Young players providing key contributions for Cubs

Young players providing key contributions for Cubs

Even amid a blowout loss Tuesday night, there were plenty of intriguing elements that could impact the Cubs down the stretch.

Duane Underwood's head-turning, record-setting performance out of the bullpen was one. Ian Happ seeing some playing time at second base was another. Kyle Schwarber catching the ninth inning was also intriguing, but the Cubs probably won't be utilizing that much in the future, especially with the signing of Jonathan Lucroy.

Happ has been pushing to play more second base since the end of last season and has worked hard all year to improve his infield defense. He finally earned a shot this week, with Wednesday serving as his first big-league start at second base since Sept. 19, 2017.

The 24-year-old responded with the huge hit of the Cubs' 10-1 win over Oakland — a grand slam in the fourth inning. He also singled and lined out twice, hitting the ball hard all over the field.

As the Cubs try to find the right mix at second base, Happ is aggressively trying to win the battle and climb atop the depth chart.

"[Cubs infield coach Brian Butterfield] has been working with him a lot and he had done a lot of work with Triple-A," manager Joe Maddon said. "When he came back, he wanted to make sure that I knew that he's very capable of doing that. The way he's swinging the bat right now, creatively trying to get him in the lineup and see how it plays.

"This could be very beneficial to us moving down the road."

Maddon's right: as the Cubs work to get into a more consistent offensive groove, they need more production out of second base. They entered play Wednesday ranking 22nd in MLB with a .674 OPS from the position.

Meanwhile, Happ now has a 1.052 OPS on the season in 12 games since being recalled from the minor leagues.

The lineup the Cubs put out Wednesday looks to be their best offensive group, at least until Willson Contreras returns from injury:

1. Jason Heyward - CF
2. Nicholas Castellanos - RF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Javy Baez - SS
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Ian Happ - 2B
8. Victor Caratini - C

Plus, the Cubs could always look to get a lead early and switch to a more defensive-centric lineup later in games, inserting David Bote or Tony Kemp at second base and moving Happ to the outfield.

As the Cubs hit the road and try to rewrite the script away from Wrigley Field, Maddon confirmed Happ would remain in the team's second-base mix and hinted that could even come this weekend in Cincinnati.

"He's really not missing his pitch right now," Maddon said. "And he's had a pretty good history in that city, including going to university there. You'll see him play down there."

Happ — who attended the University of Cincinnati — hits better at Great American Ballpark than anywhere else on the planet, posting a .405 batting average and 1.457 OPS there lifetime (14 games). 

Then there's Underwood, who tied a franchise record by striking out six consecutive batters while making his 2019 debut:

The 25-year-old right-hander had been lights out in Triple-A since making the switch from a starter to a reliever and continued to flash his potential with Tuesday's dominant outing. 

The Cubs will continue to get looks at Underwood in the big-league bullpen, especially while both Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler are on the injured list.

"You need to try [to see what you have]," Maddon said. "You need to explore it a little bit. When you strike out six guys — regardless of the score, those A's weren't going up there not caring. They weren't going up there like, 'yeah, I'm just gonna strike out.' Those are good hitters.

"And not only that, if you watch the whole event — Duane's appearance, the line with which he threw strikes and command where he wanted the fastball and command of the changeup. I mean, you just don't do that. And 96 mph down to a changeup like that, in a close game, that could also play. So we're gonna find out."

Maddon also pointed to his experience witnessing young pitchers with good stuff (think Francisco Rodriguez in Anaheim) make a name for themselves with good performances down the stretch and acknowledged the potential for Underwood and Rowan Wick to do the same with the Cubs this season.

The changeup has been a key to Underwood's success, especially with his velocity spike that he can more easily maintain working as a reliever. The former second-round pick said he spent time with Kyle Hendricks in the weeks leading up to spring training this year, picking at the veteran's brain about his renowned changeup.

Underwood said he's feeling better with that changeup every time he's using it and gaining more and more confidence each day, which matches up with the advice Hendricks game him:

"The changeup's such a feel pitch and I told him, 'It's just something you have to throw a lot,'" Hendricks said. "You've gotta play catch with it all the time, you have to throw it a lot in your bullpens and sides and it'll start to come around and see what it looked like. 

"[Tuesday] night was unbelievable. The way it played off his fastball, too — just the same look, same plane. It's just awesome to see him go out there and have all his hard work pay off."

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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