Tony Barnette

Cubs decline 2020 options on four pitchers, including former closer Brandon Morrow

Cubs decline 2020 options on four pitchers, including former closer Brandon Morrow

The Cubs have declined the 2020 team options on four pitchers, the club announced on Monday.

Tony Barnette ($3 million), Kendall Graveman ($3 million), Brandon Morrow ($12 million vesting option) had minimal-to-no impacts on the field for the Cubs in 2019. Barnette started the season in Triple-A, joining the Cubs in June for two appearances before getting sent back to Iowa. He went on the restricted list soon thereafter to contemplate his future in baseball.

The Cubs signed Graveman last offseason, a move viewed as more for the 2020 season than 2019. The 28-year-old right-hander — who holds a career 4.38 ERA in 83 games (78 starts) — underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2018. He was expected to miss at least a chunk of the 2019 season, at least, and while he made one rehab start with Iowa, he has yet to throw a pitch with the Cubs.

Morrow was stellar for the Cubs when healthy (35 games, 1.47 ERA, 22-of-24 save chances in 2018), but he last pitched on July 15, 2018. He missed the entire 2018 second half due to right biceps inflammation, eventually undergoing a debridement procedure on his right elbow last November.

That procedure was expected to keep Morrow out for at least the first month of the 2019 season. However, he suffered two setbacks during his rehab (in April and August), the latter of which ended his season. The Cubs bullpen missed Morrow dearly, struggling in high-leverage spots all season while blowing 28 saves (tied for sixth-most in MLB). Craig Kimbrel was supposed to help address these issues, but he struggled to get into a groove after missing spring training and seeing his free agency last into June.

Although Morrow didn't make any appearances to come close to qualifying for the vesting option, the Cubs do owe him a $3 million buyout.

The Cubs also declined David Phelps’ 2020 option, which rose from $3 million to $5 million because he made 40 overall appearances in 2019. Phelps joined the Cubs in a trade deadline deal with the Blue Jays, posting a 3.18 ERA in 24 appearances on the North Side.

While it’s very unlikely Barnette and Morrow will return, it’s possible that the Cubs could re-sign Graveman and Phelps. The former would provide starting rotation depth in a 2020 group that has some question marks behind Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester. And depending on the number, Phelps could be a solid bullpen piece in a group that the Cubs surely will address this winter.

The Cubs have no decisions left regarding 2020 team options. Over the weekend, they declined lefty Derek Holland's ($6.5 million, $500,000 buyout) and picked up the options of José Quintana ($10.5 million) and Anthony Rizzo ($16.5 million).

The Cubs also added right-hander Colin Rea to the 40-man roster and outrighted Allen Webster to Iowa's roster. Rea went 14-4 with a 3.95 ERA with Iowa in 2019 and was named Pitcher of the Year in the Pacific Coast League. Rea presents the Cubs with more rotation depth for 2020.

Chicago's 40-man roster now stands at 32 players.

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Cubs place reliever Tony Barnette on restricted list as he contemplates future


Cubs place reliever Tony Barnette on restricted list as he contemplates future

Reliever Tony Barnette has made just two appearances in a Cubs uniform, but his future with the team is now in question.

Monday, general manager Jed Hoyer told reporters in Pittsburgh that the Cubs placed Barnette on the restricted list. Hoyer said that Barnette is “reevaluating things with his family right now,” according to The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney.

Barnette, 35, signed a one-year deal with the Cubs in the offseason, but he missed the start of the 2019 season with right shoulder inflammation. Based on Hoyer’s quotes, it’s possible that Barnette is evaluating whether he wants to pitch in the minor leagues at this stage of his career.

The Cubs called Barnette up on June 23 after he threw 9 1/3 straight scoreless innings with Triple-A Iowa. After allowing a run on two hits in 1 1/3 innings, the Cubs sent Barnette back to Iowa on June 27. He spent the 2016-18 seasons with the Rangers after pitching in Japan from 2010-15.

With Barnette on the restricted list, the Cubs now have two open spots on their 40-man roster.

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Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

The Cubs have some interesting roster decisions to make in the near future. 

