Cubs

What if the Cubs traded Zambrano for Figgins?

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What if the Cubs traded Zambrano for Figgins?

I declare today National Carlos Zambrano Day. Well, maybe not "National" but at least "Regional." As in the region in or around Chicago.

We've already discussed how Zambrano's time spent on the shelf with a facial injury will continue, but now let's move into something fun. Something that involves Zambrano packing up and heading out of town.

What if the Cubs traded Zambrano to the Seattle Mariners for Chone Figgins?

Figgins suffered through a simply horrendous 2011 season. If it wasn't for Adam Dunn, Figgins' .188 average and .484 on-base plus slugging (OPS) would have been talked about a lot more.

But he was talked about quite often in Seattle, and there's no doubt he could use a change of scenery. Zambrano needs a change of scenery, too, and both players are under the Bad Contract Umbrella.

This is a bit crazy and something that hasn't even been sniffed at as of yet, but it could work. Let us count the ways:

Why This Could Work

1. Figgins was OK offensively in '10. He sported just a .259 AVG, but 74 walks helped bump his on-base percentage to .340. He stole 42 bases in 57 chances and while he boasts almost no power (he has a career .368 slugging percentage), he can still be an offensive asset.

2. Figgins is 33 now and his 11 steals in 17 chances last season were horrendous, but if he got on base a bit more, he could be some of the speed the Cubs need. Chicago finished 28th in the Majors last season with just 69 stolen bases. The only two teams below them -- the Cardinals and Tigers -- both made the playoffs and the Cards even won the World Series, but they also boast better pitching staffs and a lineup loaded with much more power than the Cubs, so speed is a way to improve for Chicago.

3. Figgins can play both second and third base. He's even dabbled in outfield and at shortstop in his career, too. He's also actually been an above-average defender since 2007. If the issues with his bat continue, it wouldn't be that terrible to move Figgins from an everyday starter to just a utility guy. I'd take him over Blake DeWitt.

4. The Cubs have literally no answer at third base. A platoon of DeWitt and Jeff Baker makes me more nervous than being in a locked room with Carlos Zambrano would. D.J. LeMahieu and Josh Vitters are not quite ready yet and Figgins could be a great stopgap until either -- or both -- mature.

5. The Mariners need to get rid of Figgins' contract while the Cubs need to get rid of Z's contract. Figgins is still owed 17 million over the next two years, while Zambrano has just one year and 18 million left on his albatross contract. I mean, I wasn't a math major, but that's basically the same amount of money we're talking about here, folks.

6. A change of scenery could do these guys good. Zambrano needs a fresh start with a new organization that hasn't directly experienced his behavioral issues. Figgins needs a better ballpark to hit in (though Safeco is more detrimental to a power hitter, not a speed guy like Figgins) and a fresh start to get his career back on track. Both are capable of still being very effective Major Leaguers and are worth taking the risk.

7. The Cubs and Mariners have made "bad contract" for "bad contract" trades in the past, including just the Carlos SilvaMilton Bradley deal. That kinda sorta worked for both sides. This can kinda sorta work, too.

8. I want it to work. And that's good enough for me.

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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