Chronicling Brandon Kintzler's transformation from doghouse to circle of trust in Cubs bullpen

Chronicling Brandon Kintzler's transformation from doghouse to circle of trust in Cubs bullpen

Brandon Kintzler's 2019 season has been night and day compared to his debut campaign in Chicago last year.

It's still very early in the season, but the veteran reliever never had even a small sample size where he pitched this well in a Cubs uniform in 2018.

As the Cubs begin their series with the Marlins in Miami Monday night, Kintzler leads the bullpen in appearances (7), innings (7.2), strikeouts (9), WHIP (0.52) and is second in ERA (3.52) behind only Allen Webster (who has pitched just 3 innings). His lone mistake was a 3-run homer surrendered to Eric Thames in Milwaukee and he's the only Cubs reliever who hasn't walked a batter.

That's a far cry from the 25 games he pitched with the Cubs after a midseason trade a year ago, posting a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 18 innings. 

What we're seeing in 2019 is a lot more indicative of the pitcher Kintzler's been in his career prior to 2018 — 3.16 ERA, 1.23 WHIP in 291 career appearances.

"I threw like crap last year," Kintzler said. "Every once in a while, I'd make a good pitch, but I wasn't consistent enough to go, 'Oh, I'm having bad luck.' I just wasn't throwing well. Last year to me, it's just a wash. This year is a new year and every day is a new day."

So why was last year a wash? 

For starters, there was the rumor that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo traded away Kintzler last summer because he felt the veteran reliever was a bad influence in the clubhouse and was leaking information to the outside world. 

Kintzler has been adamant he wasn't the problem and has also admitted the negative rumor weighed on him in the final months of 2018, when he was supposed to be trying to fit in a new clubhouse and help the Cubs in a pennant race.

"I think the drama of my trade last year, you couldn't really be yourself because there's all this media about whatever they tried to say I did [in Washington]," he said. "It kinda hurt. It messes with your mind a little bit so you don't really wanna be yourself."

This spring training was huge for Kintzler, because he got to know his Cubs teammates and coaches under completely different — and better — circumstances. 

That includes first-year pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who won over Kintzler immediately when he went out to the reliever's home outside Las Vegas in December. Hottovy was in Vegas with the Cubs front office as part of MLB Winter Meetings and took a quick detour to watch Kintzler throw in the offseason.

The Cubs declined Kintzler's $10 million team option earlier in the winter, but the reliever had a $5 million player option that he exercised, so he was already on the books and a part of the bullpen. It was a matter of making sure 2018 was the aberration and he and the Cubs could get him back to his pre-2018 form.

Kintzler said Hottovy's visit meant a lot to him. Instead of the new pitching coach simply writing off the veteran as a lost cause based on the 2018 struggles, he instead believed in him and that's made all the difference.

Because of that, Hottovy earned Kintzler's trust and he used that relationship to fine-tune Kintzler's mechanics. 

"Tommy simplified my delivery," Kintzler said. "He's got my body and my arm slot back. He's getting my body in a good place to repeat my delivery. We got my arm slot back to where I needed to be from a couple years ago. When you feel comfortable where your body's at, you don't need to think about anything else — you can just go. 

"If I just worry about throwing strikes and I'm not worried about where my hands are or what my arm's doing, it makes my job a lot easier. Especially for me, I'm a very emotional, aggressive guy when I'm out there. So if I can just use my emotions to my strength, I think that's more on my side."

Kintzler and Hottovy worked on the new delivery throughout the spring and the first step was paring down a leg kick. Kintzler said he immediately gained three inches of sink in his next outing and continued to trend in the right direction from there. That's huge for a groundball pitcher who doesn't get a lot of strikeouts (6.2 career K/9). 

"He's shortened his movements up and with that, the command has been a lot better with great sink," Joe Maddon said. "He's got his delivery under control — that's it. Otherwise, everything looks the same to me."

