War of attrition: Cubs feel at ease with starting pitching depth

War of attrition: Cubs feel at ease with starting pitching depth

MESA, Ariz. — Opening Day is still more than three weeks off, but the Cubs are already preparing for doomsday scenarios with the pitching staff.

Of course, that's not really a change of pace from years past. The old adage — "you can never have too much pitching" — rings true for just about every organization each season.

Even after winning the World Series last year and tallying 200 victories across the past two regular seasons, the Cubs knew they needed to add pitching depth this winter.

The starting rotation has stayed remarkably healthy the last two years: In 2015, the top four guys all made at least 31 starts while last year, the top five guys accounted for 152 starts in the 162-game regular season.

The Cubs can't count on that kind of durability each season. 

Jason Hammel was the only starting pitcher to depart from 2016 while Theo Epstein's front office took low-risk/high-reward gambles on injury-prone Brett Anderson, former top prospect Eddie Butler and unproven Alec Mills. Plus there's swingman Mike Montgomery, whom the Cubs acquired from the Seattle Mariners before last summer's trade deadline. Casey Kelly — a former first-round pick by Epstein's front office in Boston in 2008 — started a "B" game for the Cubs Thursday against the Los Angeles Angels.

[RELATED - Looking at Casey Kelly and where the Cubs are placing next bets on pitching]

Ahead of Thursday's Cactus League game against the Mariners, Joe Maddon confirmed he's still looking at Montgomery and Anderson as a hybrid role to fill the fifth starter spot.

The two southpaws pitched the first four innings  of the Cubs' 8-6 loss to the Mariners, allowing three runs on eight hits.

The plan is for Butler and Mills — the two guys the Cubs acquired in the weeks before pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona — to head to Triple-A Iowa, where they'll represent insurance options should the big-league rotation get hammered with injuries.

"When you leave camp and you have no starting backup that you dig in Triple-A, that's a bad feeling, man," Maddon said. "So when you can line them up on the tarmac in Triple-A that way, it really makes a huge difference.

"Fortunately, we've been relatively healthy the last couple years and we're looking forward to the same kind of health this year. However, stuff happens. And to have that same kind of quality in the background is comforting because you need that.

"Anytime you can line up 6-7-8, even 9, in Triple-A, that's kinda neat."

Mills - acquired from the Kansas City Royals in a trade when he was designated for assignment to make room on the roster for Hammel — said he wasn't expecting to be traded the week before pitchers and catchers reported.

"The Royals DFA'd me and I got traded within three, four hours. So it was kinda whirlwind," said Mills, who had to switch gears in a hurry and figure out place to live with a new team just a few days before his 2017 season started.

Mills, 25, has a 3.03 career ERA in 94 minor-league games (67 starts), but only 58 innings at the big-league level. He's enjoying camp in the laid back, loose atmosphere the Cubs have built.

He knows it's a longshot for him to break camp with the 25-man roster, but the Cubs told him to be ready for anything and that's what he plans on doing.

Butler, meanwhile, has significantly more experience in the majors, starting 28 games for the Colorado Rockies over the last three seasons and tossing 159.1 innings.

The former Top 25 prospect understands he's in a dogfight for a spot on the big-league roster and isn't willing to resign to a role of Triple-A depth just yet.

However, Butler — who won three straight state championships in high school — is thrilled to get a chance to pitch for a winning club and like any pitcher, is glad his home ballpark resides at sea level instead of Coors Field, a hitter's paradise.

"I'm very happy about the opportunities that I have ahead of me here, working with [Cubs pitching coach Chris] Bosio and winning — coming out here and trying to repeat what happened last year," Butler said. "The start of a dynasty."

Montgomery would prefer to be a starter than in the bullpen — a common sentiment among most pitchers — but a little over a year ago, he thought he may have to go to Japan to continue his playing career.

Now the 27-year-old has a save from Game 7 of the World Series on his resume and has a chance to be a big part of the Cubs pitching staff for the next few years.

Thursday, Montgomery faced off against his former team and admitted he had plenty of adrenaline going even though it was only a spring training game.

"It's been a wild ride, but I think it just comes down to me believing in what I do as a pitcher. I always have," Montgomery said. "Knowing that it takes time to develop and to learn how to pitch and learn how to get hitters out with your stuff.

"I feel good with it now. I'm excited moving forward. I know last year at this time, I was in a lot different spot. ... To see where I was last year to now, it's a big jump. 

"You always gotta work hard, because you never know what can happen in this game. So just take that mindset and go forward with it."

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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