Cubs

What Scott Harris' departure means for Cubs

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AP

What Scott Harris' departure means for Cubs

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Even before the offseason started, the Cubs knew this was going to be a winter of change behind the scenes — on the coaching staff, in player development and scouting and in the big-league front office.

One change they weren't necessarily anticipating was losing Scott Harris to the San Francisco Giants.

Harris had spent the last seven years with the Cubs, working up to an assistant GM role and emerging as one of the most trusted voices in the front office under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. The Giants officially introduced Harris as their new GM Monday, leaving the Cubs with even more turmoil to address this winter.

In September, the Cubs had already moved Jason McLeod over to the big-league front office from his previous role as vice president of amateur scouting and player development, but McLeod won't be an exact replacement for Harris. Instead, the Cubs will spread Harris' responsibilities around — at least in the short term — and allow younger internal options an opportunity to step up and earn expanded roles.

"We're thrilled for Scott," Epstein said. "It was an opportunity he couldn't turn down — a No. 2 of another storied franchise in his hometown; it was just too good to be true. We're thrilled for him, but it was bittersweet. We loved working with him and he was a big part of our culture and guys around the major-league team love working with him. 

"It will leave a pretty significant void that we'll have to fill. We'll distribute a lot of his responsibilities around to a few different people internally and reevaluate as we continue to look outside, if there happens to be the right fit outside the organization, too."

It won't be easy for the Cubs to replace Harris, as they viewed him internally as a potential GM down the road. At the moment, he was a valued and trusted voice inside the front office at a critical time in the organization as they work to set themselves up for the future beyond their current window of contention that is set to close after the 2021 season.

"He's got incredible work ethic," Epstein said. "He's got significant intellectual capacity, but he's very down to earth, fun to be around. He doesn't tell you how smart he is. He's one of the guys everyone loves going to to share things and pick their brain. He's got good feel managing up, managing down, managing laterally, good feel with the players and uniform personnel. He'll do a really good job over there."

Now the Cubs will have to move on, though they're not in any rush to do so. 

After announcing a host of moves as part of their internal shake-up last month, the Cubs are still looking to hire a scouting director from outside the organization. Epstein confirmed they have interviewed close to 10 candidates and the Cubs are "reaching the final innings" in that process.

The same way they search for the next star player, the Cubs are also searching for the next front office star — the next Scott Harris, if you will.

"Anytime you have the opportunity to fill a spot — and there is some real turnover in our organization this year — I think you're always looking for somebody with potential to impact years down the line beyond the scope of responsibility you're hiring for," Epstein said. "This gives us anther big bullet to fire in our hiring, but we might not necessarily rush out and do it right away. 

"We have a lot of qualified people internally, too, who might take off with new responsibilities, so we'll see. We'll weigh that, but we are definitely looking outside. Same with scouting director — we're looking for an impact hire in that role." 

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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

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USA TODAY

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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