Cubs

Cubs will need more than Craig Kimbrel to completely change fortunes

Cubs will need more than Craig Kimbrel to completely change fortunes

Cubs fans are understandably excited Craig Kimbrel is ready to make his debut with the team later this week.

He's a future Hall of Fame closer who is still in the midst of his prime and could very well be a shutdown reliever for the entire second half of the season.

But while the bullpen was a clear weakness of this team during tough times earlier in the season, the Cubs haven't slogged out to a 12-13 record in June because their back-end relievers have been blowing late leads.

So how much of a direct impact will Kimbrel have on the team's success? We don't know for sure, but let's look back at every loss this month and see if he would've been able to change the outcome in any ballgame:

June 1 — Cardinals 7, Cubs 4

Kimbrel probably wouldn't have pitched in a game that featured a three-hour rain delay, as Tyler Chatwood gave up 3 runs in the sixth inning in relief of Jose Quintana and the Cubs never even tied the game again.

June 2 — Cardinals 2, Cubs 1 

This was at least a close game, but the Cubs actually trailed 2-0 heading to the top of the ninth inning, when they mounted a comeback against the St. Louis bullpen that fell just short. Either way, it's almost assuredly not a game Kimbrel would have even made it into.

June 6 — Rockies 3, Cubs 1

Quintana gave up all 3 runs before the seventh inning ended and the Cubs offense could do nothing against a rookie making his first MLB start (Peter Lambert).

June 10 — Rockies 6, Cubs 5

Here's one where having Kimbrel could've had an indirect impact. The Cubs never had a save situation, but they did lose the game because the bullpen gave up solo runs in the bottom of the seventh and eighth innings. If Kimbrel is in the 'pen, the trickle down effect comes into play, which means Joe Maddon has more options at his disposal — including Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop earlier in the game. However, it was Cishek that was saddled with the loss by allowing a run in the eighth inning. The only way it would've set up any differently with Kimbrel is if the Cubs used Cishek in the seventh inning and slotted Strop in for the eighth, and the result may have been different. So we'll say Kimbrel could've had an impact on this one, albeit indirectly.

June 11 — Rockies 10, Cubs 3

When you're losing 9-1 going into the seventh inning, what does it matter who your closer is?

June 13 — Dodgers 7, Cubs 3

This one was all about the Dodgers being good and Jon Lester struggling and had nothing to do with the bullpen. The Cubs mounted a 3-0 lead, but their ace gave it all back and then some — allowing 3 homers and 6 runs over 5 innings. The bullpen would not have done much in this game.

June 14 — Dodgers 5, Cubs 3

Rinse and repeat. The Cubs once again jumped out to an early lead, but starting pitching couldn't hold it as Kyle Hendricks was touched up for 5 runs in 4.1 innings in his final appearance before hitting the injured list. The Cubs bullpen actually pitched admirably in the contest, throwing 3.2 shutout innings against a very good lineup.

June 16 — Dodgers 3, Cubs 2

It's certainly possible this one would've been different if Kimbrel were around. With something of a limited bullpen and Brandon Kintzler already pitching earlier in the contest, Cishek was forced to throw multiple innings and gave up the winning run in the eighth — his second inning of work — to break a 2-2 tie. Again, Kimbrel likely would not have been pitching in that spot, but if he was around and available, maybe Maddon could've gone with Strop or somebody else instead of utilizing Cishek for a second inning.

June 18 — White Sox 3, Cubs 1

Ahh, the Eloy Game. Also a game that it's very possible we would've seen Kimbrel, but you can't really fault Maddon with how this one played out. Cubs had a fresh bullpen coming off a rare off-day and watched Cole Hamels throw a gem, allowing just 1 run in 7 innings. Kintzler pitched a scoreless eighth inning in a tie ballgame and then Maddon called on Strop to throw the ninth inning — when Eloy Jimenez had his signature moment. Maybe Maddon would've gone to Kimbrel to pitch the top of the ninth inning, but you can't really lament losing when one of your best relievers is pitching late in a tie game and it doesn't work out.

June 21 — Mets 5, Cubs 4

Cubs jumped out to a 4-3 lead on Addison Russell's 2-run homer, but Yu Darvish couldn't hold it, giving the lead right back the following inning. The Cubs then lost the game when embattled reliever Brad Brach came into a 4-4 tie and gave up a single that eventually came around to score the winning run. Maybe Kimbrel's presence would've changed that outcome, as it could've been another reliever in the game besides Brach, but the Cubs still didn't hit much (Darvish accounted for half their runs) and it was a couple of groundball basehits that led to the winning run scoring, so it's not like Brach and Mike Montgomery got lit up.

June 22 — Mets 10, Cubs 2

This was a clunker of a game that was over well before either team's bullpen figured into things.

June 25 — Braves 3, Cubs 2

Hard to win many games scoring only 2 runs. Maybe Montgomery would not have been pitching in the seventh inning with a 2-1 lead if Kimbrel were around, but the Cubs also needed/wanted some length after Adbert Alzolay's 4.2-inning start and Montgomery had retired five of the six batters he faced before allowing the game-winning homer. 

June 26 — Braves 5, Cubs 3

Well, Yu Darvish ended his no-decision streak before setting a new MLB record, but it ended with an "L" flag flying high over Wrigley Field. The right-hander put the Cubs in a 5-0 hole early — before the rain delay hit — and even though the bullpen pitched well, the lineup couldn't quite climb all the way back. But not for a lack of trying from Darvish's battery-mate Willson Contreras:

So in total, we're looking at maybe three games this month in which Kimbrel could've played a role and potentially changed the outcome for the Cubs. But even those three games are a stretch — who knows if they would've still lost each one of those contests anyways.

This serves as just another reminder that Kimbrel isn't the Cubs' savior. While he will be a very nice piece in the bullpen and help create a positive trickle down effect on the pitching staff, he can't do anything to impact the Cubs' offense or starting pitching and those are the biggest issues plaguing the team at the moment. 

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

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USA TODAY

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since July 2018, but he’ll get a shot at making a comeback next season.

Morrow is set to sign a minor league deal with the Cubs, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. It’s worth $1 million if he makes the Cubs' roster and could reach $2.25 million if Morrow makes 65 big-league appearances. 

Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 15, 2018, missing the second half of that season with right biceps inflammation. He underwent a debridement procedure on his right elbow last offseason, which was supposed to keep him out for the first month of the 2019 season. But Morrow suffered several setbacks and never pitched in 2019. 

Morrow’s agent, Joel Wolfe, told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times last month that the right-hander feels a sense of loyalty to the Cubs after they stuck by him through thick and thin. He said Morrow was open to a minor league deal.

When he last pitched, Morrow was one of the most dominant closers in baseball. He posted a 1.47 ERA in 35 games in 2018, converting 22 of 24 save tries. He provided the Cubs with a power arm in the back of the bullpen, striking out 31 batters in 30 2/3 innings compared to nine walks.

For the Cubs, Morrow is a low-risk addition with high-reward potential. He told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that his arm feels great. If he’s healthy, he could be a major contributor to the Cubs' bullpen.

This time, the Cubs won’t place such high expectations on the 35-year-old. They expect closer Craig Kimbrel to bounce back in 2020 with a normal offseason ahead of him. Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs last June and struggled mightily, posting a 6.53 ERA in 23 games.

If healthy, Morrow could prove to be a lethal weapon in front of Kimbrel. If he can’t stay healthy, it’s not like the Cubs are investing a lot of money in him, as they did two offseasons ago when Morrow signed a two-year, $21 million deal.

Simply put: if Morrow pans out, great. If he can’t stay healthy, the Cubs can move on without losing a large investment.