The hits keep coming for Cubs as Kris Bryant's knee issue crops up again

The hits keep coming for Cubs as Kris Bryant's knee issue crops up again

MILWAUKEE — Throughout his five years at the helm as Cubs manager, Joe Maddon has always said September brings its own energy with MLB pennant races heating up and the postseason drawing near.

It's Sept. 8, the NFL season has officially begun and yet the Cubs are still waiting for that energy to come, dealt another debilitating blow with the loss of Kris Bryant to an ongoing knee issue.

"Please Mr. September, bring it on," Maddon joked. "We're ready for your energy. Normally this time of the year, we've parceled out the year to the point where we are not beat up, not tired, not hurt. That's been the last four years. Last year, we just ran into an awkward schedule. We had everybody out here. This year, it's been harder to do that. Yes, Mr. September, we're ready for you."

Bryant was forced out of the starting lineup for Sunday's season finale with the Brewers due to the right knee inflammation that has been bugging him since at least late-July. 

The former 2016 NL MVP got out to a phenomenal start to the season, hitting .297 with a .403 on-base percentage and .955 OPS in the first half. But since the All-Star Break, he's hitting just .249 with a .337 OBP and .773 OPS.

What's even more disturbing is his whiff rate — after striking out only 19.5 percent of the time in the first half, Bryant is striking out at a 28.3 percent clip since the Midsummer Classic. In other words, he's whiffing nearly as often as he did during his rookie season (30.6 percent) over the last two months.

He also has 15 strikeouts over 28 at-bats in his last nine games, including a pair of whiffs in Saturday night's loss. 

He also appeared to foul a ball off that balky right knee:

"It's bothering him in all aspects of the game," Maddon said. "We spoke [Saturday night], and I just said, 'Listen, man, get your treatment, we'll go like a day-by-day situation with it.' But he did not feel very good after [Saturday] night's game.

"When he comes in and says he needs a day, then you know, because he's played through a lot of different maladies."

All along, Bryant has insisted the right knee issue has not been affecting his play, but it's become clear that storyline is not accurate. 

"I think any athlete you speak to is gonna say the same thing," Maddon said. "That's just being a Major League Baseball player. It's immeasurable, I think, when it really comes down to how much it is or isn't [impacting a guy]. You just don't know that. But you know the guy's not feeling well."

The Cubs held Bryant out of Tuesday's contest against the Mariners at Wrigley Field due to the knee and hoped that — coupled with Wednesday's off-day — would be enough of a break to spark him for the stretch run as the Cubs try to chase down the Cardinals in the division (and at the very least, hold off all challengers in the NL Wild-Card race).

But this knee issue is not going away and a Cubs team that is already without Javy Baez for possibly the end of the regular season, they can't afford another injury to a key player. Especially considering the inconsistent shape of the offense all year.

The Cubs limped into the end of September and beginning of October last year on offense, largely because Bryant was also dealing with a nagging injury (left shoulder) that sapped his power and required a full season's worth of rest and recovery. At the moment, it looks like the knee issue might have Bryant along a similar path.

After Sunday, the Cubs have just 20 games remaining and only one day off, so the clock is ticking.

"It's just treatment and stuff that I'm gonna have to do to make me feel better," Bryant said Thursday. "Obviously an offseason would make it feel much better when you have extended amounts of time off, but we don't have that. We have games we gotta win."

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move


Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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