Cubs

The winter meetings, Fujikawa and where the Cubs go from here

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The winter meetings, Fujikawa and where the Cubs go from here

The Cubs arent going to overreact to the empty green seats at Wrigley Field. The business of baseball is booming. The bailout money will be coming soon enough with the new national and local television deals.
And of course nobody is untouchable. The Cubs can lose 101 games with or without them. But that doesnt mean theyre about to trade Starlin Castro.
It almost certainly wont stop the rumors from bouncing around the lobby of the Gaylord Opryland and getting recycled in cyberspace. Castro for Giancarlo Stanton? Justin Upton? Mystery Player X? What about Josh Hamilton on a short-term deal? But the Cubs have a very clear idea of what they want to accomplish at next weeks winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn.
Nothings changed philosophically, general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday. Were still trying to build to a point where we have a ton of young talent and a lot of available money to spend to really have that team (with) sustained success.
How the Cubs find the middle ground for 2013 will be the big question. Kyuji Fujikawa recently visited Wrigley Field, and the Japanese closer was believed to be most interested in the Cubs and Los Angeles Angels (with the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers lurking as a wild card).
The Angels just signed Ryan Madson, which could eliminate the opportunity to close in Anaheim. Hoyer confirmed a meeting with Fujikawa we came away very impressed but wouldnt comment on the state of negotiations or an anticipated timetable for the decision.
Before Friday nights deadline, the Cubs non-tendered third baseman Ian Stewart, who could still return as a free agent. Four arbitration-eligible players were tendered contracts: pitchers Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and James Russell; and infielder Luis Valbuena.
Pitchers Zach Putnam and Jaye Chapman who were not eligible for arbitration were not tendered contracts while Casey Coleman has cleared waivers and been assigned outright to Triple-A Iowa, leaving the 40-man roster at 37.
Some pitchers cut loose elsewhere Jair Jurrjens, Mike Pelfrey and John Lannan could be intriguing options for the rotation. But the front office also wants to impact the endgame.
Fujikawa is 32 years old and has notched 220 saves during his time with the Hanshin Tigers. The right-hander has posted a career 1.77 ERA, with 914 strikeouts against 207 walks, the kind of ratio you wont get with Carlos Marmol.
Fujikawa has competed in the World Baseball Classic, as well as the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Marmol was nearly traded to the Angels four weeks ago until the Cubs had concerns about Dan Harens medicals. Assuming Marmol makes it to camp, the Cubs would like to see someone push him.
Whenever you build a bullpen, you want as many guys that have a chance to pitch late in the game as possible, Hoyer said. Carlos had a great second half (1.52 ERA). He struggled in April. He lost the job and to his credit he worked really hard to get it back and pitched really well. If we bring in someone that has closing experience or a number of guys that have that kind of experience thats no knock on Carlos.
Every team in baseball wants to have an assortment of guys back there that if the need arises can pitch in the ninth inning. Hopefully, we can do that. Our bullpen put too much pressure last year on (Shawn) Camp and Russell and Marmol and we have to avoid that. We need to bring in a really good number of arms to make that goal a reality.
Team president Theo Epstein has said that the Cubs have very narrow fits for possible trades. They will listen to just about anything, and would have no problem moving a short-term asset like Marmol, but they are planning to stockpile core players like Castro, Samardzija and Anthony Rizzo.
We lost 101 games last year, Hoyer said. I dont think were in a position to say we have enough talent or to say that any one player on the rosters untouchable. We certainly have several players that we would have a hard time parting with, and it would take a heck of a package to make it happen.
So far, the Cubs have been largely quiet, signing pitchers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman to one-year deals while continuing to look for possible rotation pieces. But most of the big names are still on the board.
Hoyer talked about the cascading effect once a certain player signs. With the entire industry gathering in the Music City, all it could take is one powerful agent or one bold front office to get everything flowing.
The Cubs wont be setting the market, but they realize they need a veteran outfielder. Brett Jackson is already ticketed for Des Moines. Junior Lake has gone to the outfield in winter ball, and the Cubs think his superior athleticism could play well there, but hes far from a finished product. Albert Almora and Jorge Soler are nice prospects, but they will probably start next season at Class-A Kane County.
It is always a balancing act when you have prospects you like a lot and theyre (that) far away, Hoyer said. You cant really think too much about those guys. You have to think about your team now. The idea of blocking when a guy is in the low minors is kind of ridiculous.
Well look to improve our outfield. We know thats an area we need to improve upon and theres a number of players that well be talking to across the next few weeks.
The Cubs will keep selling their vision for the future, but they still need something for the here and now.

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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