Eddie Butler

Analyzing Cole Hamels' fit with the Cubs

Analyzing Cole Hamels' fit with the Cubs

After a full news cycle filled with reports, the Cubs made the Cole Hamels trade official Friday morning.

The return for the veteran starting pitcher is Eddie Butler and prospect Rollie Lacy.

In Hamels, the Cubs are getting a former NLCS and World Series MVP (2008) and four-time All-Star who has finished in the Top 10 in NL Cy Young voting four times. Of course, he's now 34 (will turn 35 in December) and in the midst of the worst season of his career (5-9, 4.72 ERA, 1.37 WHIP).

But the Cubs can take solace in the fact that Hamels is moving from facing the designated hitter in the American League to an NL team with an elite defense behind him and a park that often plays like a pitcher's haven with the wind blowing in. 

Hamels is also 1-7 with a 6.41 ERA and 1.51 WHIP at home this season while pitching in a hitter's paradise in Arlington. On the road, his numbers are much better — 4-2, 2.93 ERA, 1.23 WHIP. 

Hamels also has an 11.12 ERA in July, surrendering 21 runs in 17 innings pitched. Before that, he was actually having a really nice season — 3.61 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 97 strikeouts in 97.1 innings. You can't just throw out a month's worth of action on a player's stat line, but for a guy with a 3.43 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 152 wins on his career resume, the track record indicates he should be able to right the ship at some point.

Hamels is making $23.5 million this season and has a $6 million buyout (or $20 million team option) for 2019, but the Cubs will reportedly only have to pay $5 million of Hamels' remaining contract. That should help them stay under the luxury tax in 2018, which was a goal of the front office this season ahead of the stud-filled free agent pool coming this winter that includes Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

It is not yet known exactly how Cole Hamels will fit in on the Cubs pitching staff, but with Tyler Chatwood's continued control issues and Yu Darvish's health a major question mark, Hamels gives the Cubs another option in the rotation with plenty of experience in a pennant chase and the postseason. 

The Cubs could opt for a six-man rotation — something they've been wanting to do for a while. That would help ease the burden on a rotation that features two 34-year-olds (Hamels and Jon Lester), a pitcher currently on track to set a new career high in innings (Mike Montgomery), a guy who experienced shoulder fatigue right before the All-Star Break (Jose Quintana) and, of course, Chatwood and his mechanical issues that have seen him walk 85 batters in only 94 innings.

With Hamels in tow, the Cubs could also opt to move Chatwood into the bullpen in an attempt to get his mechanics smoothed out. At the moment, Montgomery (3.02 ERA, 1.18 WHIP as a starting pitcher) looks to have a rotation spot locked down as long as he can stay fresh down the stretch.

Hamels has pitched some big games against Joe Maddon's teams, including the 2008 World Series against Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays in which the southpaw allowed only 4 runs in 13 innings across 2 starts.

"He's been pretty good," Maddon said Thursday of Hamels. "I've not liked him for a long time. He's pitched some really big games against teams I've been involved with and has done really well. He's a great competitor. Got good stuff, but he competes and he knows what he's doing out there. So I have to rank him as a pretty competent left-handed pitcher."

Butler was out of minor-league options, so his departure clears room on the roster for Hamels immediately. Butler — acquired in a trade with the Rockies before the start of the 2017 season — was 5-4 with a 3.98 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 72.1 innings in his Cubs career, spanning 11 starts and 10 relief appearances.

The Cubs just activated Butler from the disabled list earlier this week after he had missed three months with a groin injury. 

Lacy, 23, was an 11th-round draft pick last summer and is 5-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 1.10 WHIP this season while splitting time between the Cubs' Class-A South Bend and Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliates. 

Lacy was not ranked on MLB.com's Top 30 Cubs prospect list updated last month after the 2018 MLB Draft.

A case of good news/bad news for Cubs on injury front

A case of good news/bad news for Cubs on injury front

It was a mixed bag for the Cubs on the injury front Tuesday.

On the same day Eddie Butler was activated from the 60-day disabled list, Yu Darvish threw a 16-pitch bullpen and felt OK after, but Kris Bryant was held out of the lineup as his ailing shoulder flared up.

Bryant missed 16 games with the left shoulder injury in late June/early July and tweaked it again in a swing Monday night.

The Cubs held him out of Tuesday's lineup to be safe and Joe Maddon admitted he may keep the 2016 NL MVP out of Wednesday's game, as well.

"He's a little bit sore and I have to be proactive with that," Maddon said. "I want to make sure that we're not pushing him too hard right now. 

"He felt it on a swing a little bit [Monday] and played through it. Didn't feel great afterwards, not feeling that great yet today, so let's not mess with this right now."

When Bryant initially went on the disabled list in late June and the shoulder injury came to light, he and the Cubs thought he might only need the minimum 10 days. His time on the shelf was nearly double that as the Cubs wanted to be extra cautious with their best player.

Yet still, the issue lingers.

Maddon acknowledged Tuesday he doesn't know if this is something Bryant will have to address after the season. For now, the Cubs are just going to keep trying to manage it the best they can as they enter the stretch run of the regular season and get into what they hope is a long postseason run.

Still, the results just aren't there lately with Bryant, who is hitting only .227 with a .684 OPS in 5 games since the All-Star Break.

"He's trying to make some adjustments," Maddon said. "I like what he was actually doing [Monday] night — the ball actually started going the other way, which he needs to do, I think.

"But it's just not clicking. The ball's not clicking off the bat like we normally see. That home run a couple days ago, that's pretty much been the best contact he's made since this occured.

"He's not used to that. I mean, this is a young guy that's really never been hurt. And when you get hurt and you've not been hurt, how do you react to that mentally and physically? So he's deadling with that right now."

