Jesse Chavez

The forgotten man in the Cubs bullpen is hitting the reset button

The forgotten man in the Cubs bullpen is hitting the reset button

Don't forget about Brandon Kintzler.

He was the most high-profile of the Cubs' midseason bullpen additions last summer, but struggled out of the gate and faded into the background while less-heralded veterans Jesse Chavez and Jorge De La Rosa emerged as diamonds in the rough.

Chavez and De La Rosa are gone, but Kintzler remains a part of a Cubs bullpen that is firmly under the microscope this spring.

His introduction to the Cubs was forgettable (7.00 ERA, 2.00 WHIP in 25 games) but he conceded he put too much pressure on himself and relished the opportunity to hit the reset button this winter.

"Oh yeah, it's definitely [a fresh start]," he said at Cubs camp last month. "I think mentally more than anything. Just getting everything behind you, now settled down with a new team, starting to know the guys. You just get back into your routine and do what you do.

"If you're not mentally right, you're never gonna be physically right. So I think just being mentally home and start all over."

There's no getting around it — Kintzler was part of the reason the Cubs did not have much financial flexibility this winter. They declined his $10 million team option but he still had a $5 million player option, which he immediately picked up.

That $5 million could've gone a long way in the free agent market this winter — especially in augmenting the bullpen — but there's also a very real scenario here that Kintzler becomes a somewhat surprising contributor to the relief corps.

Yes, he's 34 (and turns 35 in August). No, he doesn't strike many guys out (6.1 career K/9).

But this is also a guy who has a career 3.48 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 67 holds and 48 saves. He's pitched in every role imaginable in a big-league bullpen and he's been through pennant races. When he's on, he's one of the best groundball pitchers in the game and the Cubs have an infield defense capable of being elite.

And that's exactly what the Cubs want him to do — pound his sinker in the zone and induce a lot of grounders.

When the Cubs were in Las Vegas for the MLB Winter Meetings in December, new pitching coach Tommy Hottovy reached out to Kintzler and made a stop at the veteran pitcher's home in the area to watch him throw.

"That was impressive," Kintzler said. "I've never had a pitching coach come out to my house and watch me play catch. It shows he cares and he wants to help me."

Hottovy is a big proponent of analytics, having spent the last few seasons as the Cubs' run prevention coordinator before his promotion. There's so much information out there for baseball players nowadays and it's the job of Hottovy and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff to weed through it all and whittle it down to the most important nuggets.

That will be imperative to any success Kintzler has this year, who acknowledges the benefits of analytics while also recognizing that all the information can be too much for him at times. 

Last year, he thought he got too caught up with adjusting to the Cubs' way of doing things and away from what he does best.

"When you come to a new team and you're just trying to fit in and see what they do, you kinda get away from everything and try to do what they think you should do or what a scouting report says," Kintzler said. "I've never actually been a huge scouting report guy. I've always just been a 'let's see what happens' kinda guy. 

"I want to get back to doing that and have that mentality. My old bullpen coach in Minnesota was Eddie Guardado and he was all about going in and attacking. That was always my mentality when I was with him, so if I get back to that, I think we'll be alright."

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Theo Epstein teases bullpen additions coming to Cubs this winter

Theo Epstein teases bullpen additions coming to Cubs this winter

One of the biggest cheers echoing through the Sheraton Grand Chicago Friday night came when Kyle Farnsworth was announced and strolled across the stage while Pat Hughes touted his ability to throw a 100 mph fastball.

"They should bring him back and add him to this year's bullpen," one fan joked during the Opening Ceremonies at the 2019 Cubs Convention.

Farnsworth looks like he could still light up the radar gun, but he's 42 and three years removed from his last stint in competitive baseball. Still, you can't blame the fan for wanting the Cubs to make *some* addition to the relief corps this winter.

The Cubs bullpen faded down the stretch for a second straight year (thought 2018 was due as much to injury as anything else) and the team watched as Jesse Chavez inked a 2-year, $8 million deal with the Texas Rangers over the winter.

This is the first time in recent memory the Cubs have held their annual convention without also introducing a new bullpen pitcher to the fanbase (unless you count Rowan Wick, the 26-year-old with 10 career appearances who was acquired from San Diego in November and announced last during Opening Cermonies Friday).

Theo Epstein wasn't seriously trying to corner Farnsworth to bring the big right-hander out of retirement, but the Cubs president did acknowledge the concern over the current state of the bullpen and promised additions were coming.

"I don't think we're done [this winter]," Epstein said. "We're working hard to finish off the team. I don't think the team's complete yet, if you look at it. Our position group is pretty darn close to done and we could certainly break camp with what we have right now and feel good about the depth and overall talent and the way the pieces fit together.

"Yes, certain players need to grow from last season and make adjustments. But we think they have the talent and the make-up to do so."

Epstein added the Cubs feel good about the starting rotation and believe it should be a strength of the team, but are still looking to add some more depth at Triple-A Iowa to lend support if injuries befall the staff in a big way.