The big-league pitching staff is potentially going to get very crowded very quickly with Tony Barnette now added into the mix, Craig Kimbrel close to making his debut and Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. nearing returns from their respective injuries. Somehow, the Cubs will need to open up multiple spots on their pitching staff.

Fans on Twitter are quick to solve the problem by saying "DFA Brad Brach," but it's hardly that simple and also probably not the best course of action for the franchise to cut ties with the veteran reliever.

Yes, Brach has not pitched well in his first season with the Cubs, especially lately — he has given up runs in eight of his last 12 outings and now carries a 6.14 ERA and 1.84 WHIP on the season. 

But there's more than meets the eye with his numbers and both he and the Cubs feel like they're on the verge of getting things in order.

"The most frustrating part is I feel like I've had some of the best stuff I've had in the last couple years these last five weeks and have just not gotten the results," Brach said. "Unfortunately this is a results-driven game, especially in the bullpen. If you're not getting the job done, you're not gonna be out there when the game matters and that's when I love being out there. 

"[The Cubs have] been really good about coming up to me — 'your stuff's there, just one little thing here or there.' But at the end of the day, I just gotta execute it and get the outs."

Brach has given up 32 hits this season, but only 8 of those have gone for extra bases and just 1 left the yard. He's given up homers at the same rate as Aroldis Chapman and among MLB pitchers with at least 20 innings this season, only six other guys have a better HR/9 rate than Brach.

Brach also woke up Monday morning with a .397 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against him, which is roughly 100 points higher than the league average this season and 107 points higher than his career average (.290). His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is right around his norm (3.73 vs. 3.69 for his career) and has the lowest strand rate of his MLB life so there's an element of bad luck here.

On the other hand, he's also giving up more hard contact and less soft contact than ever before.

After walking 15 batters in his first 12.1 innings, Brach has gotten that under control — he's doled out only 1 free pass over his last nine appearances and 7 total in 17 innings since April.

"It's been really frustrating and it's been waves of frustration," Brach said. "Early in the season, I wasn't throwing strikes, walking a ton of guys and wasn't getting hurt. Now, I'm not walking guys and getting hurt by the single in a year when home runs are dominating the game. 

"It's definitely a frustrating thing. The contact's been pretty weak. Mine was just two rocky games. I just kinda have to look at it like those were two really bad outings and move on and hopefully I can get on a roll here."

Brach has a point there — nearly half of the runs he has given up on the season (8 of 20) came in back-to-back outings against the Rockies on June 5 and June 11, where he was tagged for 4 runs each time while getting only three outs combined.

He also has a long track record of success. Since his rookie season, the 33-year-old has never posted a season ERA over 3.78. From 2012-18, Brach had a 2.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 33 saves and averaged more than a strikeout an inning while also spending most of that time as a high-leverage reliever pitching in the AL East.

However, Brach did experience an up-and-down 2018 season (4.85 ERA with the Orioles in the first half, 1.52 ERA with the Braves in the second half) and he has been thinking back to that a lot as he tries to get out of his slump with the Cubs.

"If I didn't have last year's experience, who knows where I'd be right now," Brach said. "Last year was pretty bad, too. Just couldn't get any outs. I was getting hit hard — a lot harder than I have been this year, so at least I know it can turn around."

There's still more than half the season remaining and Brach has exactly the kind of stuff, pedigree and experience to be a valuable bullpen piece for the Cubs down the stretch.

"It's kind of baffling to us from the side," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're trying to really dig into it and see if there's a thread there that we can bring to him. Because you watch him pitch from the side and the stuff is outstanding. It really is — the fastball-changeup-slider mix. 

"It's really hard to wrap your head around it. Some of it, I thought was a little bit of bad luck. Some of it has been late-count hits that he's gotta be a little bit better with 0-2, 1-2 counts. I'm trying to decipher all that. But purely from a physical perspective, he's throwing the ball great and he's not getting the results. And I think maybe then the confidence gets nicked a little bit, also. 

"That's where I'm at with him. I think he's throwing the ball wonderfully, but we gotta figure out — outside of a jam-shot, bad-luck knock every once in a while — what we can do to help him. This guy is such a wonderful team player. Everybody's behind him out there. Every one of us. We gotta figure it out because his stuff's that good."