Amid trying season, Pedro Strop believes he's 'on the cusp' of returning to form


Amid trying season, Pedro Strop believes he's 'on the cusp' of returning to form

MILWAUKEE — It's still a strange sight watching the Cubs cycle through relievers out of the bullpen in close games without Pedro Strop as a central part of that group.

Saturday night, Joe Maddon called on six different relievers — Kyle Ryan, Steve Cishek, David Phelps, Derek Holland, Rowan Wick and Brandon Kintzler. Yet even with closer Craig Kimbrel on the injured list (right elbow inflammation), Strop's number still wasn't called and clearly isn't in Maddon's circle of trust at the moment.

It's understandable why, as Strop carries a 5.40 ERA and 1.34 WHIP on the season with 6 blown saves.

After starting the year looking like his usual self (2.53 ERA) and serving as the team's closer, Strop has a 6.94 ERA in 30 games since May 4. That includes an outing on May 6 when he gave up 3 runs and took a blown save and a loss against the Marlins and went on the shelf a day later with a hamstring injury. 

The 34-year-old also missed a couple weeks with a neck injury and generally has struggled to maintain his velocity throughout the season.

"Yeah, it's been a hard year for me on and off because of injuries and stuff," Strop said. "It's been a while where I've felt really good now and I feel healthy. I was off a little bit mechanics-wise, but right now, I feel pretty good and my last couple outings have been where I want to be. 

"Hopefully I get a chance and an opportunity to get in the game so I can pitch the way I used to pitch so they can see and say, 'OK, he's ready to be in high-leverage situations again.' Hopefully I get the chance."

With the ascension of other guys in the bullpen (Wick and Ryan, especially) and Kintzler's resurgent season, the Cubs bullpen has been able to get by without Strop pitching in high-leverage spots for the most part.

But they can use all the help they can get down the stretch and this is a guy who has 119 holds and 29 saves over his seven seasons with the Cubs, serving as a linchpin in this bullpen for the better part of the last decade.

Prior to 2019, Strop had never finished a season with an ERA above 2.91 and these were his numbers across the board as a Cub before this difficult season:

2.63 ERA
1.02 WHIP
10.2 K/9
5.7 H/9

That's an elite reliever who accounted for 331.1 innings in that span. 

He also pitched through some extreme pain in the NL Wild-Card Game last October in a gutsy performance coming off a bad hamstring injury.

It just hasn't been the same this season, but Strop feels close to where he wants to be — "we're right on the cusp," he said.

Strop allowed an unearned run in Friday's game and Maddon said that was the best he's seen the veteran reliever look in a little while. He followed that with a scoreless eighth inning in Sunday's loss, erasing a one-out walk with a double play.

"The slider's gotten sharper, probably a tick up in velocity also," Maddon said. "Stroppy just wants to play. He's so competitive, but he's also very pragmatic — he knows where it's at right now compared to where some of the other guys have been pitching. But if this guy finds it moving down the stretch run, it could be very valuable. 

"His work's been great. It's been outstanding. It's trending in the right direction for him. Right now, there's so many guys that are doing a nice body of work there, so we just gotta work him back into it."

Strop is in the last year of his contract with the Cubs and has been lauded as an integral piece of the clubhouse chemistry and a leader in the bullpen over his years in Chicago.

Even throughout a difficult season, he's still maintained his jovial personality.

"There's too many games in one season to mourn over one thing, whether it be injury or a bad outing or somebody else's injury or bad outing," Ryan said. "[Having a guy like that] raises your clubhouse morale and team morale and on-field morale. A smile is very contagious and Stroppy's always smiling."

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Scott Boras and Kris Bryant ‘more than willing’ to discuss extension with Cubs


Scott Boras and Kris Bryant ‘more than willing’ to discuss extension with Cubs

Kris Bryant’s name has frequented trade rumors this offseason. That doesn’t mean the Cubs will move him, or that they can’t work out an extension with their superstar third baseman.

Tuesday, Bryant’s agent — Scott Boras — said while the focus is on Bryant’s 2020 contract, the two are, “more than willing” to discuss a multi-year contract extension with the Cubs.

Bryant is under contract through 2021, but the Cubs could move him if they feel they won’t be able to reach an agreement on an extension. Trading the 2016 National League MVP would help the Cubs replenish their barren farm system and avoid losing him for nothing when he hits free agent.

But despite the non-stop Bryant rumors, Boras said trades involving superstar players rarely happen, following up on the history lesson he gave at last month’s GM Meetings.

“I think in these markets that you can never, ever anticipate anything other than great players who are close to free agency in one or two years are always bandied about as potentials in the marketplace,” Boras said. “It happens every year. Trades rarely happen. Sometimes they do. You can go back and talk about anyone who is not signed to a multi-year contract that is in that position and is an MVP-type player, they always get that attention.”

There’s also the issue of Bryant’s ongoing service-time grievance. If he wins, he’ll become a free agent after next season rather than after 2021. This would complicate a potential trade, as teams would likely offer the Cubs less for Bryant if he is only under team control for one more season.

