Cubs

What’s next? Cubs keep thinking big after Ben Zobrist/Starlin Castro deals

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What’s next? Cubs keep thinking big after Ben Zobrist/Starlin Castro deals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Cubs aren’t stopping with Ben Zobrist’s $56 million contract and the Starlin Castro trade to the New York Yankees, still seeing the potential for more big deals if the dominos fall their way again.

Getting Joe Maddon’s super-utility guy doesn’t really change how the Cubs see Jason Heyward as a great long-term piece for their outfield, and dealing Castro doesn’t necessarily eliminate any trade possibilities. 

“We’d welcome an impact move if it’s out there,” team president Theo Epstein said Tuesday night at the winter meetings. “But, really, all the moves that we have been pursuing previously are still potentially alive for us. Starlin hadn’t been in any other talks. This was the one place that potentially had a match for him.”

[RELATED - Domino effect: Cubs sign Ben Zobrist for $56 million and trade Starlin Castro to Yankees]

The Cubs can still go in several different directions as they search for someone to play center, whether it’s a defense-first outfielder who bats ninth, a platoon setup that saves resources for the trade deadline or a big fish like Heyward, who fits the franchise’s long-range business/baseball plans as a 26-year-old free agent.

Beyond the potential to weaken the St. Louis Cardinals by stealing Heyward, the Cubs also understand next winter’s free-agent class isn’t nearly as deep, so they might have to load up on talent this offseason.

“We spent a lot of time with the business side several weeks ago,” Epstein said. “There are some different levers that were in play to pull. And they did a fantastic job of giving us a little bit more flexibility than we had. And there are other ways to get creative just in the structure of your contract.”

Zobrist’s four-year deal includes a $2 million signing bonus for 2015 and breaks down annually like this through 2019: $10 million; $16 million; $16 million; $12 million.

The Cubs also got ahead of the curve last week with John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million contract, signing the veteran pitcher before the Arizona Diamondbacks guaranteed Zack Greinke $206.5 million and gave up No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson in the Shelby Miller deal with the Atlanta Braves.

Lackey gets a $7 million signing bonus, with $2 million paid in 2015 and $5 million earmarked for 2017, making it a $12.5-million hit for next season.

“I do think with an open mind,” Epstein said, “and with a willing partner on the business side and support of ownership, we’ve had more options open to us than maybe we imagined when the season ended.”

Adam Warren isn’t the headliner in the Castro deal, but the Cubs feel so much better about their fragile pitching situation with a talented swingman they believe will pitch even better in the National League Central.

Warren is 28 years old and under club control for three more seasons. As soon as the Castro news broke, the Cubs got calls from other teams that also see Warren as a starter. Warren appeared in 43 games and made 17 starts for the Yankees last season, going 7-7 with a 3.29 ERA across 131-plus innings.

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The Cubs have locked up another low-risk, high-reward swingman in Trevor Cahill with a one-year, $4.25 million contract. Making those types of under-the-radar moves – without trading Jorge Soler or Javier Baez or mortgaging the farm system – allows the Cubs to keep thinking big.

“We can continue to listen to anything that comes our way,” Epstein said. “We still have a little bit of a potential surplus with our position-player group and we haven’t moved any of our emerging players yet in any deals.

“But we don’t have to act out of need or desperation. We can be pretty selective.”

Either way, the Cubs will check out of the Opryland on Thursday and leave Nashville, Tennessee, feeling like they’ve put together some huge pieces to their offseason puzzle.

Cubs add two more managerial interviews this week

Cubs add two more managerial interviews this week

Though not every managerial candidate wants the Cubs job, Theo Epstein's front office will add two more interviews to their docket this week.

Carlos Beltran reportedly does not want to take the Cubs gig and is holding out only for the Mets opening. However, the Cubs are moving on and will interview Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler this week. 

Espada has been a rumored target of the Cubs, but he has been understandably tied up with Houston's playoff run. The Astros have a day off Monday before continuing their ALCS battle with the Yankees, and Espada is reportedly at Wrigley to meet with Epstein and Jed Hoyer:

Espada, 44, is one of the hottest names on the managerial market this fall and has served as A.J. Hinch's bench coach in Houston for the last two seasons. He has also worked as a minor-league coach and third-base coach for the Marlins, spent a year as a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman and another three seasons as the Yankees infield/third-base coach.

Kapler, 44, was just fired from his post as Phillies manager last week after two disappointing seasons in Philadelphia. In his first gig as manager, the former MLB player went 161-163, including just 81-81 this season with a roster that added Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura before the year. 

The Cubs have already interviewed four candidates, with current bench coach Mark Loretta going first in early October. Last week, David Ross, Joe Girardi and Will Venable also met with Epstein and Hoyer. 

