With the Dodgers in town, the Cubs' pitching staff will face its toughest test of the season so far

USA Today

With the Dodgers in town, the Cubs' pitching staff will face its toughest test of the season so far

The Wrigley Field organist got his money’s worth trying to drown out the sound of batting practice on Tuesday afternoon, as early-arriving fans with bleacher tickets were treated to their first taste of what’s to be expected on the North Side over the next three games. 

The Los Angeles Dodgers are in town, and with them comes one of -- if not the -- best offenses in baseball. LA sits atop of any customizable leaderboard you care to take a look at. They lead all of baseball in fWAR (7.2), almost two whole runs higher than the runner-up. They’re second in on-base percentage (.357) and RBI (132); third in total homers (44), ISO (.225) and slugging (.489). 

“They’re not going to just go up there recklessly,” Manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “They’re going to make you throw the ball where you want to see it. You got to make your pitch.” 

The good news is that, since their home opener 11 games ago, the Cubs have been making their pitches. No team has walked less hitters over that time than Chicago (22). They’ll need to keep that trend going against a Dodgers team that is especially selective at the plate -- per MLB’s Statcast numbers, LA chases pitches only 21% of the time, seven percentage points lower than league average. Of their top-10 hitters in terms of pitches seen so far, not a single one has an above-average chase rate - the closest is Corey Seager at 24%. Cody Bellinger (11) and Joc Pederson (10) have more home runs between the two of them than Marlins, Pirates, Indians, Giants or Tigers have as a team. 

“When you face offenses like that, you have to be able to get them out in the zone,” Maddon said. “That’s what you have to do as a pitcher. If you tap dance or get them in their counts, they’re going to hurt you.” 

The bad news is that a shallow dive into some of the contact numbers spells potential trouble - especially in the bullpen. Three of the Cubs’ five most-used relievers (Kintzler, Rosario, and Webster) all have average exit velocities that fall in the bottom sixth-percentile or worse. Both Kintzler and Webster’s exit velocities (93.7 mph for both) fall in the bottom 2% of MLB pitchers. That’s tough sledding against a team that has 6 every day starters with better-than-average exit velocities. 

Despite what’ll surely be 72 hours of hard contact, this late-April series between two of baseball’s marquee franchises may come down one of the sport’s finer nuances: defensive positioning. 

“You have to catch the baseball - give them 3 outs an inning and that’s it,” Maddon added. “You have to set your defenses up well. This is when you do have to catch line drives. Really good defense catch line drives because they’re in the right spots.”

Brandon Kintzler, Cubs most consistent reliever in 2019, signs with Marlins: report


Brandon Kintzler, Cubs most consistent reliever in 2019, signs with Marlins: report

Brandon Kintzler officially won't be back on the North Side in 2020.

Saturday, ESPN's Jesse Rogers reported Kintzler has agreed to a one-year, $3 million deal with the Marlins. The deal includes a $4 million option for 2021.

Kintzler was the Cubs' most consistent reliever in 2019, sporting a 2.68 ERA and 1.02 WHIP (both career highs) in 62 appearances. He was effective against both righties and lefties, the latter of which hit .163 against him.

The Cubs haven't been connected to Kintzler this offseason and have instead accumulated a plethora of low-cost, high-potential relievers. The organization has been extremely cognizant of MLB's luxury tax threshold after surpassing it in 2019 and wants to avoid becoming a repeat offender in 2020.

Kintzler becomes the second reliable reliever to depart the Cubs in free agency this winter, along with sidearmer Steve Cishek (White Sox). Pedro Strop is still a free agent, and while the Cubs have been connected to him, a recent report says the race to sign him is down to the Marlins and Rangers.

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4 Cubs crack MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects list


4 Cubs crack MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects list

MLB Pipeline unveiled its annual top 100 prospects list on Saturday, and four Cubs minor leaguers made the cut.

Nico Hoerner (SS; No. 51), Brailyn Marquez (LHP; 68), Brennen Davis (OF; 78) and Miguel Amaya (C; 95) cracked the list for the North Siders. It’s the first time the Cubs have had four players on the list since 2016: Ian Happ (No. 21), Eloy Jimenez (23), Albert Almora Jr. (82) and Dylan Cease (98).

So yeah, it’s been a minute.

Cubs fans are most familiar with Hoerner; the 22-year-old made his big-league debut last September in an emergency spot after Javy Báez and Addison Russell got hurt. Hoerner hit .282/.305/.436 in 20 games and held his own defensively.

Hoerner is ranked as the No. 9 overall shortstop prospect, and he’ll get an opportunity to make the 2020 Opening Day roster. With Báez entrenched at shortstop, Hoerner will shift to second base and potentially play some center field, though he's still learning the latter.

Marquez, 20, is Pipeline’s No. 9 left-handed pitching prospect. The Cubs have struggled to develop homegrown starting pitching under Theo Epstein. In fact, Marquez is the first Cubs pitcher (LHP or RHP) to crack MLB Pipeline’s top 10 pitchers list during Epstein’s tenure on the North Side.

Marquez sported a 3.13 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 22 starts between Single-A South Bend and advanced-A Myrtle Beach in 2019. The 20-year-old struck out 128 batters in 103 2/3 innings, walking 50.

Cubs senior director of player development Matt Dorey said the club has “really high expectations” for Marquez this season.

“Brailyn, his last half of last year in Myrtle was an epic run, just in terms of the raw stuff, the strikes, the breaking ball development,” Dorey said Sunday at Cubs Convention. “I think it’s a little early to decide where he’s going to start [the season], but I would guess Double-A.

“But I wanna see how he comes into camp — especially with our new pitching infrastructure — that we’re not missing anything with his delivery or anything from a pitch data perspective. We want to make sure that’s really tied before we send him out [for] a long, full season. It’s such a big year for him. But I think it would be foolish to put any cap on what he can do this year.”

Marquez allowed two earned runs or less in nine of his final 10 starts (he allowed three earned runs on Aug. 26 — the lone exception). The Cubs promoted him to Myrtle Beach on Aug. 6, where he posted a 1.71 ERA with 26 strikeouts and seven walks in five starts (26 1/3 innings).

The Cubs drafted Davis out of high school in 2018 (second round, No. 62 overall). The 20-year-old was more of a basketball player and had some Division I offers, but he ultimately signed with the Cubs and received a $1.1 million bonus.

Davis is considered to be a raw, athletic talent. He hit .305/.381/.525 with eight homers and a 160 wRC+ in 50 games with South Bend last season. He missed time after getting hit on the hand on two separate occasions.

Although Davis is listed as a center fielder (199 innings in 2019) he played left almost as frequently (193 2/3) in 2019. Pipeline projects him to make his big-league debut in 2022.

Amaya spent all of 2019 with Myrtle Beach, slashing .235/.351/.402 with a 122 wRC+ in 99 games. His defense has always been ahead of his bat, and he’s known to be an advanced catcher for his age.

The Cubs added Amaya to the 40-man roster in November in preparation for the Rule 5 Draft. However, he won’t make his big-league debut until 2021, at the earliest.

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