Cubs

A rejuvenated Cole Hamels has been a godsend for Cubs’ inconsistent rotation

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AP

A rejuvenated Cole Hamels has been a godsend for Cubs’ inconsistent rotation

Small sample size and all that, but Cole Hamels is doing a damn good job of keeping the narrative relevant that he could be this year's Justin Verlander.

Hamels was dealt to the Cubs ahead of the trade deadline last month whereas Verlander was a waiver deal to the Houston Astros last August. But they share a lot in common as veteran starting pitchers with impressive resumes that had appeared to be toward the tailend of their career before a rejuvenation thanks to a late-season trade.

Verlander helped the Astros win the World Series last fall and we don't yet know if Hamels will be able to accomplish the same feat in Chicago.

Through three starts, the 34-year-old southpaw has been far better than anybody's wildest dreams.

After carving through the Nationals' powerhouse lineup Sunday night locked in a pitcher's duel with the likely 2018 NL Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer), Hamels now has a 1.00 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in a Cubs uniform with 20 strikeouts against only 4 walks in 18 innings.

He also has yet to allow an extra-base hit in a Cubs uniform. The only reason he's not 3-0 in those three starts is because the Cubs were unable to provide any support Sunday against Scherzer and the Washington bullpen until David Bote's heroics in the bottom of the ninth.

"It's saying something when you win ballgames here," Hamels said. "I mean, this place is electric. This clubhouse has been outstanding and the energy that we have after the games, that was something special today.

"That was a real joy to be a part of obviously the way that it ended, you just have to get credit to all these guys. They fight to the very end. To be able to do this against a tremendous team over there, it just makes it that much sweeter tonight."

Hamels had more 1-2-3 innings Sunday night (6) than Jon Lester has the entire second half (3).

And the Cubs got him for a 23-year-old pitcher in A-ball and Eddie Butler while also getting the Rangers to kick in enough money to keep Theo Epstein's squad under the luxury tax in 2018.

To Joe Maddon, this still looks like the same guy that shut his team down in the 2008 World Series and no-hit the Cubs at Wrigley Field in July 2015.

"Of course he's probably been reborn a little bit coming to us right now," Maddon said. "But stuff is high-end, man. If there's any kind of drop-off, it's minimal if at all. Because I'm not seeing it from the side."

Hamels is doing all this with an elite changeup which is generating a swing-and-miss nearly half the time he throws it:

With a wicked changeup like that, you'd think Hamels would go to it all the time. He did in Pittsburgh and used it a bunch against the Nationals Sunday night, but it was not a major part of his game Monday night in Kansas City.

Hamels wasn't feeling his changeup against the Royals and instead relied on his curveball.

Even when his best pitch isn't working, Hamels' intellect and wide array of pitches gives him plenty of weapons to shut down the other team and now he's rejuvenated with a move back into a postseason race.

"I think anytime you get placed into a pennant race, you start to discover a little bit more that's in the tank that you might not necessarily have been able to go down and really gather," Hamels said. "But at the same time, I really was focusing a lot, even when I was down there [in Texas] — trying to correct my mechanics.

"That was something that was off and I knew it was off and it was just a matter of trying to identify it. And then putting in the work to get the muscle memory so I could actually go out there and perform at the level I know I'm capable of doing. It's now being able to see that and getting the results, that's how you build momentum, that's how you get back to what I know I'm capable of doing and that's going out there and helping the team win ballgames."

It was a decade ago, but Hamels was named the NLCS and World Series MVP with the Phillies in 2008 as he took down Maddon's Rays in the Fall Classic.

All this from a guy who was in the midst of the worst season of his career in Texas (5-9, 4.72 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) before the trade.

The Cubs bet on that big-game experience and veteran savviness and it's paid off in a big way so far. 

"Love the situations," Hamels said. "This is why I play the game. I do love the game of baseball with all my heart. To be in the spotlight in big games against big-time pitchers, that's what I live for. That's what I'm here to go out and try to do.

"That's something that has always been what I've enjoyed most about pitching is being on the biggest stage possible."

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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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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