In his end-of-season presser, Epstein said the Cubs are "full speed ahead" with their search for a new field general. Among other qualities, the Cubs front office is looking for a manager who can cultivate a winning culture and find a way to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts — an issue that plagued the team the last couple seasons (though that's not necessarily Joe Maddon's fault).

"The next manager will be a success if he can find a way to get the most out of each player," Epstein said. "That’s an obvious goal, but we want to make sure that the players we have, we’re reaching them, we’re developing them, we’re providing an environment where they can continue to grow and thrive. If we have players that are gonna be successful major-league players, we have to find a way to make it here. 

"I think that’s really important. That’s an organization-wide challenge, not just on the manager. The next manager, that’s going to be an important part of his responsibility."

The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen

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USA TODAY

The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen

Like their season as a whole, the Cubs bullpen was quite the enigma in 2019.

This season, Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA (No. 8 in MLB) and a .234 batting average against (No. 6 in MLB). On a surface level, that appears good.

But those numbers lose value when paired with what the Cubs bullpen did in high leverage situations: 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB), 15 home runs allowed (tied for No. 22), 61 walks (No. 29) and a .380 on-base percentage (No. 27). The bullpen also blew 28 saves (sixth-most in MLB) and converted just 57.58 percent of their opportunities (No. 22 in MLB).

Essentially, Cubs relievers weren't good enough when it mattered most in 2019. As a result, Theo Epstein and Co. know that they must address the relief corps during the offseason, one where they’re open-minded about changing up the roster..

“It was a real interesting year in the pen,” 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 [to the Cubs missing the postseason].

“We had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined one and two 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.”

Signing closer Craig Kimbrel was supposed to alleviate some of the early-season bullpen woes, but he also struggled, finishing the season with a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances. He'll be back in 2020, and Epstein believes a full spring training will go a long way for his closer.

Where does the rest of the bullpen stand heading into 2020, though?

Brandon Kintzler proved his value to the Cubs in 2019, but he’s set to hit free agency after the postseason. Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop have been two of the team's more reliable relievers in recent seasons, but they also will hit free agency.

The Cubs are unlikely to pick up their team options for Tony Barnette ($3 million) and Derek Holland ($6.5 million), while David Phelps’ $5 million option could be too costly. Phelps can start or pitch in relief, but so can Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay.

Tyler Chatwood, Mills and Alzolay could find themselves competing for a Cubs starting rotation spot, but they’re also bullpen candidates. Dillon Maples and James Norwood will likely be given a look, as will Danny Hultzen. However, Hultzen (and Duane Underwood Jr.) are out of minor league options, meaning the Cubs could lose them via waivers if they don’t make the 2020 Opening Day roster.

Right now, only Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck are locks to start the 2020 season in the Cubs bullpen. And while Epstein said he needs to do a better job finding relief options, he deserves credit for unearthing the latter three.

After an impressive 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs signed Ryan to a big-league deal last November. And, despite not making the roster out of spring training, he played a big role with the Cubs in 2019.

Not only did Ryan finish the season with a 3.54 ERA (2.13 vs. lefties), but he made a team-high 73 appearances. His emergence made World Series hero Mike Montgomery – whom the Cubs traded to the Royals in July – expendable (though so did the latter’s struggles as a reliever).

The Cubs acquired Wick (Nov. 20, 2018) and Wieck (July 31, 2019) in separate deals with the Padres, and both players have benefitted from working with the Cubs’ “Pitch Lab.” 

Wick finished the season with a 2.43 ERA in 31 outings, striking out 35 batters in 33 1/3 innings. His fastball velocity averaged 95.8 mph in 2019, playing well off of his curveball, which had a 34.1 percent strikeout rate.

At 6-foot-9, Wieck is an intimidating presence on the mound (as a lefty, nonetheless). His fastball velocity averaged 93.7 mph in 2019, while the pitch lab helped him add more vertical break to his curveball:


(Baseball Savant)

In short, Ryan, Wick and Wieck came out of relatively nowhere, though each offer the Cubs something that the team needs. Ryan pitches well against left-handed hitters; Wick and Wieck have high velocity and generate swings and misses.

Ryan is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, while Wick and Wieck are still under team control. Therefore, they won’t cost the Cubs a lot to retain, which means more money is available to add other bullpen pieces.

The Cubs have more needs than relief pitching, including center field, second base, a leadoff hitter and starting pitching depth. Therefore, they may need Epstein to work his magic again and unearth another low-key pitcher or two with high potential.

Epstein admitted that the solid ‘pen numbers mean less when paired with the high leverage woes, but he also expressed optimism for how the group performed, especially the under the radar guys.

“…I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well,” Epstein said, “because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level.

“We’ve seen more of that. 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, 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."

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