Craig Kimbrel

The 2020 Cubs: Insanity, the elephant in the room at Cubs Convention

The 2020 Cubs: Insanity, the elephant in the room at Cubs Convention

Year-in and year-out, one of the most entertaining parts of Cubs Convention is the fan questions. 

Whether posed by children to Anthony Rizzo and his teammates at the Kids Only Presser or hard-hitting questions to Theo Epstein and the coaching staff, fans never cease to entertain when they get their opportunity on the mic.

That continued Saturday morning when a fan got up to ask Epstein a question halfway through his Baseball Operations panel and started innocently by thanking the front office for the 2016 World Series championship. It then delved into the fan stating his belief that the Cubs have regressed in the seasons since, particularly on offense.

"It's been written," the fan continued, "that the definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet we're probably gonna have a very similar lineup this year to what we had last year. Can you articulate what we should expect differently and why we should get different results from that?"

The fan was alluding to the "status quo" on the Cubs roster that is becoming more and more of a reality as the start of spring training draws near. To date, the Cubs have not guaranteed a single dollar on a big-league contract in free agency and they also have not traded from their core of players or worked out an extension with anybody from the same group.

The 2019 Cubs won only 84 games and were essentially eliminated from playoffs with a week left in the regular season. It led to sweeping changes on the coaching staff — including the departure of manager Joe Maddon — and every other behind-the-scenes department within the franchise. However, the game is ultimately won and lost on the field by the players and that group has hardly changed apart from the guys the Cubs have lost to free agency (a group led by Cole Hamels and Steve Cishek and potentially Nicholas Castellanos) and via trade (Tony Kemp).

"Great question," Epstein said in response to the fan. "Well, first of all, it's not Opening day yet, so I think there's still a chance of some changes. We hope there will be. This is an offseason where we knew we were gonna be more active in trades than free agency, but the bottom line is: words don't matter, actions do. But the fact that we haven't been active yet makes that a very valid question."

Epstein then launched into a long-winded answer quoting himself on how development isn't linear, and used the up-and-down career Ian Happ has had to date. The Cubs believe there is more in the tank for a guy like Happ, who barely contributed in 2019 while spending the first four months of the season making adjustments in Triple-A Iowa.

Kyle Schwarber was another example Epstein pointed out, referencing the changes the left-handed slugger made that led to a monster second half of the season.

"I agree with you," Epstein went on. "I think, objectively speaking, we should be adding to this team and doing everything we can to make it better. There are some obstacles we're trying to fight through in that regard. But don't give up on the players that have been here that might've driven you insane at times watching them, because I really think a lot of them are on an upward trajectory and will make us proud this year."

About 15 minutes later in the same session Saturday morning, another fan asked Epstein to speak as candidly as he could about the payroll issues facing the Cubs. 

The president of baseball operations admitted he is trying to be as transparent as possible, but isn't able to go into exact detail on the payroll because it puts the Cubs in a compromised position as they negotiate with agents in the open market and other teams on the trade front.

At the moment, the Cubs are projected for a roster that will go slightly over the $208 million luxury tax threshold for the second straight season.

"Clearly how we position ourselves relative to the collective bargaining tax and the impact of going over multiple years in a row and the effects of that long term is a factor in the offseason," Epstein said. "It's one of those obstacles that we talked about that we have to find a way to navigate around.

"But I'm gonna be honest and self-critical — if we had done our jobs a lot better the last couple years, those same obstacles might be there, but they wouldn't be as pressing and we'd have a little bit more flexibility."

For example, the Tyler Chatwood contract hasn't really worked out for the Cubs to date. He's owed $13 million in 2020 and while he had a resurgent season last year, that's still a lot of money for a guy who may not even be ticketed for the rotation this summer.

Same with Craig Kimbrel. In early June when the Cubs signed the dynamic closer, it looked like a no-brainer addition to shore up the weakest part of the roster — not only for 2019, but for the next two years after. Now, after a half season that was plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, Kimbrel is on the books for $16 million in 2020 and yet comes with plenty of question marks.

If the Cubs didn't make those two deals, they'd have two more holes on the pitching staff, but also a lot more financial flexibility to fill those spots. It also speaks to the lack of pitching development under Epstein's regime, which has forced the front office to continually devote a lot of resources into signing pitchers instead of supplementing the staff with homegrown arms.

Couple the money issues with the fact the projected roster has lost a lot of talent from the end of last season and the nearing free agency for the likes of Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and Epstein's front office has been left in a spot this winter where they have to "serve three masters," as he put it Saturday. 

They're still trying to contend in 2020, but they don't want to put themselves in a further bind financially and they'd ideally add pieces that would help the team both in the short-term and the long-term. That includes patience on the trade market as they wait for another team to come closer to their asking price on Bryant or any of the other available players.

None of it is what the fans want to hear, but it's the reality of the situation the Cubs find themselves in.

"This is one of those winters where it's really hard to thread the needle," Epstein said. "We're doing the best we can. I would say to hang with us and hopefully by the time Opening Day rolls around, we've improved the 2020 team and we've done some things that maybe don't improve the '20 team, but ensures a better future. And then to our bosses and for our future, we've also done a responsible job financially to set ourselves up for long-term fiscal health."

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Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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As Cubs look to augment bullpen this winter, here's what they need to fix

As Cubs look to augment bullpen this winter, here's what they need to fix

For the first time in a few years, the bullpen did not take center stage in the Fall Classic. 

