Cubs free agent focus: Madison Bumgarner

Cubs free agent focus: Madison Bumgarner

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.

If the budget-conscious Cubs look to add a major free agent this winter, signing longtime Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner would be money well spent.

The Cubs have an opening in their rotation and could fill it by bringing back Cole Hamels via free agency or replacing him with an internal candidate — i.e. Tyler Chatwood or Adbert Alzolay. However, the opportunity to add a pitcher like Bumgarner — who's 30 years old and one of the game’s most dominant starters over the last decade — doesn’t come every day.

Bumgarner holds a career 3.13 ERA in 289 games (286 starts) to go along with a solid 8.7 K/9 ratio. He’s made at least 30 starts, pitched 200+ innings and struck out 190+ batters in seven of the past nine seasons. The two exceptions came in 2017 and 2018, though it wasn’t an issue of durability for the left-hander, but two random occurrences.

Bumgarner got into a dirt bike accident in April 2017 and missed three months with bruised ribs and a sprained left shoulder. He then missed the first two months of the 2018 season after a line drive hit him in a spring training game, breaking his hand. He bounced back from those incidents in 2019, tying his career-high in starts made with 34. 

In addition to being durable, Bumgarner is a postseason legend and played a huge role in the Giants winning three World Series in five seasons from 2010-14. He holds a career 2.11 ERA in 16 postseason games, 14 coming as a starter. He willed San Francisco to a title in 2014, posting a ridiculous 1.03 ERA in seven postseason games (six starts). This includes a 0.43 ERA in the Fall Classic, when he made two starts (16 innings) before pitching five shutout innings in relief in a decisive Game 7 win over the Royals.

Yeah, that’ll do.

Bumgarner would be a tremendous addition to any team, and the Cubs are no exception to this. Their rotation has plenty of question marks going forward, as Jon Lester, José Quintana and Chatwood are only under contract through 2020. Lester has a vesting option for 2021 if he hits 200 innings next season, however.

Developing starting pitching has been the Cubs’ Achilles' heel under Theo Epstein and Co., so it’s not like the organization has a wave of rotation prospects banging on the big-league doors. Alzolay flashed his potential in a brief MLB stint in 2019, so there is some hope here, but two starts is far too small of a sample to conclude he'll be a rotation mainstay.

Bumgarner would help alleviate this issue, also giving the Cubs a formidable rotaton trio for the next several years. This is assuming he, Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks continue pitching at the high levels we’re accustomed to seeing.

The Cubs have other needs to address this winter — namely the bullpen, center field and figuring out the second base picture. Their free agent pitching signings have also backfired in recent seasons, at least initially, as Chatwood and Darvish struggled in 2018 and Brandon Morrow hasn't pitched since that July.

Bumgarner's résumé speaks for itself. If there's an opportunity for the Cubs to secure his services, it'd pay major dividends.

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Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs


Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast


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