Will Cubs welcome Tommy La Stella back into the clubhouse?

Will Cubs welcome Tommy La Stella back into the clubhouse?

Tommy La Stella finally ended his timeout, reporting to Double-A Tennessee and hitting a line-drive single in his first at-bat on Wednesday night, while Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer made “no promises” and manager Joe Maddon confidently predicted a Sept. 1 call-up to The Show.  

“Oh, is that…happening?” Kris Bryant said, surrounded by reporters at his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it. I’m not aware of the situation. Obviously, it’s something that I didn’t really want to follow. It’s up to Tommy and the front office.”

Bryant doesn’t do biting sarcasm during group interviews – the All-Star third baseman simply didn’t pay attention to the La Stella saga – and quickly pivoted to talking up a “great player” and a “great teammate to me.”       

It just shows that professional baseball is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind experience, and La Stella hadn’t played since refusing to report to Triple-A Iowa on July 29, when the Cubs activated outfielder Chris Coghlan. Two days later, the Cubs began a run of 11 straight wins. In the middle of that hot streak, La Stella told ESPN that he would consider retiring if he couldn’t play for the big-league Cubs.

The reality is La Stella probably would have been back at Wrigley Field already if he had simply done his time at Triple-A, because the Cubs put Coghlan back on the disabled list with a right rib contusion before Wednesday night’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers.   

“Quite possibly,” Hoyer said. “Yeah, I guess that is something that was a factor for him – or a detriment for him – as far as he might have been back up in the big leagues by now had he gone down. 

“But, listen, he probably needed to get away and clear his head. Hopefully, he goes down to Tennessee with a good attitude.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Other than that, Hoyer said, “I don’t think there’s any catalytic event” that convinced the 27-year-old pinch-hitter/reserve infielder to leave his home in suburban New Jersey and go back to work.    

“We’ve just been constantly talking to him,” Maddon said. “A lot of it was with Tommy and Ken Ravizza,” the sports psychologist involved in the organization’s mental-skills program. 

“We want him back. I know he’s going to be very helpful for us down the road. I like him in the clubhouse. I like his personality here. 

“He’s so good to have off the bench, and he’s so good to have in that spot start when the matchup really works in his favor.”    

La Stella – who hit .295 with an .846 OPS in 122 plate appearances for the Cubs before getting squeezed by the 25-man roster crunch and his minor-league option – got hit by a pitch and played four innings during his first game back with the Smokies.

“There’s always a need for left-handed bats that put the ball in play and get on base,” Hoyer said, “but obviously he’s got to earn his way back.”

If that happens, La Stella will have to walk into the clubhouse and look his teammates in the eyes instead of trading text messages with them.

“There’s definitely going to be some guys that might want to talk to him about it,” Maddon said. “Knowing Tommy, he’s going to be very open about speaking about it in return.”

This is a clubhouse where almost anything goes, where the Cubs believe almost any personality can fit in and find a way to contribute, and La Stella does have a specific – if somewhat limited – skill set. 

“Somebody’s got to be at peace with what they’re doing,” said outfielder Jason Heyward, who also played with La Stella on the Atlanta Braves. “Anybody that comes through these doors, we’re happy to have, especially someone like La Stella, who contributes so much, even when he basically wasn’t playing. 

“He’s a guy that spoke up during the game, rooting us on and things like that. Good ball talk, as he would say. Stuff like that is missed more than not missed. So if you see someone like that, who brings that every day, come back into the clubhouse, you welcome that with open arms all the time.”   

Which sounds great in theory.

“That’s between the team and Tommy,” Hoyer said. “If players feel like they need things to be smoothed over, then they do. I’m sure there will be a lot of conversations. It was an unusual situation. Players will probably want to hear it from his mouth (about) what went into it. But that’s for the players to decide.”  

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

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.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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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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