Cubs

Glass half-full: Some September positives for the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Glass half-full: Some September positives for the Cubs

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs just got swept by the last-place, 91-loss Pirates and haven't "flown the W" since Sept. 16.

Thursday marked the very first game in the Joe Maddon era that had zero playoff implications for the Cubs. It was also the first such experience for Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. in the big leagues.

So it's understandable if Cubs fans aren't feeling too "glass half full" right about now. 

But things haven't been all bad during September. Zooming out and looking big picture, there are some clear positives to take away from what was otherwise a disastrous month for the Cubs.

Yu Darvish

Darvish's season is done, with the Cubs announcing Thursday they're shutting down the 33-year-old right-hander. He finishes 6-8 with a 3.98 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 229 strikeouts on the year — an enormous bounceback season in his second season in Chicago.

After accounting for just 40 innings across 8 starts in his first year of a $126 million contract, he pitched 178.2 innings in 31 starts this season. 

Darvish will go down as one of the Cubs' MVPs of the season with a huge second half that included a 2.39 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in September with 46 strikeouts against only 4 walks. That's especially impressive considering he began the month with a forearm issue.

All the "new year, new Yu" talk about Darvish in spring training came to fruition and he will head into the offseason and 2020 on a high note. That's huge for a team that will be facing some big decisions on the pitching staff.

Nico Hoerner

Once a wrist injury cost him two months of the season, nobody expected the Cubs' top prospect up in the big leagues in 2019. But injuries to Javy Baez and Russell prompted the promotion and the rookie has impressed in a huge way. 

Hoerner has hit .288 with a .789 OPS and his elite contact skills have transferred from the minors to the big leagues. It sure looks like he's going to play a big part on the 2020 roster — potentially even on Opening Day.

"You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico," Maddon said. "And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball. He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that."

Hoerner has had some hiccups at shortstop in the big leagues, but he has also shown he can clearly be valuable insurance to Javy Baez there next season. He played a lot of second base and center field in the minors and Maddon said he will roll Hoerner out in those roles over the final series in St. Louis.

Mix that all with his composure, competitive nature and team-focused mindset and it looks like the Cubs have found a core piece of the team moving forward.

Future pitching options

The 2020 bullpen is emerging as one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding the Cubs this winter and the Wi(e)cks are a big reason why. 

Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck each pitched 9.2 innings in September and in those outings combined for 26 strikeouts while allowing just 6 hits and 3 earned runs. 

Wick had already emerged as a high-leverage reliever earlier in the season, but with injuries to Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler, he ascended as Maddon's most trusted bullpen arm in the season's final month. Wieck quickly earned high-leverage opportunities, as well, and not only as a situational lefty. 

Both guys figure to play key roles for the 2020 team.

Beyond that, Alec Mills also impressed in his 4 appearances (0.84 ERA) this month, including a spot start last week against the Cardinals where he tossed 4.2 shutout innings. He will start against St. Louis again Friday and enters the winter in the swingman mix on next season's pitching staff.

Tyler Chatwood is firmly in that swingman mix, if not the frontrunner for the Cubs' fifth starter spot. Including a spot start and six relief appearances in September, Chatwood posted a 1.38 ERA in September to go along with a 0.85 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. That lowers his season ERA to 3.76 in his resurgent campaign. 

Chatwood has been dealing with a mild shoulder injury, so the Cubs don't know yet if he will pitch again this season.

On more of a personal level, the Cubs also had the opportunity to give Danny Hultzen his first MLB experience and potentially send Pedro Strop out on a good note. 

Hultzen, 29, was the second overall pick back in 2011 and faced a tough road to the big leagues after a variety of injuries. His six games haven't been perfect (4 hits allowed, 2 walks, 1 hit-batter and he also committed an error), but he has yet to give up a run and has 5 strikeouts in 3.1 innings since his debut on Sept. 8.

If this is the end of the line for the 34-year-old Strop in a Cubs uniform, he'll go down as one of the best relievers in franchise history. He's a free agent after this season and his 2019 was marred by injury and struggles on the mound (4.99 ERA). But he has a 1.29 ERA in September and he was — fittingly — the last Cub to throw at pitch at Wrigley this season.

