As he hits free agency, Brandon Kintzler proved his value to Cubs in 2019

As he hits free agency, Brandon Kintzler proved his value to Cubs in 2019

Where would the Cubs bullpen have been this season without Brandon Kintzler?

Considering how Kintzler’s Cubs career started, such a question may have seemed ludicrous entering 2019. The Cubs acquired the right-hander from the Nationals ahead of the 2018 trade deadline, hoping he’d bolster their bullpen. That, of course, isn’t how things played out.

Kintzler struggled to acclimate himself on a Cubs team battling for the NL Central title, allowing 14 runs in 18 innings (7.00 ERA). Consequentially, the Cubs declined his $10 team option for 2019, though he returned after picking up his $5 million player option. Regardless, he entered spring training with no guarantee of making the Cubs Opening Day roster.

Even after earning a spot on the team, Kintzler entered the season as somewhat of an afterthought. The sinkerballer was low on the Cubs’ initial reliever totem pole, which looked something like this:

Pedro Strop 
Carl Edwards Jr. 
Steve Cishek 
Mike Montgomery 
Brad Brach 
Tyler Chatwood 
Randy Rosario

Nothing is more fickle in MLB than the composition of one’s bullpen. Whether it be due to injury, bad performances, new acquisitions or some combination of the three, bullpens frequently face turnover, both in-season and the offseason.

For the 2019 Cubs, part of that fickle nature featured a reshuffling of the reliever hierarchy. Of the Opening Day group, only Strop, Cishek, Chatwood and Kintzler finished the season with the Cubs, with Kintzler taking over as setup man and entrenching himself as team's most reliable bullpen arm.

"I was thinking about that when I was warming up, like 'Man, before I didn't know if I was gonna make the team, now I'm closing out one of the last games,” Kintzler said on Sept. 28, after he recorded his lone save of the season. “It's just crazy how baseball is, as far as having a bounce back year after getting traded here.”

Kintzler pitched in 62 games in 2019 (No. 3 on Cubs, behind Kyle Ryan and Steve Cishek), posting a 2.68 ERA (second by Cubs relievers with at least 30 appearances). He also stymied opponents in high leverage spots, allowing just seven of the 32 runners he inherited (21.9 percent) to score. 

Although Kintzler’s ERA jumped from 1.98 pre-All-Star break (37 games) to 3.92 afterwards (25 games), that can be attributed, at least partially, to right pec and left oblique injuries that sidelined him in August and September, respectively.

Injury woes aside, Kintzler’s success was no guarantee entering this season.

At the end of 2018, Kintzler admitted that he was struggling both mechanically and mentally, a double-whammy that can really mess with a pitcher’s performance. Kintzler deserves credit for figuring things out and bouncing back this season, though he also pointed to Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy as a major contributor behind his successful 2019 season.

“...[I'm] grateful for how Tommy helped me out and the situations they gave me. To be able to pitch in good situations to come back. I thank Tommy a lot.”

Kintzler is set to his free agency after the postseason wraps up, and although he turned 35 in August, he proved that he’s still a valuable pitcher. In an era where home runs are as prevalent as ever, Kintzler’s 54.7 groundball rate from 2019 certainly plays. This is especially true when pitching at Wrigley Field, where the wind carries home runs out of the park left and right.

Whether he returns in 2020 is to be determined, but Kintzler made it clear how much he's appreciated pitching for the Cubs.

"I don't think you can ever take it for granted what it's like to pitch in front of 40,000 [fans] every day," he said. "Even in a Wednesday day game or whatever day games we play. It's an amazing experience. Even that last series agaisnt the Cardinals, that was nuts, but it was crazy to watch. It was a lot of fun to watch.

"Hopefully I can be a part of something like that again. I've played in many organizations now and you just don't get that feeling from fans like that all the time, so it was awesome."

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No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein's front office has a lot of difficult decisions to make this winter, but Ben Zobrist has yet to come up with his own tough answers.