Plus, the Cubs don’t get better by trading Bryant, at least not in the immediate future.

“Rarely, core, premium, All-Star, MVP-type players, they’re so valuable to a team,” Boras said. “It’s hard to think how you ever replace them, and so when you get into those levels, historically, it’s normally not something that’s done.”

Multiple options are open when it comes to Bryant at this point. The incessant rumors may say otherwise, but trading him is no foregone conclusion.

Yu Darvish's 'bargain' contract and the Cubs' pursuit of starting pitching

Yu Darvish's 'bargain' contract and the Cubs' pursuit of starting pitching

SAN DIEGO — Two offseasons ago, the Cubs inked a megadeal with one of the top pitchers on the market — a 31-year-old right-hander coming off a World Series run.

They paid $126 million over six years.

This offseason, the Nationals inked a megadeal with one of the top pitchers on the market — a 31-year-old right-hander coming off a World Series run. 

They paid $245 million over seven years.

A lot has changed in the last two winters.

Now, this isn't an argument about which pitcher was better at the time of their signing — Darvish or Strasburg. Wherever you fall in that debate, there's no denying they're at least comparable in terms of talent and production. 

Strasburg's deal also makes the Darvish contract look like a relative bargain, as the Cubs locked down their righty for roughly half the amount the Nationals paid.

It's funny we're even at the point in Darvish's tenure that we're now looking at his megadeal like a "bargain" after it looked destined for "bust" territory as recently as earlier this year. 

Darvish's first year in Chicago was a disaster, as he dealt with a bone bruise in his forearm and managed to make only 8 starts with a 4.95 ERA in those 40 innings. But he came to camp last spring in great shape physically and mentally, bonding with his teammates on a level he did not in 2018 and flashing his sense of humor from Day 1 (which has continued this offseason on social media).

That didn't immediately translate into results, as Darvish had a 5.01 ERA entering the All-Star Break after battling bouts of wildness and longball-itis. 

Then he flipped a switch, asking for the ball in the first game of the second half and going on to become one of the top pitchers in all of baseball after the All-Star Game with a 2.76 ERA and 118 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 81.2 innings. 

"The way Darvish pitched the second half of this year, any number would be a bargain," Theo Epstein said. "It's hard to pitch better than he did. I think that's where our focus is; he's in such a great place mentally and physically right now. He was dominant, he wants to go do that over the course of many years as a Chicago Cub. He's an important guy for us."

Darvish is owed $81 million over the next four years and with the price of pitching around the game right now, it's very likely he would have been able to secure more for himself on the open market. He had an opt-out in his deal, but chose instead to stay with the Cubs, where he was comfortable and grateful to the organization for their patience and support during his difficult start to his Chicago career. 

"Certainly the way the starting pitching market has moved and as quickly as it's moved, you couldn't get a guy like Yu Darvish on that kind of number now, let alone what's left on his deal," Epstein said. "You want more contracts that have surplus value than the other way around. He's a real asset for us."

Even with Darvish's contract now looking like a bargain or boasting "surplus value," the Cubs are still in a tight spot financially with a projected payroll around $6 million north of the luxury tax threshold. 

Yet Epstein's front office is still in the market for another starting pitcher to take Cole Hamels' spot in the rotation. They have internal options (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, Collin Rea, Jharel Cotton) and could potentially slot one of those guys in that role, but Epstein and Co. always want to run their rotation depth chart eight or nine arms deep. 

Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are locked into rotation spots and Jose Quintana will be as well, if he's not traded. The Cubs picked up Quintana's $10.5 million option for 2020, but it's the final year of his team-friendly deal and if the Cubs want to shed salary, dealing the veteran lefty might be an avenue to do so depending on what he'd fetch in a return.

If Quintana is moved, that obviously creates another hole in the rotation. Even if he remains on the North Side of Chicago, it would only be a short-term solution. Neither he nor Lester are signed beyond 2020 (Lester does have a vesting option for 2021) and the Cubs need long-term solutions for the rotation. 

So does that mean the Cubs are placing young, controllable starting pitching as a priority in trade talks as they dangle players like Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras?

"You can't force it," Epstein said. "We have a couple starting pitchers under longer-term control and then we have a couple who are up after next year and not a lot of depth behind it. So it would be nice, but you can't necessarily force it. We have a lot of needs and if we were to move a really good player, you want to get talent back. 

"It doesn't necessarily matter what position or what shape. But yeah, it'd certainly be nice over the course of this offseason and maybe the next trade deadline and maybe next offseason, we make sure we acquire impactful starting pitching at some point."

That could mean in the free agent pool, though the current budget issues would make that tough unless it's buying low on pitchers like they have the last two winters with Rea and Cotton.

It's yet another area where the Cubs' inability to draft and develop impact pitchers has come back to haunt Epstein's front office. But they can at least be grateful Darvish will return and has recouped enough value to change the conversation surrounding his signing as that of a "bargain."

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