Kintzler's resurgence has come at a very important time for a Cubs bullpen that began the year without Brandon Morrow and was forced to send Carl Edwards Jr. down to the minor leagues barely a week into the season. The Cubs are also without Mike Montgomery (lat injury) and Brian Duensing (designated for assignment during spring training) in the bullpen and a pair of veterans they signed over the winter — Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette — are still recovering from their respective injuries. 

Newcomer Brad Brach has had some good outings out of the bullpen, but he's also struggled badly with his command — 10 walks in 6.2 innings — which leaves essentially only Kintzler, Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop firmly within Maddon's circle of trust. 

For a bullpen with major control issues thus far, Kintzler's control stands out even more.

"I'm in attack mode and making action happen and forcing the issue," he said. "The main thing is just throwing strikes. If I'm in the zone, throwing strikes, more than likely, it's gonna go my way."

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

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AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Washington Nationals

2018 record: 82-80, 2nd in NL East

Offseason additions: Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Tony Sipp

Offseason departures: Bryce Harper, Tanner Roark, Matt Wieters, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Mark Reynolds, Joaquin Benoit, Tim Collins, Trevor Gott

X-factor: Victor Robles

The 21-year-old outfielder is a big part of the reason why the Nationals don't feel like the sky is falling without Harper. Robles enters 2019 as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and has been a consensus Top 10 prospect the last few winters.

He dealt with an elbow injury last year that limited him to just 73 games between the minors and majors, but he hit .288 with an .874 OPS in 66 plate appearances with Washington. He is a career .300 hitter in the minors and has an enticing blend of speed and contact and has shown flashes that he may add power as he grows and gets stronger.

If Robles becomes the player everybody thinks he can be, it will make the Nationals and their fans forget about Harper every now and then. He may never be as good as Harper (and certainly not this season), but Robles at least should make the Washington defense better with his excellent range in center.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - RF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Juan Soto - LF
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Brian Dozier - 2B
7. Yan Gomes - C
8. Victor Robles - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Patrick Corbin
4. Anibal Sanchez
5. Jeremy Hellickson

Outlook

Sure, the Nationals failed in bringing back Harper this winter. And yes, it will be brutal for them (and their fans) to watch as they play against their former superstar slugger 19 times a season. 

But the Nationals might actually have a better overall roster to begin 2019 than they finished 2018 with.

Last year, Washington ranked 15th in baseball with a 4.05 bullpen ERA. The only playoff teams they finished ahead of were the Braves (4.15) and Indians (4.60). They also ranked 26th in bullpen WAR (0.4) by FanGraphs' calculation.

Their two main additions in that area — Rosenthal and Barraclough — have solid track records. Rosenthal was worth 1.6 WAR the last year he pitched (2017) and he only threw 47.2 innings that season. Barraclough was rough last year (-0.6 WAR), but posted 2.7 WAR in the previous two seasons combined in the Marlins bullpen.

There's obviously risk with both arms (Rosenthal is coming off Tommy John surgery), but there's also upside with a pair of 28-year-olds who have absolutely nasty stuff. Couple them with elite closer Sean Doolittle and the Nats have the makings of a very good three-headed monster in the bullpen. Their most recent relief reinforcement — Tony Sipp, signed earlier this week — had a 1.86 ERA with the Astros last year and has a career 3.67 ERA in 580 appearances.

The Nationals also made some major upgrades to their catching position. They finished 25th in OPS from that spot last year (.624), which was the second-worst mark in the NL. FanGraphs pitted Washington as 24th in the league in catcher's WAR (0.5), so it wasn't just the offense.

The two new veteran additions — Gomes and Suzuki — combined for 4.2 WAR last year on their previous teams (the Indians and Braves, respectively). They should form a much better more productive pairing than the Wieters-Pedro Severino-Spencer Kieboom catching group from a year ago.

Want to keep going? The Nationals wound up with Wilmer Difo as their primary second baseman for most of last year because Daniel Murphy only played in 56 games due to injury and the late-season trade to Chicago. Dozier should help stabilize second base for Washington and provide more offensive firepower as even during a down year in 2018 (.696 OPS), he still far outperformed Difo. Dozier scored 100 runs in four straight seasons in Minnesota and clubbed a combined 76 homers with 192 RBI from 2016-17 while finishing in the Top 15 in AL MVP voting each season.

