Cubs

Cubs free agent focus: Cole Hamels

Cubs free agent focus: Cole Hamels

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.

Barring any unforeseen moves, four pitchers are locks to open the 2020 season in the Cubs starting rotation: Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and José Quintana.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess whom the fifth pitcher will be. With that uncertainty, could the Cubs look to bring back soon-to-be 36-year-old Cole Hamels?

Hamels is a free agent for the first time in his career and is coming off an up-and-down season with the Cubs. He was the team’s most reliable starter through June, holding a 2.92 ERA in his first 16 starts.

Start No. 17 was a turning point for Hamels, as he suffered a left oblique strain while warming up for the second inning against the Reds on June 28. He recognized the strain immediately, removing himself from the game to prevent further injury.

The strain put Hamels on the shelf for a month and he wasn’t the same pitcher after returning on Aug. 3. The veteran lefty posted a 5.79 ERA in 10 starts, walking 21 batters in 42 innings while struggling with his command.

Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue, but he wanted one last outing to show what he’s capable of before free agency. He tossed four shutout innings on Sept. 28 against a Cardinals team that had yet to clinch the NL Central, allowing two hits while striking out eight.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half — the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

[RELATED: Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere]

The Cubs elected not to tender Hamels a qualifying offer — a one-year deal worth $17.8 million — earlier this month. The offer would’ve been enticing for Hamels, but it also would’ve put further constraints on the Cubs payroll, similar to when they picked up Hamels’ $20 million option for 2019 last offseason.

Teams may be wary of giving out big money to Hamels, who strained his right oblique with the Rangers in 2017. But as a veteran with postseason experience, he’ll have many suitors and would fit well with the Braves, Phillies and Padres, to name a few teams. Having a full offseason to build his arm strength back up can only help, too.

With the Cubs’ notable payroll constraints, Hamels would have to take a discounted deal, should he and the club seek a reunion. Even so, the Cubs may elect to let Hamels walk in free agency and fill their last rotation spot internally.

Tyler Chatwood earned the right to compete for a 2020 rotation spot following his bounce back 2019 campaign. He posted a 3.76 ERA in 38 games (five starts) and was a reliable longman in the bullpen. Chatwood turns 30 in December and will make $13 million in 2020.

Adbert Alzolay flashed potential in his brief 2019 big-league stint but the most innings he’s thrown in a season is 120 1/3 (2016 in Single-A). Alzolay has dealt with injuries during his young professional career, so the Cubs will likely be cautious with his innings total in 2020.

Alec Mills (2.75 ERA, nine games/four starts) performed admirably in limited action as a swingman last season. 29-year-old Colin Rea (3.95 ERA, 26 starts) had a solid season in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League and the Cubs recently added him to the 40-man roster. Recently acquired 27-year-old righty Jharel Cotton is a bounce back candidate after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2018. 

The Cubs have no shortage of fifth starter options. None may be better than a healthy Hamels, who would fit well in the Cubs rotation next season, if the price is right.

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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.