Cubs

Cole Hamels details one reason it all went wrong for Cubs in 2019

Cole Hamels details one reason it all went wrong for Cubs in 2019

If you're looking for a seminal moment in the 2019 Cubs season, look no further than Cole Hamels walking off the mound after the first inning in Cincinnati on June 28.

Hamels left with an oblique injury and wound up missing more than a month. But in reality, he was never the same again.

From the time he returned on Aug. 3 through the end of the season, Hamels went 1-4 with a 5.79 ERA and 1.83 WHIP and just two quality starts. Prior to the oblique injury, the veteran had been arguably the Cubs' most consistent starter, going 6-3 with a 2.98 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 10 quality starts. 

In fact, he was one of the hottest pitchers on the planet going into that outing in Cincinnati with a 1.00 ERA in his first five June starts.

On the morning of June 28, the Cubs woke up in first place with a 44-38 record, a game up on the Milwaukee Brewers and three up on the St. Louis Cardinals. But from that point forward, the Cubs went only 40-40 while the Cards turned in a sparkling 51-31 record and the Brewers went 46-34. 

In hindsight, there are plenty of reasons to point to for the Cubs' collapse, but the starting rotation was a major factor and Hamels' absence — and subsequent ineffectiveness — was absolutely a part of that downfall. 

The Cubs had a 3.94 rotation ERA before Hamels' injury, the best mark of the three NL Central contenders. Post-Hamels injury, the Cubs dropped to a 4.43 rotation ERA, easily the worst total of the three squads. 

Hamels is gone now, a free agent whom the Cubs did not even extend a qualifying offer to this winter. The chances of him returning to the North Side of Chicago are slim, as the Cubs want to go younger with their rotation. But he did speak on the White Sox Talk Podcast this week about his chances of landing on the South Side.

In discussing his future as a big-league pitcher with NBC Sports Chicago's Chuck Garfien, Hamels also spent some time looking back at his 2019 season with the Cubs — namely how he felt like he rushed back from his oblique injury. 

Hamels said he felt fantastic to start the year, as the results showed. He was confident and locked in with his mechanics and had eliminated the slider he was trying to incorporate into his repertoire, going with more of a four-pitch approach (4-seam fastball, changeup, cutter, curveball).

He also admitted he tore his oblique when he slipped on his front leg trying to deliver a pitch in Cincinnati and detailed how the injury affected him for the rest of the season:

"Then trying to come back, I knew that I needed to be back there because I was doing so well and so after healing up and not throwing a ball for almost 18 days, I rushed back into my throwing program and I was just never able to get my shoulder the right strength," Hamels told Garfien. "I felt like, you know what, it will slowly go, it will be more like a spring training. But when you're in games that count, you're gonna grind away and put a little bit more effort on it when you probably can't sustain it and my shoulder was just getting more tired and more tired. 

"My front side was now leaking because I was trying to generate the velocity, so I wasn't really throwing off my front side as much and I think then the oblique was always in the back of my mind because I didn't want to reaggravate it, because if I did, I was gonna be out for the season. There's just a lot that was really not going well and then I kinda got to that part in the end of September where I really couldn't lift and throw the ball — my shoulder was just so fatigued. 

"I was able to take a week off and everything felt amazing. I was able to pitch the last game, but unfortunately, we were already out of it. Sometimes, I think people look at it like, 'oh, that was bad.' But it just was like, 'no, I finally now feel good. Unfortunately, the season's over.' So that was just a tough situation because I never caught up and I thought I could. Maybe that's what happens as you get older, but I know if I probably would've put in the right amount of time in it building up, I would've been more effective. 

"But unfortunately I think it's just the nature of who we are, we just want to be out there and compete as fast as we possibly can and I rushed back. It didn't benefit anybody. That's kind of the tough part. I loved being able to pitch for my teammates and the Cubs and that city and I feel like I really let them down in that situation. I felt like if I could've been at my best, we probably would've made the postseason. So that's something that doesn't sit well with me and that's why in the offseason, I'm trying to make sure that doesn't happen. I can prove myself again. If it's not for the Cubs, it's gonna be for somebody else for their benefit."

As he said, Hamels threw the second-to-last game of the season for the Cubs in St. Louis, striking out 8 in 4 shutout innings in an 8-6 victory. It was his best outing in nearly two months and came on 11 days rest after the Cubs skipped his turn in the rotation.

"I pretty much got like a 10-day recovery, which jumpstarted my body again and my shoulder," Hamels said. "And I watched a lot of video, realized I wasn't staying strong on my front side, so that's what I did in my bullpen before the game and everything was finally clicking. But then all of the sudden, the season ends. And you're like, 'aw, man, I wish I had a few more starts here because then I could really show that I'm A-OK.'"

Of course, Hamels didn't have the luxury of any more starts and the Cubs had already run out of time and been eliminated from playoff contention by his final outing. Maybe things would've been different for the 2019 Cubs if they had figured out sooner that shutting down Hamels for a few days between starts would give him all the juice he needed to regain his pre-injury form. 

As it stands, Hamels is looking for work and the Cubs are looking for ways to shake up their roster after a disappointing 84-win campaign.

Cubs close to deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza, per report

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USA TODAY

Cubs close to deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza, per report

The Cubs have made a roster move.

According to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are reportedly close to a deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza.

Souza, 30, missed the 2019 season after suffering a torn left ACL and LCL at the end of spring training. He also missed a chunk of 2018, playing 72 games while hitting the injured list on multiple occasions.

Souza had a career year with the Rays in 2017, slashing .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, 78 RBIs and a 121 wRC+. Those figures were career bests for Souza, minus his batting average. He sported a walk rate (13.6 percent) above league average (8.5) that season, though his strikeout rate (29 percent) was worse than the MLB average (23).

The signing of Souza likely rules out a return of fan favorite outfielder Nicholas Castellanos. The Cubs have been linked to Castellanos throughout the offseason, but since they're looking to stay under MLB’s luxury tax threshold, re-signing Castellanos would require some financial maneuvering.

Souza has spent most of his career in right field (3,608 career innings) but has minimal experience playing center (33 1/3) and left (20). He’s above average in right (career 6 Defensive Runs Saved) and posted a career best 7 DRS in 2017.

The Cubs have a five-time Gold Glove right fielder in Jason Heyward, so Souza will see time at all three outfield spots. Heyward moved to center full-time last season after the Cubs acquired Castellanos and has played center at times throughout his career.

Assuming he stays healthy, Souza is a low-risk, high-reward move for the Cubs. He’ll add power to the middle of the order and add a proven bat to an outfield with some question marks. Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ have each struggled offensively at times since 2018. Souza offers another bat in case those two slump again. 

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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