The powerhouse rotations of both the Astros and Nationals have — rightfully — drawn the focus, with Wednesday night's Game 7 marking the first time since 2001 that both starting pitchers went at least five innings in a winner-take-all contest.

That's quite the changeup compared to the days of bullpenning and short starts that have filled the past few Octobers.

But that likely won't do much to change the importance of bullpens in 2020 and beyond and it will be one of the most fascinating areas to watch as the Cubs reshape their roster this winter.

In fact, relievers are now more important to today's game than ever before, accounting for more innings and also experiencing more struggles compared to just a few years ago.

Here's where the league average ERA and innings total (per team) stand for bullpens over the last five MLB seasons:

2019: 4.43 ERA, 609 IP
2018: 4.08 ERA, 581 IP
2017: 4.15 ERA, 549 IP
2016: 3.93 ERA, 530 IP
2015: 3.71 ERA, 506 IP

So in the span of just five seasons, relievers have been tasked with pitching 103 more innings per team — on average — and the ERA has subsequently jumped 72 points. 

A big part of the dip in bullpen effectiveness could be explained by the usage, but the 2019 baseball and home run spike was also a huge factor.

"If you look across the league, bullpens were a roller coaster on every single team," veteran Cubs reliever Steve Cishek said on the final weekend of the regular season. "Even teams in the playoffs, the guys that teams relied on weren't pitching as well now, based on usage or whatever it may be. That's just been kind of the theme. If you have a close lead and with the baseballs we're throwing out there right now, it's tough to hold that lead. You feel like you have to pitch perfect all the time. 

"It's totally different. I'm a big pitch-to-contact guy and that's super risky now because if anybody gets lift on the ball, it's gone. It's insane. ... We joke around, there's a 0 percent chance of the ball leaving the yard if they hit it on the ground. That was always my philosophy — I was a sinkerball guy, but now guys are learning how to lift the ball, so now you have to change your approach. 

"With these baseballs, they can leave the yard at any moment. One-run leads aren't safe. You almost have to pitch to perfection and sometimes that can catch up to you."

The idea that even a 10-year MLB veteran like Cishek feels like he would have to be perfect on every single pitch illustrates how much pressure relievers were under in 2019 with home run totals soaring through the roof. 

We don't know how the baseball will play in 2020 — common sense would dictate some sort of regression — but the Cubs have to address their bullpen regardless of the home run rate.

In 2019, the Cubs finished eighth in Major League Baseball with a 3.98 bullpen ERA, though most fans will remember the down moments like Cishek walking in the winning run in San Diego or Craig Kimbrel serving up homers on back-to-back pitches to blow a lead against the Cardinals on the final homestand. 

The overall bullpen stats don't tell the whole story — the Cubs struggled mightily in the most important moments in games.

Theo Epstein summed it up thusly:

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," he said at his end-of-season presser. "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."

As a team, the Cubs ranked 24th in baseball in ERA (7.92) in high-leverage spots, as defined by FanGraphs, though two of the teams behind them (Dodgers, Nationals) wound up facing off against each other in the National League Division Series.

The Cubs bullpen had the worst K-BB percentage (5.3 percent) in the league in high-leverage spots, mostly because they walked a league-high 15.4 percent of batters in such situations, tied with the 105-loss Marlins. 

But it was also where the inability to miss bats came into play as Cubs relievers struck out only 20.7 percent of opposing hitters in high-leverage spots, which ranked 29th in baseball ahead of only the White Sox.

Meanwhile, in low- and medium-leverage spots (again, defined by FanGraphs), the Cubs tied for second in the MLB with a 3.19 ERA, though they still walked far too many hitters (ranking 26th with a 10.4 percent walk rate). 

In short, the Cubs bullpen had too many issues doling out free passes in 2019 and did not miss near enough bats to make up for it. Those issues were magnified in tight spots late in games and told the real story of the 2019 unit. 

Of course, high-leverage spots are an enormous part of a bullpen's performance, so how do the Cubs fix it? 

Epstein is looking at the glass half-full.

"We were actually fourth in the league in bullpen ERA, second in the second half — which doesn’t mean anything if you can’t pitch in high-leverage situations," Epstein said. "But I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well, because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level. 

"We’ve seen more of that. 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, 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."

A lot of that will come down to Craig Kimbrel, the embattled closer who is coming off by far the worst season of his career — a year filled with starts and stops due to his delayed free agency pursuit and then injuries and ineffectiveness once he got on the field for the Cubs. 

In addition to his issues with home runs and walks, Kimbrel recorded the lowest strikeout percentage of his career. Still, whiffing 31.3 percent of batters faced is nothing to sneeze at and, in fact, is the same rate at which Yu Darvish struck out batters in 2019 and would've ranked just outside the Top 30 relievers if Kimbrel had pitched enough innings to qualify.

Beyond that, the Cubs were really encouraged by what they saw in Brad Wieck and Rowan Wick late in the season and Kyle Ryan was a staple in the bullpen all season. In small sample sizes, Alec Mills and Duane Underwood Jr. also flashed the ability to miss bats while limiting free passes.

The trick now will be for Epstein's front office to augment that base group of relievers via free agency or trade, adding guys with proven track records in high-leverage moments and an ability to get a whiff in key spots.