Cole Hamels returns to Philadelphia for the first time

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Cole Hamels returns to Philadelphia for the first time

Tonight, as Cole Hamels is set to pitch against his first team, the Philadelphia Phillies, I am reminded of the truth of the major league journey.

It was Phillies spring training in 2004 when I sat in the dugout and saw Hamels pitch for the first time. I was the aging veteran, a role player hanging on to what would be my final season of my career. Hamels was the young gun, the slick left-hander that fooled some of the best players of my era with his dynamic change-up.

In fact, I watched him strike out three Yankees in a row (Jeter, A-Rod, Tony Clark) with that one magic pitch and in turn, witnessed the birth of the legend of Cole Hamels.

As any young player vaulted into legendary status, the challenges were not far behind as he battled an elbow issue shortly afterwards and the following spring training, a broken hand. The normal health concerns always swirling around the maturation of a talented pitcher. The Phillies still knew they had a star in the making and like any organization, you hope injuries, when they occur, will be the exception in his career.

He would back that faith up with a fantastic career, complete with World Series credentials, all-star appearances, and an asset to every community he would touch.

Now, he is the aging veteran and he is going home, at least for a few days. So far, not being slowed by a decline in velocity, but fighting the body’s signs of wear and tear. Still, when he is out on the mound, he competes like never before.

Ironically, Hamels hit the same three major league destinations that I would hit in my career. Philadelphia, Texas, Chicago. If you put a second Chicago in front of Philadelphia then he also followed the same order. I know those places well.

In particular, I know Philadelphia well. Four years of college, six years of big league baseball and it was clear in my post-career that Philly fans loved what Hamels brought to their city, which they also know will make it tough for their team to win tonight.

These homecomings are the moments when a player has to pause to embrace what time does in this game of baseball. You blink and find yourself home, but years have passed in between, the hair is a bit thinner and your opponents are a lot younger. Then you exhale realizing that you still have a ball in your hand if you are lucky.

There was a time when I knew that feeling. It was shortly after I was traded from Chicago to Philadelphia and returning to Wrigley as an opposing player. It was not off of a World Series championship, but as the rising outfield prospect. It can be disorienting.

I grew up in the Cubs system which was my introduction to what it meant to have the dream take off. It also was a place where I learned how to be a professional from the wisdom of coaches in the Cubs family. From Billy Williams, Tom Gamboa, Sandy Alomar, Jimmy Piersall and so many more, to the whispers of advice of Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Mark Grace, Lance “One Dog” Johnson. My mind was fertile ground, trying to not just make it, but stay, and it was part of baseball’s important ritual to listen and learn from those who had done it before, then pass it on.

In those lessons are time itself, coaches and even teammates that I watched growing up as a child. The people who helped spark the love of the game, Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Steve Carlton were my childhood baseball heroes. They gave me the passion, the batting stances, the memories.

When you arrive to big league camp for the first time, in a flash, these icons now had lockers next to yours or are your manager or coach. In my first spring with the Cubs, I walked in the locker room and I saw that my locker was right next to number 23. What?!?! I remember seeing the glisten of Sandberg’s name on the back of his batting practice jersey and deciding that it is time to re-focus and be a big leaguer. From Sandberg, I learned from watching.

With that first big league organization, the dream hits the ground and not only does it keep pinching you, it pushes you to be your best, in fact, you don’t have much choice if you plan to play for a long time. You have to take the stars out of your eyes and see yourself amongst the stars even if for a while, it is hard to believe and even harder to achieve.

This starter organization became your teacher. Showing you that you belong, embracing the mentorship that existed between generations of players. I would step into the box against Fernando Valenzuela and wonder if I had somehow fell into my TV set from when I was 12. But then the screwball would come and I realized that I actually needed to hit it.

The purity of those moments happen with that original baseball family. For Cole Hamels, it was the Philadelphia Phillies. He built relationships, he proved himself with supporters and against detractors. He learned from great players, he would ultimately teach great players. All in one short baseball lifetime in one city he would call home until 2015.

Today he wears a Cubs hat, he is proud, he is a competitor and he will go out and try and beat his old team to a pulp. But it is like having bragging rights against your brother, more than it is to destroy an enemy. I competed tooth and nail against my brother in years of Wiffle Ball in our front yard, but we hugged it out after leaving nothing left on the driveway. You can love with respect and still want to fiercely win.

For any veteran knows that he is the sum of his past even as he is trying to hold on to the present and write his future. Humility reminds you to be thankful for every single stop during the major league ride, especially that ones where you spent significant time honing your skills, and hoisting the hardware of a champion.

In a twist of fate, Hamels’ 2008 World Series manager, Charlie Manuel, has just returned as the Phillies hitting coach which will bring out some special feelings about his championship season. Another strong memory that will surely hit him. He can say a toast with Charlie later.

But first, he has a game to pitch.

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


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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