Short-term injuries

This month's injuries will be near the top of reasons why this 2019 season won't end in any playoffs for the Cubs. But the good news is none of the injuries figure to impact the players for 2020 or beyond.

Kimbrel's elbow inflammation was minor and he was at least hitting 96 and 97 mph on the gun during his difficult return to the mound against the Cardinals last weekend. 

Anthony Rizzo's nasty-looking sprained ankle somehow healed enough in three days to allow him to heroically suit up against the Cardinals, but now that the Cubs are officially eliminated, they won't risk any further injury by playing him. The same goes for Bryant, who felt very fortunate he didn't suffer a bad knee injury or anything else when he slipped on first base Sunday at Wrigley Field.

Baez's fractured thumb did not require surgery and he's been able to pinch-hit once and run the bases a few times over the last week, even if he hasn't been well enough to play the field. 

Zobrist's return

It feels like so long ago, but this month actually began with the return of Ben Zobrist to the active roster after four months tending to his family situation.

It was clear the Cubs missed him both as a player and as a person and the fans were ecstatic to have their 2016 World Series MVP back. As far as production on the field, the 38-year-old Zobrist looked like he hadn't missed any time, hitting .295 with a .377 on-base percentage and .787 OPS. 

With his contract up after this season, it was good to see him get back on the field and have an opportunity to potentially end his career in Chicago on a high note instead of on personal leave. 

Schwarber keeps mashing

Schwarber continues to rake in the second half of the season and enters the weekend series with a .341 batting average and 1.086 OPS in 94 September plate appearances. He also leads the team in RBI for the month (18) and looks to have taken a step forward as an overall run producer since the All-Star Break. 

After getting the day off Thursday, Schwarber will rejoin the starting lineup in St. Louis and a huge series could net him 40 homers and 100 RBI for the season (he's currently at 37 and 91, respectively). 

With the way he's finished the season, he's silenced a lot of doubters and looks to be key piece for this team in 2020 and beyond.

4 Cubs crack MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects list

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MiLB

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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Cubs agree to deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza, per report

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USA TODAY

Cubs agree to deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza, per report

The Cubs have made a roster move.

According to MLB.com's Mark Feinsand, the Cubs and outfielder Steven Souza have agreed to a one-year, big-league deal. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal first reported Friday the two sides were nearing an agreement.

Souza, 30, missed the 2019 season after suffering a torn left ACL and LCL at the end of spring training. He also missed a chunk of 2018, playing 72 games while hitting the injured list on multiple occasions. The Diamondbacks non-tendered him last month.

Souza is a career .233/.323/.417 hitter with 70 home runs in five seasons. His best campaign came with the Rays in 2017: .239/.351/.459, 30 home runs, 78 RBIs and a 121 wRC+ — all career-bests, excluding his average. He sported a walk rate (13.6 percent) above league average (8.5) that season, though his strikeout rate (29 percent) was worse than average (23).

Signing Souza likely rules out a return of fan favorite outfielder Nicholas Castellanos. The Cubs have been linked to Castellanos throughout the offseason, but since they're looking to stay under MLB’s luxury tax threshold, re-signing Castellanos would require some financial maneuvering.

Souza has spent most of his career in right field (3,608 career innings) but has minimal experience playing center (33 1/3) and left (20). He’s above average in right (career 6 Defensive Runs Saved) and posted a career best 7 DRS in 2017.

The Cubs have a five-time Gold Glove right fielder in Jason Heyward, so Souza will see time at all three outfield spots. Heyward moved to center full-time last season after the Cubs acquired Castellanos and has played center at times throughout his career.

He's coming off a serious knee injury, but Souza is a low-risk, high-reward move for the Cubs. If he's healthy, he’ll add power to the middle of the order and add another bat to an outfield group with some question marks. Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ have each struggled offensively at times since 2018. Souza offers another option in case those two slump again, with room for a larger role.