The Cubs have a bullpen question this winter: Will Carl Edwards Jr. be the answer?

The Cubs have a bullpen question this winter: Will Carl Edwards Jr. be the answer?

Jesse Chavez won't be riding in like a white knight to save the Cubs bullpen in 2019. 

But maybe the Cubs won't need it this year. Maybe they'll somehow avoid the dreaded wall the bullpen has run into the last two seasons.

Carl Edwards Jr. could play a huge role in that.

The 27-year-old right-hander has the best pure stuff of any pitcher in the Cubs bullpen and has been described as a future closer by just about everybody in the organization. He's also one of the hardest pitchers in baseball to square up — among those who permitted at least 100 batted balls in 2018, only 11 pitchers allowed a lower exit velocity than Edwards, who sported an average exit velocity against of just 84.3 mph. (For perspective, Edwin Diaz was arguably the best reliever in baseball in 2018 and he ranked 180th with an exit velo of 87.5 mph.)

The only issue is...Edwards has a bad history of fading at the most important time of the year.

For the first four months of the year, Edwards is one of the top relievers in the game. But from August on, he's run into some trouble:

March-July (2016-18)

94 G
92.1 IP
2.44 ERA
0.99 WHIP
4.39 BB/9
13.26 K/9
0.68 HR/9
4.48 H/9

Aug-Nov (2016-18, including playoffs)

88 G
73 IP
4.32 ERA
1.23 WHIP
6.04 BB/9
10.97 K/9
0.74 HR/9
5.05 H/9

As you can see, there's not a major drop off in terms of hits or homers allowed, which means the control is the biggest issue coupled with a preciptous dip in whiffs. 

That's a bad combination for any pitcher at any time let alone the most crucial point in the year.

And it's not like Edwards is just any old pitcher in the Cubs bullpen. For the first four months of the season, he's the team's top setup guy, most often utilized against the other team's heart of the order by manager Joe Maddon.

Sure, Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow going down to injury was key this past season, but if Edwards had been able to maintain his early-season production, the Cubs would've been able to navigate things quite a bit easier in the final month. Things got so bad for Edwards, he wasn't even active for the National League Wild-Card game with what was characterized as a forearm issue.

So what's behind the late-season struggles?

Is it simply a matter of Edwards — who notably has a very slight build (listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds) — wearing down physically? Is it a mental block when the pressure mounts? Is it mechanical or approach-oriented?

The answer is probably a combination of all of that, but Edwards certainly struggled with the mental component in 2018, with bad moments too often snowballing — he walked nearly 1/3 of the batters he faced in September (12 of 38).

"He's focused on his entire game," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said earlier this month. "Physically, he needs to be in great shape to be as durable as he could possibly be and get through a whole season pitching in a role that if it's not gonna be a protected role, then he needs to be really strong physically to get throught the whole year. That's what he wants to get to. Mechanically, there's a few tweaks and check points he needs to remember.

"And then on the mental side, it's an area where he can work to improve — locking in his mental game so he can try to eliminate those outings where he really just misses the strike zone from the beginning and then can't self-correct. So developing a little bit more consistency with his mental game should help his consistency on the mound.

"He's one of the most talented relievers in the game, so there's significant upside by developing even incrementally more consistency."

Edwards is entering his first year of abritration and is slated to make about $1.4 million for 2019. Given the Cubs' financial concerns and the desire to retool the bullpen this offseason, that salary is an absolute bargain when weighed against Edwards' potential impact.

All things considered, Edwards will enter 2019 as one of the most important players on the Cubs roster.

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Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

It's a pretty simple question with a pretty simple answer. Can the Cubs, one of baseball's wealthiest organizations, afford to keep both Kris Bryand and Javy Baez? Is there room in the infamous budget to make both of the team's homegrown stars Cubs for life?

“There’s certainly money out there. It’s a very, very profitable game," Bryant said earlier in the week. 'It’s just a matter of if they want to. I don’t know, I really don’t. But it would certainly be cool.”

“It’s up to them,” Báez added. “I hope we both stay here. Obviously, we want to keep everyone here because we pretty much have the team that we want." 

Then, on Monday, "they" – being Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts – finally talked. So, Tom? You sign their checks, what do you think?

"Well, where we place our resources is a baseball decision," Ricketts said. "That’s Jed and Theo. But I mean, ultimately, we have to look at it from a bigger perspective."

