Cubs aren’t ‘blowing it up,’ but change is coming to North Side


Cubs aren’t ‘blowing it up,’ but change is coming to North Side

The Cubs failed to meet expectations this season. That much can be said for certain.

Despite holding MLB’s second-highest payroll and a roster oozing with talent, the Cubs struggled to stave off mediocrity in 2019. They stayed in the postseason race until the last week of the regular season – a testament to Joe Maddon and his team. Regardless, what matters most is that the Cubs failed to reach October for the first time since 2014.

With the failure to meet expectations comes change. And for the Cubs, change is already underway, as evidenced by the team parting ways with Maddon on Sunday. More moves will follow in the near future, though.

“You are likely to see change in this organization,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at Monday’s end-of-season press conference. “I think this is a real opportunity. When you fall short of your goals and fail to perform at that biggest moments as dramatically as we did, it provides a real opportunity, if you’re willing to be honest with yourself and you’re willing to take a hard look inside.”

By no means does this mean that the Cubs are entering a full-scale rebuild, as they did upon Epstein’s arrival in October 2011. However, the front office will leave no stones unturned as it attempts to get the Cubs back to the top of baseball's mountain, where they were not so long ago.

According to Epstein, that means taking a hard look at every level of the organization, from the players, to the coaching staff, to the scouting staff and to the front office.

“We’re not blowing anything up, per se,” he said. “That’s not the goal, but we’re likely to see real change, real adjustments at various levels, most levels of our baseball operations in some form or another.

“With our [research and development] department, I think they do a fantastic job. They’re innovative and build out. I think we can utilize them a little bit better in certain areas, help them impact the major league team and decision making and scouting and player development a little bit more.”

Speaking of scouting and player development, before moving on from Maddon, the Cubs made a lowkey move with front office executive Jason McLeod. Formerly the Cubs senior vice president of amateur scouting and player development, McLeod was laterally moved to senior vice president of player personnel.

The Cubs have infamously struggled to develop impactful big-league pitching under Epstein’s watch. Whether that’s the reason for McLeod’s position change is uncertain, but the fact of the matter is that the team wasn’t producing in that regard. Thus, they made a change.

“I think this is a good opportunity to take a look at how would we set it up if we were building it from scratch,” Epstein said regarding the Cubs scouting and player development department. “How would we set it up not to adjust for the modern game, but to be centered around the modern game?

“We’ve already made some structural and leadership changes and we’ll continue to make more adjustments as well. You’re likely to see a director of hitting and a director of pitching join the organization to ensure that we are building these departments, teaching the game, evaluating players for where the game is now and where the game will be going [to] make sure we continue to be at the cutting edge.”

And, of course, the most obvious path of change coming to the Cubs is with their roster. The Cubs have close to $100 million coming off their payroll entering 2020. However, the likes of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and others are due for arbitration raises, not to mention the need to upgrade the bullpen, second base and center field production, and possibly re-sign Nick Castellanos.

When it comes to possibly trading players off the current roster, Epstein noted that it’s something the Cubs will certainly look at.

“We’re open-minded about this roster, and I expect to have a lot of trade discussions this winter,” he said. “I think a lot of the players on this year’s team are gonna be part of the next Cubs championship team, so we want to be mindful of that.

“But it’s also really hard to accomplish improvement and change in certain areas unless you’re extremely open-minded. As we have in previous offseasons, we’re very likely to engage certain players in discussions about long-term contracts and see if there’s a way to extend player’s windows as Cubs that way. And if that’s not possible, that might make you open-minded about trades.

“There’s more than one way to take full-advantage of a player’s value.”

The Cubs have a long offseason ahead of them. While the sting of missing out on the postseason won’t dissipate right away, the long layoff will give Epstein plenty of time to retool the organization that suddenly finds itself climbing the mountain rather than hanging out on top.

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Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

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.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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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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