Cubs non-tender deadline news and notes

Cubs non-tender deadline news and notes

One of the first truly busy days of the MLB offseason is upon us.

Jharel Cotton

With Monday night serving as the deadline to tender players contracts for the 2020 season, the Cubs began by agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with pitcher Jharel Cotton.

The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal first reported Cotton's deal, worth $640,000 for 2020:

Cotton was slated for his first year of arbitration in 2020, so the $640,000 deal is a relative bargain, a little over the major-league minimum.

The Cubs just acquired the 27-year-old right-hander from the Oakland A's a little over a week ago. Cotton has dealt with injuries in recent years and hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2017, but he is a former top prospect (No. 84 by Baseball America prior to the 2017 season) and carries a 10.2 K/9 rate in 496 career minor-league games. 

Cotton is a nice buy-low option for the Cubs that has experience pitching in relief or in the rotation and can be sent down to the minor leagues if he doesn't earn a job on the big-league staff out of spring training. He has a lot of talent, as evidenced by his strong debut MLB season (2-0, 2.15 ERA, 0.82 WHIP in 5 starts in 2016). 

For the Cubs, they need to continue to take low-risk gambles like this on arms, hoping to strike gold as they did last year with guys like Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck.

Russell, Hultzen non-tendered

Shortly after the Cotton news dropped, the Cubs also announced Addison Russell and Danny Hultzen have been non-tendered, while the rest of the arbitration-eligible players (Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Ryan) were tendered a contract for 2020. All 19 players not yet eligible for arbitration were also tendered deals.

The Cubs' 40-man roster now stands at 36 with Russell and Hultzen coming off the books.

The Russell decision was expected, but Hultzen is still at least three years away from arbitration. However, Hultzen does not have any minor-league options remaining, which means the Cubs would've had to either keep him on the 26-man roster from Day 1 or risk losing him on waivers if they tried to send him back to the minor leagues. This way, the Cubs could still agree to a minor-league deal and add him only to the 40-man roster if needed later in the season.

Hultzen is an interesting case and was a heartwarming story, battling back from a plethora of injuries to make his MLB debut for the Cubs in Milwaukee in mid-September. The 30-year-old southpaw was formerly one of the top pitching prospects in the game as the No. 2 overall pick back in the 2011 MLB Draft.

Working back from yet another injury, Hultzen made 14 appearances for Triple-A Iowa in 2019 before pitching in six big-league games in the final month of the season. He had 10 appearances in 2018 after not pitching professionally in all of 2017.

The Almora decision

The other moves were unsurprising, as the Cubs were always expected to tender Ryan a deal after his breakout 2019 season, and they wouldn't even dream of parting ways with Bryant, Baez, Schwarber or Contreras unless in a big trade. 

But the decision on Almora was a bit tougher, as the 25-year-old is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. MLB Trade Rumors projects his 2020 figure to come in around $1.8 million, which is kind of a lot for a guy who put up a -0.7 fWAR last season. Almora was the first draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime back in 2012 (No. 6 overall) and scored the winning run in the 2016 World Series, but he has largely failed to live up to his potential in the big leagues. 

Once thought to be a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field, Almora struggled in both aspects of his game in 2019, rating as a negative defender (-5 DRS) and well below average as a hitter (.236 AVG, .651 OPS). However, he's still young and has flashed the potential to turn things around offensively while also getting back on track defensively. 

At the moment, it doesn't appear Almora will be penciled in for a major role on the 2020 Cubs, but he also isn't slated for such a huge salary spike that the organization felt like they had to cut ties with him this winter.

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Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

The Cubs bullpen is going to look a whole lot different this season.

Gone are the reliable Steve Cishek (signed with White Sox) and Brandon Kintzler (reportedly signed with Marlins). Pedro Strop remains a free agent, though a recent report said the race to sign him is down to the Marlins and Rangers.

Assuming Strop doesn’t return, the Cubs will have lost three of their four most frequently used relievers from 2019. Replacing the trio will be no small task, considering a bulk of their appearances came in late-inning, high-leverage spots.

Cishek and Kintzler didn’t sign back-breaking deals (one-year, $6 million; reported one-year, $3.25 million), but the luxury tax has been a factor in the Cubs offseason. They aren’t in a position to commit big money to top-of-the-market arms and have instead been stockpiling low-cost relievers with upside.

“It’s become such an unbelievably important and difficult part of our job,” general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention of assembling a bullpen. “It wasn’t that long ago that we’d go into a season and our goal would be ‘Hey, can we get a thousand innings out of our starting pitching staff?’ You think about your five starters, if you could get some combination of close to a thousand innings, that was always a goal, out of roughly 1,400 innings.

“And now, that’s gone away. You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers. It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"You've got to take a lot of chances. There's no more volatile aspect of the game than the bullpen, and that's league wide. You’ve got to constantly take chances on guys and realize that sometimes, what appears to be a guy that’s struggling may just be simply a bad seven innings or bad 10 innings.”

Volatility was a main theme of the Cubs bullpen in 2019. Strop is one of the best relievers in team history, but early season hamstring injuries impacted his performance — a 4.97 ERA and 1.27 WHIP were the worst figures of his Cubs career. Strop finished the season strong (2.00 ERA in September), though he was largely a low-leverage option by season’s end.

