Cubs

How Wade Davis returning to Cubs could fall into place

How Wade Davis returning to Cubs could fall into place

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Cubs viewed Aroldis Chapman only as a rental closer and didn’t show any interest in the free agent last winter or even pretend like a reunion might happen. That trade-deadline deal with the New York Yankees was all about World Series or bust.

Wade Davis – who became part of the defending champs after the Jorge Soler trade with the Kansas City Royals during last year’s winter meetings – is a different story as a low-maintenance closer with a sophisticated approach to pitching, quiet leadership skills and no off-the-field baggage.

That doesn’t mean Theo Epstein’s front office will come anywhere close to the record-setting, five-year, $86 million contract the Yankees handed Chapman last offseason. But just look at the supply-and-demand dynamics and there appears to be a way Davis could return to Chicago, where he set a franchise record by converting his first 32 save chances in a Cubs uniform.

This is only Day 1 of the general manager meetings at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. But you can already cross off the Yankees – and the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants after they invested $142 million combined in Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon last winter – and begin to see how the options narrow for an All-Star closer tagged with a qualifying offer.

The Boston Red Sox are set with Craig Kimbrel. The Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers are rebuilding. There are only so many teams that can afford a high-priced closer, have a clear ninth-inning need and expect to contend in 2018. Plus, right-handed relievers are seen as an overall strength in an otherwise underwhelming class of free agents.

“We think the world of Wade, on the field and off the field,” Epstein said Monday. “We’re definitely going to talk to him.

“Not only did he have an outstanding year in terms of his performance, but he was a terrific leader in the bullpen. He was really valuable to those other guys down there. Any club would love to have him in their clubhouse.

“We’ll certainly engage with him. He knows that we’re not known for giving long multiyear deals to relievers, but it’s definitely worth talking.”

The Cubs are also expected to revisit their talks with the Baltimore Orioles about Zach Britton, as Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports and MLB Network reported, though Epstein broadly hinted that for now they are probably out of the business of trading a young player with four or five seasons of club control for a one-year rental.

“There are a number of guys on the board that we would be comfortable with closing for us,” Epstein said. “Some have closed in the past. Some haven’t.

“There are a lot of different ways we could go with that.”

MLB Trade Rumors projected Britton will make $12.2 million through the arbitration system in 2018, his final season before free agency. The Cubs targeted Britton this summer but didn’t want to risk the Orioles dragging it out until the final moments before the trade deadline and winding up with nothing, taking what they thought was a good deal on July 30 with the Tigers for lefty reliever Justin Wilson (who put up a 5.08 ERA and didn’t make the National League Championship Series roster).

“Guys pop up,” said Epstein, who believes Wilson will rebound next season and pointed to Hector Rondon developing from a Rule 5 pick into a 30-save closer. “Things change quickly, so you don’t want to panic and say: ‘We have no closer coming the next four years.’"

“We have a really talented ‘pen. Right now, we don’t have someone that we can fully count on in that role. But I know we will by the time we get ready to head to Arizona.”

Whether Davis reports to Mesa – or winds up closing for the St. Louis Cardinals – the Cubs are going to be patient and creative during an offseason where they will have options (like Brandon Morrow) as they try to find multiple high-leverage relievers.

“You can destabilize a good club really quickly with uncertainty at the back of the ‘pen,” Epstein said. “You blow a few games in April and May. You have undefined roles. Worse yet, you don’t have enough talent to close down close games and it can really destabilize the entire team, beyond just the impact of the wins and losses.

“The starting pitcher feels pressure to go deeper in games. The offense feels pressure to put up a huge number. It can be tough. If you’re a contending team, you have to go into the year with enough talent in your ‘pen where you feel confident you can shut down close games against good teams.

“Whether or not you want to have a ‘proven’ closer or have someone grow into that role, that’s an open question. But you certainly have to have enough talent.”

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame and affected anything in that regard.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs Tuesday as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of this team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying exactly when that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

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AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.