The state of the Cubs bullpen as MLB trade deadline approaches

The state of the Cubs bullpen as MLB trade deadline approaches

The MLB trade deadline is just two days away and as the Cubs evaluate the current state of their bullpen, a new name has entered the picture.

Just like Kyle Ryan before him, Rowan Wick has ascended from within the organization to potentially become a factor down the stretch for the big-league bullpen.

As the Cubs got set for a crucial game Sunday against the Brewers, it's telling that people were as concerned about the availability of Wick as closer Craig Kimbrel.

While the rest of the Cubs bullpen melted down Friday and Saturday in heartbreaking losses in Milwaukee, Joe Maddon had to call on Wick in a couple of high-leverage spots and the 26-year-old rookie rose to the challenge. He got a big out Friday before notching four outs to help send the game to extra innings Saturday, working around a pair of walks.

"I won't be nearly as reticent now just to put him out there based off what he did [Saturday], what he's done to this point. Guys like that, you don't know — you're just trying to break them in and see how they react," Maddon said, while also lauding Wick's poise and calm nature. "The other thing is command of his curveball. For me, a young guy with a good curveball can come out, maybe a little quick, force it. He hasn't. He's been throwing it for a strike. So as of right now, he's pretty much in check emotionally."

In his first year with the Cubs (they acquired him in a minor trade with the San Diego Padres in November), Wick has a 2.70 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 11 strikeouts in 10 innings in three different stretches with the big-league club and he may be done riding the Chicago-Iowa shuttle.

So what's been the main difference for Wick this time around?

"Just being more comfortable and honestly, not letting the environment and the amount of people in the stadium affect you," Wick said. "Just being like, alright, if I can do it in Triple-A, why can't I do it here?"

The Cubs very well may still add to the bullpen before the trade deadline, but Wick has been a nice last-minute boost to a unit that has watched Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler all struggle lately, plus Brad Brach's disappointing season and Kimbrel's issues. Derek Holland has only made two appearances with the Cubs, but he could emerge as another reliable left-handed option for Maddon out of the bullpen.

After signing late in the season and taking a few weeks in June to get up to speed, Kimbrel had a shaky start to his Cubs career. But he appeared to be righting the ship with eight scoreless appearances in a row prior to Saturday's blown save/loss.

However, he carries a season ERA of 6.75 and WHIP of 1.69 into the big series with the Cardinals Tuesday.

This is about as worrisome as it gets:

But that's also another prime example of how the ball certainly looks to be more conducive for homers this season. 

In his multi-homer outing Saturday, Kimbrel gave up the first shot to reigning MVP Christian Yelich (something so many pitchers can say over the last two years) and the second to Keston Hiura wasn't even that bad of a pitch and a ball that didn't seem like it was going to get out initially:

Adding to the concern is Kimbrel's dip in velocity — he's averaging just 96.1 mph on his fastball this season, the lowest mark of his career and a stark drop from the 98+ mph he averaged from 2014-17.

That's been another sign to the Cubs that the 31-year-old veteran closer is not ready for four- or five-out saves yet, despite the issues of the team's other high-leverage relievers in front of him.

"I'm still of the ilk that he needs more time," Maddon said. "That's why I don't want to press him into one-plus [innings]. He's not there yet. He's still working through some mechanical things with himself and just purely arm strength. 

"[Saturday] was a tough night. In the brief period of time I've gotten to know this guy, he is straight up, man. He'll work through it. He'll be fine with this whole thing. But right now, he's not quite where he's gonna be over the next couple weeks."

Maddon reaffirmed Kimbrel is perfectly healthy, but reminded the right-hander has had a very unconventional season to date — having not pitched at all in spring training or April/May before finally getting on a mound again in mid-June.

As the Cubs gear up for the stretch run, Kimbrel will still go down as their biggest acquisition — both in the bullpen and in general.

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.