Meanwhile, the additions of Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick last offseason didn’t make waves among the fanbase. The former signed a major league deal after a solid 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, and the Cubs acquired the latter in a low-key November trade. Both emerged as key contributors in 2019.

“Rowan Wick was a good example,” Hoyer said. “When we traded for him and we got him into the pitch lab and we improved his curveball, I think that had an enormous impact on his year last year. Brad Wieck, we traded for and immediately made some adjustments. Our pro scouting staff does a good job with that.”

Ryan and Wick are two of only three locks for the Opening Day bullpen, along with closer Craig Kimbrel. Wieck, acquired at the trade deadline for Carl Edwards Jr., is potentially another. That leaves five, maybe four spots up for grabs in what will be an open competition in spring training. Incumbent options include:

-Adbert Alzolay
-Tyler Chatwood
-Alec Mills
-Colin Rea
-Dillon Maples
-Duane Underwood Jr.
-James Norwood
-Brandon Morrow (reportedly re-signed on a minor-league deal)

Morrow and Chatwood are the most tenured options of the group, though the former has battled injuries throughout his career and hasn’t pitched since July 2018. If he’s healthy (and pitches well in spring training) Morrow will likely claim a bullpen job.

Chatwood is a candidate for the final rotation spot, along with Alzolay, Mills and (potentially) Rea. Mills and Underwood are out of minor-league options. New reliever candidates include:

-Dan Winkler — signed to one-year, split deal
-CD Pelham — claimed off waivers from Rangers
-Trevor Megill — Rule 5 pick (Padres)
-Ryan Tepera — signed to one-year, split deal
-Casey Sadler — acquired from Dodgers
-Travis Lakins — acquired from Red Sox
-Jeremy Jeffress — reportedly signed to a one-year, big-league deal

Winkler, 29, spent the previous five seasons bouncing between the major and minor leagues with the Braves. Last season, he posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 MLB appearances and a 2.93 ERA in the minors (30 appearances). He made 69 big-league appearances in 2018, sporting a 3.43 ERA in 60 1/3 innings while tallying 69 strikeouts.

Winkler isn’t a flamethrower — his four-seam fastball averaged 92.1 mph last season — but it ranked in MLB’s 93rd percentile, meaning he generates swings and misses. Sadler ranked in the 90th percentile and posted a 2.14 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 33 games. The 29-year-old struck out 31 batters in 46 1/3 innings between the Dodgers and Rays, though he sported a whopping 12.3 K/9 in Triple-A (38 2/3 innings).

Pelham, 24, was recently outrighted off the 40-man roster and sent to Iowa. He didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2019 and struggled with command in Triple-A (18.3 walk rate) but throws hard. Megill, 26, throws a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and sported a 12.7 K/9 in Triple-A last season.

Worth noting: Pelham (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) and Megill (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) are big dudes.

Tepera holds a career 3.64 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and made 73 and 68 appearances in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The 32-year-old missed a chunk of 2019 with a right elbow impingement, finishing with a 4.98 ERA in 23 games.

Lakins, 25, is a former sixth-round pick who posted a 3.86 ERA in 23 1/3 last season and holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons. His curveball ranked 66th in spin rate league-wide among pitchers who threw at least 50 last season.

Jeffress reportedly agreed to a one-year deal Tuesday worth close to $1 million. He’s coming off a rough 2019 with the Brewers in which he sported a 5.02 ERA, dealing with a shoulder injury out of the gate. The 32-year-old also hurt his hip in August and was released on Sept. 1.

Jeffress is a season removed from posting a 1.29 ERA and 15 saves in 73 appearances. He’s another example of the budget-driven moves the Cubs have made this winter, and while he struggled in 2019, his career 3.16 ERA makes him a prime bounce back candidate.

There’s a lot of positives in the group, and the Cubs will use their pitch lab to make any necessary adjustments. They also realize not every guy will be as successful as Ryan or Wick, and some options won’t pan out. Their goal is to unearth as many contributors as they can.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle,” Hoyer said. “Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy." 

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Cubs reportedly agree to deal with reliever Jeremy Jeffress

Cubs reportedly agree to deal with reliever Jeremy Jeffress

The Cubs bullpen is undergoing an overhaul with Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler already heading to other teams and perhaps more changes coming.

One incoming change is apparently Jeremy Jeffress. According to reports, the Cubs have agreed to a one-year deal with the 32-year-old reliever.

Jeffress was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round back in 2006 and has had three stints with the team since. He made his MLB debut with the Brewers in 2010, but left the team the following offseason as part of the Zack Greinke trade with the Kansas City Royals.

Years later, he re-signed with the Brewers in 2014. The Brewers then dealt him to the Texas Rangers in the middle of the 2016 season, only to re-acquire him from Texas the following trade deadline.

In his most recent stint with the Brewers, Jeffress was streaky. He was an all-star in 2018 (1.29 ERA, 89 strikeouts, 27 walks in 76 2/3 innings), but had an ERA north of five in 2019. That 2018 season was the best of his career in many ways so the Cubs will be hoping to recreate some of that magic as opposed to his lackluster 2019.

Either way, the right-hander gives the Cubs a much-needed veteran presence in the bullpen after the losses of Cishek, Kintzler and possibly Pedro Strop, who is still a free agent.

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