Continuing along the glass-half-empty path with regards to injuries, the Cubs also don't have an update on closer Brandon Morrow, who is on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis.

Morrow is eligible to come off the DL Saturday, but Maddon said Tuesday night there's "nothing new. He's not ready yet. No finish line yet."

Darvish's bullpen, however, was a bit encouraging, though it was only 16 pitches. 

"It went well," Maddon said. "There was no real horrible discomfort, so that was a positive."

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for Darvish's overall health, but hey, it's better than it's been the last month or so for the Cubs' biggest offseason acquisition.

The Cubs are going to evaluate how Darvish feels in the coming days after the brief bullpen session and figure out a plan of attack after that.

Darvish first went on the disabled list Memorial Day weekend with a triceps strain, which later morphed into an elbow impingement throughout the course of his rehab. He received a cortisone shot, but Tuesday was the first time back on a mound since he had to cut his bullpen session short in late June.

The Cubs still don't know what they may get from Darvish in the final two months of the season, if he's even able to return to a mound at all. 

But at least this is a second straight step in the right direction for Darvish, who threw off flat ground (135 feet) Sunday with good results. 

The Cubs also added a fresh arm to their bullpen with Butler Tuesday, sending Luke Farrell back down to Triple-A Iowa.

Butler — who threw 2 innings in relief Tuesday — last pitched April 19 before going down with a groin injury.

The 27-year-old right-hander may not be the game-changing addition the Cubs bullpen needs for the stretch run, but he is a (very) fresh arm at a time where that currently is in very short supply on the North Side — you know, with all the position players pitching and all.

The Long Game: How Joe Maddon is navigating 'awkward' first week in Cubs bullpen with the future in mind

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AP

The Long Game: How Joe Maddon is navigating 'awkward' first week in Cubs bullpen with the future in mind

Joe Maddon was just chilling in the first-base dugout, enjoying the Miami weather and taking in the undeniable beauty of Opening Day.

Then, suddenly, he was forced into action.

Cubs Opening Day starter Jon Lester was unable to make it out of the fourth inning against the Marlins and Maddon had to think quickly on how to save the first game for a team with World Series expectations.

Spring training was officially over.

"That was not what I was looking for. I'm not trying to match up in the fourth or fifth inning of the first game! I'm over there enjoying myself on Opening Day and now all of a sudden, I gotta start thinking a little bit," Maddon joked with reporters.

Yes, it was all in jest. Maddon and his coaching staff are always thinking ahead. Things rarely come as a total surprise for big-league managers...even on Day 1. They think about almost every scenario before it happens.

And Maddon is already thinking about August, September and October, even though the Cubs are just five games into the 2018 campaign.

A huge part of that is the craziness and "awkwardness" of an opening week where the Cubs' bullpen has emerged as the superstar during a 2-3 start.

The bullpen was Public Enemy No. 1 last postseason and for most of the offseason with Cubs fans. Theo Epstein's front office retooled the relievers, adding veterans Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to replace Wade Davis and Hector Rondon.

Through five games, the bullpen has recorded 78 outs, one more than the Cubs' starting rotation (77 outs). 

That'll happen when you're forced to play 17-inning and 10-inning games on back-to-back nights and when a rotation that may be the best in baseball has just two quality starts once through the order.

"[The relievers have] proven their mettle already," Maddon said. "...There's a lot of confidence to be derived from these games from their part."

The Cubs skipper knows he's had no choice but to lean heavily on his bullpen so early and thus far, they've responded with a sparkling 0.69 ERA (2 ER in 26 innings) while allowing just 17 hits and 10 walks.

But wearing down the bullpen early is what got the Cubs in trouble last year. From Maddon to Epstein to the relievers themselves, there was an open admission that the bullpen was tired and worn out by the time the playoffs hit.

Maddon is always tuned in to getting his team to play at their peak performance in August and September and heading into the postseason on a high note.

Baseball has changed, however. With everybody around the league now "woke" to most pitchers' struggles facing an opposing lineup for the third time in an outing, managers are going to their bullpens earlier and earlier.

So this year, the Cubs hoped to go easy on their bullpen so they, too, would be fresh for what they hope is a run into the end of October. That should've been made easier with two guys — Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler — stretched out as starters coming from spring training and capable of pitching long relief outings.

It just hasn't worked out that way, though Maddon won't ignore the long game.

"I'm trying to keep in mind August and September," he said. "I want us to play well and strong in those months and we have. And if you don't keep an eye on it right now, you will not play well in those months.

"It's hard to keep pushing, pushing, pushing, especially when you play as deep into the year as we have. I think it's wise to keep an eye on the end of the year right now."

MLB teams typically get an off-day in the first few days of a new season, but the Cubs were thrown into the fire immediately with six scheduled games in six days. And the first three of those games featured four games' worth of innings with a pair of extra inning contests.

"The three games for the first three games of the year are so awkward," Maddon said. "The pitching didn't want to work. ... The bullpen was extended."

No pitcher was taxed more than Montgomery, even though he threw only 36 pitches. The 28-year-old pitcher worked each of the Cubs' first three games of the season, marking the first time he's ever worked three days in a row in the big leagues.

Montgomery said his arm still felt fine after those three games thanks to being stretched out as a starter in spring training and only needing to go one inning at a time in each outing. But this is also not something he wants to make a habit of all season to the point where he's completely worn down in September.

The Cubs did catch a break thanks to the weather in Cincinnati, however. A rainout Tuesday night affords them back-to-back off-days heading into a crucial early-season series with the Brewers in Milwaukee this weekend.

Every Cubs reliever will be rested entering Thursday night as the team's first true test of 2018 will emerge against a retooled Brewers team that has its sights set on the division.