs any help hitting off of him either. 

At the end of the Darvish seems to be in a good place, and from his Twitter interactions, it is clear that he was not as upset or offended over the situation as Yelich was. 

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