The 2016 World Series MVP is currently a free agent after wrapping up his four-year deal with the Cubs. He played a major role on the team in September following a four-month absence to deal with a family matter. 

Zobrist, 38, said at the end of the season that he was unsure if he would call it quits after an impressive career or return for another season on the diamond. More than two months since he last put on a uniform, he still has not reached an answer:

If he does play another season, it would have to be in the right situation for his family. He's made enough money in his career and accomplished plenty — including hoisting a couple championship trophies — but he clearly still had the drive and desire to play, as he said in his September return.

The Cubs figure to be on the short list of teams that would make sense for Zobrist given the mutual familiarity, a home in Chicago and how the entire organization supported him as he stepped away from the team to address his personal life.

It would seem to fit from the Cubs' perspective as well, since they talked all season long about how they missed Zobrist's professional at-bats and his presence inside the clubhouse. 

But there is no traction on the reunion front at the moment.

"I haven't talked to him recently," Epstein said Monday. "I've talked to him since the season ended, but it was more just checking in on his family. As far as baseball, he hadn't made a decision at that point. He was gonna wait a while before deciding what to do. He left open the possibility, but that was it."

The Cubs have an avenue for playing time next season at second base and potentially in the outfield for Zobrist and they are currently searching for leadoff options. He proved he can still play at his advanced age by hitting .284/.388/.377 in September after months away from the game. He isn't an everyday guy anymore, but can still provide value as a role player.

If Zobrist decides to give it one more go, the price would have to be right for the financially-hamstrung Cubs, but a reunion would make a lot of sense for both sides.

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras


Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

Could we see a Willson Contreras-Joe Maddon reunion in Los Angeles?

According to Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times, the Angels are “heavily engaged in the catcher market,” and are having “active conversations with two teams” regarding a trade for a catcher.

Torres didn’t specifically mention Contreras, but he’s one of several Cubs who have been linked to trade rumors this offseason. The Cubs aren’t looking to enter another all-out rebuild, but they’re keeping the future of the organization in mind following a disappointing 84-win season.

The Cubs farm system has grown barren of impact talent. They’ve struggled to develop big-league starting pitching under team president Theo Epstein. Their payroll is projected to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second straight season, meaning they’d encounter a 30 percent luxury tax on their overages and see their draft position drop 10 spots, should they exceed the $208 million threshold by $40 million or more.

Trading Contreras — who’s projected to make $4.5 million via arbitration next season — won’t solve the financial problem. However, trading him could net the Cubs the type of blue-chip prospects they desperately need to replenish their farm system.

Contreras is also under team control through 2022, so there’s not a huge rush to deal the two-time All-Star. But if the Cubs sense he’s unlikely to sign a contract extension now or in the future, they must do their due diligence on him and see what they could acquire in a potential trade. The same is true for Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

The Angels have one top 100 prospect, (outfielder Jo Adell — No. 5 overall), according to MLB Pipeline, so what Los Angeles could offer the Cubs is questionable. Epstein and Co. won’t trade their backstop for the sake of doing so, especially if they deem any offers to be unsatisfactory.  

Contreras hit .272/.355/.533 with 24 home runs and 64 RBIs last season. He’d be a major addition for the Angels, whose catchers posted a combined .221/.293/.344 slash line with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs. The 27-year-old also has a special bond with former Cubs/current Angels manager Joe Maddon.

Contreras posted a heartfelt good-bye to Maddon on Instagram after the Cubs announced they weren’t retaining the manager for 2020. Contreras later commissioned a painting of he and Maddon as a gift for his former skipper.

Monday, Maddon said it’s “weird” to hear Bryant and Contreras mentioned in trade rumors, adding that he likes both players. 

The Angels aren't definitively linked to Contreras and Epstein recently advised to take rumors with a "mouthful of salt." But considering the Angels are reportedly seeking a catching upgrade, it won't be a surprise to see that change soon.