It's been a week since Theo Epstein, David Ross, and Jed Hoyer (he was there too!) addressed the media for the first time this spring, and no one seems to be able to get a straight answer on the team's most-pressing long term concern. It's almost certainly by design, as the Cubs are adamant that speaking on finances publicly creates some sort of competitive disadvantage when it comes to negotiating with players and agents. KB and Báez say it's up to ownership, ownership says it's up to the front office (?), and the front office isn't going to speculate. Terrific! If you're to believe the rumor mill, the team seems marginally closer to an extension with Báez than they are with Bryant, and are maybe – according to some – more focused on moving the latter.

Epstein said Bryant was given no assurances about what the time between now and Opening Day holds, and regardless of Bryant's wishes to be in the loop, Ricketts also doesn't feel that an explicit guarantee is totally necessary. 

"I imagine there’s communication between Theo and Kris at some point," Ricketts said. "I think they met yesterday. But a lot of the stuff, what – do you communicate to say that the stuff you saw is a rumor? I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, we love KB. I think he’s ready to go and a full season of a healthy Kris Bryant is something we could really use." 

Put aside for a moment the fact that, yeah, that's exactly what you'd communicate. Compare the apparent transparency of an owner who said that the CBT "won’t define the situation" and "won’t determine the actual player moves" vs. what he said when pressed about all of the offseason turbulence surrounding Bryant and the Cubs. 

"Well obviously we love KB, he’s a great player and he’s a great teammate," he said. "He’s just a great part of the team. Most of the things that are out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is just not true. But with respect to all player decisions, if anything was going down that path, it’d obviously be a baseball decision."

Most of the things out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is not true. Can the Cubs' afford to keep Bryant and Báez? Yes. Will the Cubs' make that choice? 

"Once again, that’s in Theo’s camp. That’s his decision," Ricketts said. "We’d have to take a look at what that means for us all financially." 

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Tom Ricketts met with the media on Monday morning to give his usual spring State of the Cubs press conference, and the state of the Cubs is … sorta the same? The Cubs look almost identical to the 84-win, third place team of 2019, but Ricketts’ expectations are far above that. 

“I think we have the best team in our division,” the Cubs’ owner said. “I think we have a really dynamic, exciting new manager. I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs.”

Considering there’s not a whole lot of on-field news to discuss, much of the 20-minute press conference was focused on the team’s finances, their (lack of) headway towards a television deal with Comcast, and what to expect as teams ramp up for the oncoming round of CBA negotiations. Ricketts talked at length about the club’s perceived battles – or lack thereof, he claims – with baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax (CBT). 

“I think the CBT is a factor that every large market GM has to put into their calculus when they create their teams,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know how much fans know, but it’s not just a financial penalty. It’s a financial penalty that grows over time, for a number of years you’re above the threshold. And then it gets into a player penalty, which you have to be careful to avoid. So like I said, it’s a factor – I don’t think it’s a defining factor – but it’s definitely a factor that every team has to deal with, at least every large market team.” 

Ricketts mentioned that some of this offseason’s planned budget was fronted when the Cubs signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal towards the end of last summer. He was also adamant that payrolls don’t correlate directly to winning, which is certainly not unfair to claim but also not entirely accurate. He pointed to the Cubs’ baseball budget in 2019, which was, according to him, the highest in the league as to say that the team wasn’t exactly sitting on their hands. While the front office’s inactivity surprised many of the Cubs’ players, Ricketts shot down the idea that something needed to happen for the sake of something happening. 

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “The fact is that we have a great team, we have guys that are proven winners and verteran players. We have the talent to win our division and go deep into the playoffs. So that’s a good starting place. In terms of big changes, it’s hard. You guys follow the game, it’s not like there’s a lot of player for player swaps anymore. Trades don’t happen like they used to.” 

And while many view the Red Sox-Dodgers player swap that took place literally last week as a concerning sign of baseball’s current economic market heading into the next round of CBA discussions, Ricketts chose not to comment on what he thinks the owners are going to try and bargain for. Instead, he left the door open for activity – even if it means swallowing the rather costly CBT pill. The Cubs were over the CBT last year, and are open to the notion of a second-straight violation if it means making the right move. Penalties for third-time offenders are particularly harsh, though, and Ricketts conceded that it’s that point when spending begins to give ownership pause. 

“Obviously paying large taxes on CBT is really inefficient and not a great use of team resources, so if there’s a way to put a great team on the field and not pay that, then they will,” he said. “But I leave it up to Theo and Jed. 

“Like I said, the CBT thresholds are a piece of the puzzle. They’re something that we’re always mindful of, but they won’t define the situation and they won’t determine the actual player moves.” 

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