Rowan Wick

Cubs leave Winter Meetings with a new pitcher

Cubs leave Winter Meetings with a new pitcher

SAN DIEGO — The Cubs waited all the way until the final minutes of the MLB Winter Meetings to make a move, but at least they're not going home empty-handed.

For the first time since 2014, the Cubs made a selection in the Rule 5 Draft, adding pitcher Trevor Megill. The right-hander turned 26 last week and has spent his entire professional career in the San Diego Padres system.

Megill stands 6-foot-8 and posted a 3.86 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 39 minor-league games last year, mostly at Triple-A. He struck out 87 batters in 60.2 innings, including an eye-popping 12.7 K/9 rate with Triple-A El Paso. 

He figures to slot into the Cubs' bullpen for now. Per MLB rules, Megill, who has yet to make his MLB debut, must remain on the Cubs' big-league roster all season; otherwise, he would be returned to the Padres.

It's obviously not a splashy acquisition, but it allows the Cubs to get Megill into their Pitch Lab this winter and evaluate him throughout spring training to see if he can be the type of buy-low arm they've been stockpiling over the past year. That process has worked out for Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck so far, and the Cubs are hoping the trend will continue for their pitching acquisitions this winter (Jharel Cotton, Dan Winkler, CD Pelham and now Megill). 

"Megill is a guy we tried to trade for prior to the rosters being set in November," Jed Hoyer said. "He's a guy we've liked and got good reports on — big, physical right-handed reliever that had a good year last year in Triple-A. We've had some experience with him and we were excited he was there."

The Rule 5 Draft is not often an avenue to acquire impactful players, but it's not unheard of. 

The Cubs traded for Caleb Smith in the 2016 Rule 5 Draft, but ended up returning him to the Yankees that spring due to a roster crunch. Smith has turned into a solid starter with the Miami Marlins.

Back in 2012, the Cubs added Hector Rondon in the Rule 5 draft. He wound up saving 29 games for them two years later and emerged as a central piece of the bullpen for five seasons.

"When you have room on the roster, it's always a nice thing to do," Hoyer said. "There's times you can't do it — you don't have room on the roster sometimes and you can't fit it in. But in the years you do have that space on the roster, it's a nice thing to be able to do. Obviously there's challenges that come with it, but Megill is a guy we're excited about and excited to see him in spring training."

If the season started tomorrow, the Cubs' bullpen would probably look like this:

Craig Kimbrel
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Dan Winkler
Trevor Megill
Alec Mills/Tyler Chatwood/Adbert Alzolay/Duane Underwood Jr./Jharel Cotton

That's quite a different look from the veteran-laden relief corps of the last few seasons, but the Cubs are searching everywhere for reclamation projects, hoping to hit on a couple as they reshape their roster.

In the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 Draft, the Cubs added another pitcher: Brock Stewart, a 28-year-old who grew up in central Illinois and attended Illinois State University. He has 46 big-league games under his belt (including 11 starts) with the Dodgers and Blue Jays.

Stewart struggled mightily in 2019 (9.82 ERA in the big leagues and a 7.36 ERA in Triple-A), but he's only a few years removed from being a highly rated prospect in the Dodgers' system and presents as another low-risk reclamation project.

The Cubs also lost a couple notable players in the Rule 5 Draft Thursday: utility infielder Vimael Machin and right-handed pitcher Michael Rucker.

Machin, 26, was a 2015 10th-round pick who worked his way up to Triple-A in 2019. Overall, he posted an impressive .295 batting average and .390 on-base percentage in the minors last season (mostly in Double-A), but the Cubs ultimately chose not to protect him on the 40-man roster.

Rucker, 25, was a 2016 11th-round pick who appeared in 34 games for Double-A Tennessee and 2 games for Triple-A Iowa last year, pitching to a 4.18 ERA overall.

Cubs non-tender deadline news and notes

Cubs non-tender deadline news and notes

One of the first truly busy days of the MLB offseason is upon us.

Jharel Cotton

With Monday night serving as the deadline to tender players contracts for the 2020 season, the Cubs began by agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with pitcher Jharel Cotton.

The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal first reported Cotton's deal, worth $640,000 for 2020:

Cotton was slated for his first year of arbitration in 2020, so the $640,000 deal is a relative bargain, a little over the major-league minimum.

The Cubs just acquired the 27-year-old right-hander from the Oakland A's a little over a week ago. Cotton has dealt with injuries in recent years and hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2017, but he is a former top prospect (No. 84 by Baseball America prior to the 2017 season) and carries a 10.2 K/9 rate in 496 career minor-league games. 

Cotton is a nice buy-low option for the Cubs that has experience pitching in relief or in the rotation and can be sent down to the minor leagues if he doesn't earn a job on the big-league staff out of spring training. He has a lot of talent, as evidenced by his strong debut MLB season (2-0, 2.15 ERA, 0.82 WHIP in 5 starts in 2016). 

For the Cubs, they need to continue to take low-risk gambles like this on arms, hoping to strike gold as they did last year with guys like Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck.

Russell, Hultzen non-tendered

Shortly after the Cotton news dropped, the Cubs also announced Addison Russell and Danny Hultzen have been non-tendered, while the rest of the arbitration-eligible players (Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Ryan) were tendered a contract for 2020. All 19 players not yet eligible for arbitration were also tendered deals.

The Cubs' 40-man roster now stands at 36 with Russell and Hultzen coming off the books.

The Russell decision was expected, but Hultzen is still at least three years away from arbitration. However, Hultzen does not have any minor-league options remaining, which means the Cubs would've had to either keep him on the 26-man roster from Day 1 or risk losing him on waivers if they tried to send him back to the minor leagues. This way, the Cubs could still agree to a minor-league deal and add him only to the 40-man roster if needed later in the season.

Hultzen is an interesting case and was a heartwarming story, battling back from a plethora of injuries to make his MLB debut for the Cubs in Milwaukee in mid-September. The 30-year-old southpaw was formerly one of the top pitching prospects in the game as the No. 2 overall pick back in the 2011 MLB Draft.

Working back from yet another injury, Hultzen made 14 appearances for Triple-A Iowa in 2019 before pitching in six big-league games in the final month of the season. He had 10 appearances in 2018 after not pitching professionally in all of 2017.

The Almora decision

The other moves were unsurprising, as the Cubs were always expected to tender Ryan a deal after his breakout 2019 season, and they wouldn't even dream of parting ways with Bryant, Baez, Schwarber or Contreras unless in a big trade. 

But the decision on Almora was a bit tougher, as the 25-year-old is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. MLB Trade Rumors projects his 2020 figure to come in around $1.8 million, which is kind of a lot for a guy who put up a -0.7 fWAR last season. Almora was the first draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime back in 2012 (No. 6 overall) and scored the winning run in the 2016 World Series, but he has largely failed to live up to his potential in the big leagues. 

Once thought to be a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field, Almora struggled in both aspects of his game in 2019, rating as a negative defender (-5 DRS) and well below average as a hitter (.236 AVG, .651 OPS). However, he's still young and has flashed the potential to turn things around offensively while also getting back on track defensively. 

At the moment, it doesn't appear Almora will be penciled in for a major role on the 2020 Cubs, but he also isn't slated for such a huge salary spike that the organization felt like they had to cut ties with him this winter.

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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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