But the bullpen is the clear weakness of this team at the moment, especially with closer Brandon Morrow slated to miss the first part of the 2019 season rehabbing from an early-November elbow procedure.

"I think the real focus for us is the bullpen," Epstein said. "We have a lot of talent there, but I don't think right now, the bullpen is complete. I know we're working extremely hard to try to add to it, whether it's through trade or the right free agent sign or the right small acquisition that might pay a huge dividend.

"We don't want to have the year we're looking for from our position player group and from our rotation and have our bullpen let us down. And that's something you have to be concerned about and we're working hard to try to add to this group."

The Cubs have "won the winter" (so to speak) on the bullpen front the last two winters, forming a group of established relievers and feeling very confident heading into spring training and, subsquently, Opening Day.

Yet both years, manager Joe Maddon has not had a long list of reliable relief options come late September.

Maybe a slightly different offseason approach to the bullpen can pay off for the Cubs this winter.

Considering Cubs' budget crunch, was picking up Cole Hamels' option the right move?

Considering Cubs' budget crunch, was picking up Cole Hamels' option the right move?

Did the Cubs make the right call in picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option?

That question was a no-brainer in the first few days of November — an easy call to pencil Hamels into the Cubs rotation for 2019 even if it meant trading away Drew Smyly and his $7 million contract to the Texas Rangers.

But here on Jan. 8, it's at least a fair question and the answer isn't so automatic, as we discussed on Hot Stove Tuesday.

Mind you, the result is still the same. The Cubs have Hamels under contract for 2019 and his $20 million salary is part of why Theo Epstein's front office doesn't have much wiggle room to add to the roster.

Epstein and Co. have pointed to payroll issues all winter (the Smyly move to clear some salary for Hamels was a clear indicator), but those woes seem to have hit a crescendo this week as The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal reported the Cubs couldn't even sign a second-market relief pitcher like Adam Warren without first clearing salary.

[Explaining Cubs budget woes: Why Theo Epstein's front office is limited this winter

Those are some serious financial restraints, though it's understandable. With a payroll projected to surpass $228 million, the Cubs will pay far more to their roster in 2019 than they have at any other point in franchise history.

But that is not a lot of financial flexibility for Epstein to add necessary pieces. Warren made just $3.3 million in his final year of arbitration in 2018 and would probably fetch a bit more than that on the open market.

If that's true and Epstein's front office is restricted that much, there's one definite conclusion to be drawn from the Hamels decision: The Cubs clearly felt they absolutely needed the veteran starting pitcher. 

Either the budgetary restraints have changed since the Cubs picked up Hamels' option on Nov. 2 (Epstein and Jed Hoyer maintained throughout the MLB Winter Meetings the budget has not changed) or the Cubs felt Hamels was more valuable to the 2019 team than using that money elsewhere to address the other holes on the roster (bullpen, veteran backup catcher, another bat, etc.).

It's tough to argue that point. Bringing Hamels back really was a no-brainer at the time, especially given how he performed in 12 starts down the stretch (2.36 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.7 K/9). Sure, he's 35 and has shown signs of decline in the past, but he was obviously rejuvenated in a Cubs uniform and increased health/mechanics support the boost in numbers over the last two months of 2018.

The Cubs also have serious question marks in their starting rotation beyond maybe only Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester is 35 and showing some minor signs of decline, Jose Quintana had a bit of a disappointing 2018 despite a strong finish and of course Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood are far from reliable options after the way their first season in Chicago played out. Imagine the tenor of fans this winter if the Cubs were planning on cruising into next year with Chatwood as a projected member of the rotation.

There's a strong argument that the reliability Hamels brings is well worth the $20 million and financial constraints the Cubs now face. 

It's much easier to find a reliable member of the bullpen than a solid starting pitcher with the upside of Hamels. Relievers can pop up from all over the place, as Jesse Chavez proved in 2018.

To play devil's advocate, if the Cubs are as limited financially as they are saying, they could've done a whole hell of a lot with that extra $13 million in savings from not picking up Hamels' option and keeping Smyly instead. (Though that obviously is not enough money to turn around and add Bryce Harper just because Hamels is off the books.)

Smyly missed all of 2018 to Tommy John recovery and $7 million ($5 million hit against the luxury tax) would've been a lot to pay for an unreliable option like that, but he showed signs of health in September and would've represented an option in either the rotation or bullpen.

That would then leave $13 million (or close to it) to fill in other gaps on the roster, namely in the bullpen while also potentially adding a veteran backup catcher and more depth for the starting rotation alongside Smyly, Chatwood and Mike Montgomery.

The offseason is far from over (pitchers and catchers don't report for another 5+ weeks) but as it stands right now, the Cubs bullpen appears in worse shape than it was heading into 2018 spring training. They will be without closer Brandon Morrow for at least the first couple weeks of 2019 due to surgery to clean up his elbow after a bone bruise erased his entire second half.

There's a valid case to be made on either side of the Hamels decision, but the Cubs drew their line in the sand months ago and will have to add to the roster in other ways.

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