Cubs

19 for '19: Can Jon Lester and Cole Hamels fight off Father Time for another year?

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USA Today

19 for '19: Can Jon Lester and Cole Hamels fight off Father Time for another year?

Talking about aging athletes is an abnormal experience. 

For instance, both Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are 35. That is objectively -- in baseball terms -- old. Of course, 35 is not actually old, because as I approach 30 I'm realizing that it's the new 20 and that's what I'll say about that. 

This discussion, however, does take place within the realm of baseball terms. So for now, we'll say 35 is old. Sorry, Jon. Sorry, Cole. 

The saying goes that Father Time is undefeated, and unless you go to Germany for magic knee surgery or Massachusetts for weird Alex Guerrero massages, it's held pretty firm. Most of the Cubs' starting rotation has bigger immediate concerns (like Joey Votto or Paul Goldschmidt or Christian Yellich or Yasiel Puig), but they're also pitching against Father Time. If that sounds overly dramatic it's because hell yeah, baseball *is* overly dramatic. The Cubs need Lester and Hamels to be good this year - there's no path to an NL Central pennant without them. With each nearing the wrong side of 30, is there enough left in the tank? 

Lester

At this point in his career, Lester's value lies in his durability. He's pitched at least 180 innings in each of the last 11 seasons, while breaching 200 innings in eight of those. That's 2282.2 innings over the last decade +, and only five other qualified starters have logged more in that time. 

You don't need to look too hard to see Lester's decline. Since coming to Chicago, his K/9 has dropped almost two full batters while his BB/9 has risen proportionally. A 5-win player at the peak of his career, Lester's at best a 2-3 win player now. Homers are starting to be an issue, as 2 of the 4 seasons in which he's averaged more than one home run per nine innings have come in the last two years. The amount of hard contact he allows grows each season, though it should be noted that even Lester's "bad" contact numbers are still mostly better than league average; they're just trending in the wrong direction. 

Lester's decline is not news, nor should it be. Throwing a baseball over and over and over again is taxing, and Lester has done a whole lot of that over the last decade. The Cubs aren't paying Lester $22.5 million this year for the pitcher he was - they're paying him that because he has a 2.51 ERA in 154 playoff innings. He was masterful in the Cubs' season-ending loss vs. Colorado, striking out 9 over six innings of one-run ball. He's one of this generation's premier postseason pitchers, and that alone is worth twenty-two million dollars. He's earned his Opening Day start, and with the injury woes surrounding others within the Cubs' rotation, getting 6+ innings from Lester more often than not is infinitely valuable. 

Hamels 

So, turns out that Hamels and Lester have basically had the same career: 

Hamels (13 years): 2553 IPs, 3.40 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 23.0 K%, 6.8 BB%, 1.17 WHIP
Lester (13 years): 2366 IPs, 3.50 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 22.3 K%,  7.8 BB%, 1.25 WHIP

Hamels time in Texas was quite ugly, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him turn it around once he was traded to the Cubs. Some reasons for concern remain, though: he stranded runners on base at a clip (82%) that he hadn't since his time with the Phillies in 2014. That's likely to regress back closer towards his career norm, which sits at 76%. His Cubs' ERA was almost a full-run lower than his Cubs' FIP, another sign that he had a nice run of luck. At this stage in his career, he's most likely not a sub-3 ERA pitcher, like he was during his 76.1 Cubs innings last season. 

The optimist would point out that Hamels has talked at length about how a lingering oblique injury messed with his mechanics and left him searching for answers for the better part of two seasons. They'd say that getting out of Texas, where he was allowing almost 2 home runs per 9 innings, will do him wonders. They'd have a point; as he continues to distance himself from that disaster of a 2017 season, it's looking more and more like an aberration than a sign of things to come. His velocity was back up, and the renewed confidence in his four-seamer, along with a tinkered approach to right-handed hitters, did wonders. 