Corbin is a huge addition for the rotation, even if it took a lot of money ($140 million over 6 years). It gives the Nationals the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball...if they can all stay healthy.

The Nationals also have a budding star in Soto, which should help ease the pain of Harper leaving. As the youngest player in the big leagues last year, Soto hit .292 with a .406 on-base percentage, 22 homers and 70 RBI in only 116 games. Between the majors and minors, he crushed 36 bombs, drove in 122 runs and drew 108 walks in 155 games. Oh yeah, and did we mention he just turned 20 in October?

This lineup shouldn't struggle to score runs, which is an impressive feat given they relied so much on Harper and Murphy the last few seasons. The rotation is better, the bullpen is better and they have more depth than ever before.

The only question about this team is the window of contention. The Nationals have a huge payroll even without Harper (Opening Day payroll projected at just under $200 million) and there's definitely a sense of urgency to win NOW. After 2019, Rendon becomes a free agent, Zimmerman has a $20 million team option that almost assuredly won't be picked up and they'll have to make decisions on options for Eaton, Gomes and Doolittle.

The Nationals also have more than $80 million tied up in just their three starting pitchers for next year, which could leave them in a tight spot in any attempts to add to the roster.

The only members of their core guaranteed to be back in 2020 is the trio of arms plus Turner, Soto and Robles. 

The championship window may well be closing after this year, so it's another season of "now or never" for the Nationals. And we know that mindset and level of expectations haven't worked out well for them in the past, even when they had Harper.

But I'm betting on the improved roster across the board to take control of the powerhouse NL East and this very well could be the year they finally advance beyond the NLDS. Imagine that for Year 1 post-Harper.

Prediction: 1st in NL East

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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New MLB rule will affect Cubs in 2019 and beyond

New MLB rule will affect Cubs in 2019 and beyond

Don't expect the Cubs to make another Daniel Murphy trade in August this season.

Not only because Murphy's new team — the Colorado Rockies — are expected to be contenders all year, but also because Major League Baseball now has a rule in place forbidding August deals, as The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal is reporting.

The waiver trades were among the most confusing transactions in American sports, so things will certainly be simpler for fans (and reporters) to understand. From now on, all trades will be completed only before July 31 and we won't ever have to hear the words "non-waiver deadline" again. 

The Cubs acquired Murphy on Aug. 21 last year when the veteran hitter passed through waivers, allowing the Washington Nationals to dump a month's worth of his $17.5 million annual salary and get a minor-league infielder in return (Andruw Monasterio).

Murphy was a big addition to the Cubs lineup last year, halting the merry-go-round at leadoff and filling the role on a daily basis. He hit .297 with an .800 OPS and 23 runs scored in 35 games for the Cubs, but ultimately was unable to help his new team get to the NLDS as the offense managed to scratch across just 2 runs in 22 innings in October.

The Murphy move was far from the only August trade that had an impact on playoff races in recent years. The Houston Astros acquired Justin Verlander Aug. 31, 2017 and watched as he went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in 5 regular-season starts in September and then pitched them right to a championship in October. Oh, and he's still the ace of their staff through this year because he had two more seasons remaining on that contract.

Last August, we saw the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees augment their offense by adding Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen, respectively, with waiver deals.

As Rosenthal pointed out, the league saw 24 August trades a year ago in addition to the 48 July non-waiver deals. Now that we'll only see those pre-August moves, it could make the trade deadline much crazier. Maybe not NFL free agency wild, but a bump in activity nonetheless.

Now contending teams — including the Cubs — struck with injuries in the final two months of the regular season will be forced to fill the holes from within. 

MLB also may soon have a change in roster size, though that would not take effect until the 2020 baseball season. Rosenthal reports the 25-man roster may increase to 26 for the first five months of the year and then bump up to 28 players in September, down from the 40-man rosters we're used to seeing over the season's final month.

ESPN's Jeff Passan confirmed Rosenthal's report and added that the rumored All-Star Game Election Day will take place in 2019.

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