At this point in their window, the Cubs are relying more on veteran experience than they are raw talent - and that's fine. Not every team has the luxury of having four World Series titles between two starters. They may not be Cy Young candidates, but that's what Yu Darvish is for anyways! 

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Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

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AP

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

With the MLB trade deadline two weeks away, bullpen help figures to be on the Cubs' wish list.

But thanks in part to Kyle Ryan's emergence, the Cubs don't absolutely need that reliever to be left-handed (though it would probably be ideal).

The Cubs began the week with three southpaws in their bullpen, but at some point this weekend, Ryan may be the lone lefty remaining. Mike Montgomery was traded to the Royals late Monday night and with Carl Edwards Jr. progressing in his rehab (he threw again Tuesday), he might take Randy Rosario's spot in a couple days. 

The Cubs like Edwards against lefties and they also feel confident in Pedro Strop against either handed hitter when he's on. But Ryan has worked his way into Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust and is currently the only lefty residing there.

That's not to say the Cubs don't need another reliable southpaw in the 'pen, but Ryan looks like he's going to get some big outs for this team down the stretch.

"He's done a great job for us since he's been here," Jon Lester said of Ryan last month. "I don't think he gets enough credit for what he's been able to do."

Ryan impressed the Cubs with his work as a multi-inning reliever in Triple-A last season and turned heads again in camp this spring. Still, Rosario made the Opening Day roster over him, though Ryan got called up on the team's season-opening road trip and made his first appearance on April 6.

Since then, he's been a mainstay while Montgomery battled injury and ineffectiveness, Rosario and Tim Collins have bounced between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago and veteran Xavier Cedeno's time off the injured list was short-lived.

Ryan looked to be finding his way throughout his first month in the bullpen, but after his infamous "freeze" moment against the Marlins, he endured some struggles (7 runs allowed on 12 hits in 7 innings from May 8 through June 1).

He's righted the ship since then, permitting only 1 run over his last 17 appearances (14 innings) and lowering his season ERA to 3.21 to go along with a 1.31 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 33.2 innings.

A big part of that recent success can be tied to Ryan's increased improvement against left-handed hitters. 

Lefties hit .344 with a .405 on-base percentage off Ryan through June 5. But since then, Ryan has surrendered only 3 hits — all singles — and zero walks to the 19 left-handed hitters he's faced (.158 AVG).

He credits part of that turnaround to working on a changeup, which he thinks has helped lock in the "feel" of all his other pitches as well as his mechanics. 

As he works to add a new pitch to his repertoire, Ryan has leaned on Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for assistance, while also picking the brains of veterans like Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Brad Brach who have all thrown changeups for quite a while.

But even with all that work, he still hasn't resorted to using the changeup much in games. The pitch is so foreign that it's still being picked up as a sinker, including on the Wrigley Field video board Sunday when he threw one in his inning of work.

"Eventually, I'm gonna find the changeup and it's gonna be a comfortable, confident pitch," Ryan said. "But I do think it's gotten me behind all the rest of my pitches and it's maybe a little bit better feel for everything. It's gonna stay where it is for a while. I'm gonna keep trying."

Ryan said one of the things he likes about the changeup is that it can eventually be a nice weapon because it "goes in the opposite direction" of all his other pitches.

We'll see if the new pitch can ever become a factor for the 27-year-old. But if it's helped lock in his other pitches, that's great news for the Cubs, especially as they look to fortify their bullpen this month.

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss Yu Darvish's 1st win at Wrigley, Cole Hamel's status, and Kris Bryant playing better than he did in his MVP season.

01:00     Darvish picking up 1st win at Wrigley

03:30     Cole Hamels injury update

05:00     Starting rotation after the All-Star break

06:00     Cubs defense looking sharp

07:30     How the Cubs will approach the weekend and the expected heat

09:30     Kris Bryant playing above his MVP level

12:00     How the NL Central stacks up

14:00     Upcoming road trip to San Francisco, Milwaukee and Saint Louis

16:00     Addition to Martin Maldonado

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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