World Series

As Cubs look to augment bullpen this winter, here's what they need to fix

As Cubs look to augment bullpen this winter, here's what they need to fix

For the first time in a few years, the bullpen did not take center stage in the Fall Classic. 

The powerhouse rotations of both the Astros and Nationals have — rightfully — drawn the focus, with Wednesday night's Game 7 marking the first time since 2001 that both starting pitchers went at least five innings in a winner-take-all contest.

That's quite the changeup compared to the days of bullpenning and short starts that have filled the past few Octobers.

But that likely won't do much to change the importance of bullpens in 2020 and beyond and it will be one of the most fascinating areas to watch as the Cubs reshape their roster this winter.

In fact, relievers are now more important to today's game than ever before, accounting for more innings and also experiencing more struggles compared to just a few years ago.

Here's where the league average ERA and innings total (per team) stand for bullpens over the last five MLB seasons:

2019: 4.43 ERA, 609 IP
2018: 4.08 ERA, 581 IP
2017: 4.15 ERA, 549 IP
2016: 3.93 ERA, 530 IP
2015: 3.71 ERA, 506 IP

So in the span of just five seasons, relievers have been tasked with pitching 103 more innings per team — on average — and the ERA has subsequently jumped 72 points. 

A big part of the dip in bullpen effectiveness could be explained by the usage, but the 2019 baseball and home run spike was also a huge factor.

"If you look across the league, bullpens were a roller coaster on every single team," veteran Cubs reliever Steve Cishek said on the final weekend of the regular season. "Even teams in the playoffs, the guys that teams relied on weren't pitching as well now, based on usage or whatever it may be. That's just been kind of the theme. If you have a close lead and with the baseballs we're throwing out there right now, it's tough to hold that lead. You feel like you have to pitch perfect all the time. 

"It's totally different. I'm a big pitch-to-contact guy and that's super risky now because if anybody gets lift on the ball, it's gone. It's insane. ... We joke around, there's a 0 percent chance of the ball leaving the yard if they hit it on the ground. That was always my philosophy — I was a sinkerball guy, but now guys are learning how to lift the ball, so now you have to change your approach. 

"With these baseballs, they can leave the yard at any moment. One-run leads aren't safe. You almost have to pitch to perfection and sometimes that can catch up to you."

The idea that even a 10-year MLB veteran like Cishek feels like he would have to be perfect on every single pitch illustrates how much pressure relievers were under in 2019 with home run totals soaring through the roof. 

We don't know how the baseball will play in 2020 — common sense would dictate some sort of regression — but the Cubs have to address their bullpen regardless of the home run rate.

In 2019, the Cubs finished eighth in Major League Baseball with a 3.98 bullpen ERA, though most fans will remember the down moments like Cishek walking in the winning run in San Diego or Craig Kimbrel serving up homers on back-to-back pitches to blow a lead against the Cardinals on the final homestand. 

The overall bullpen stats don't tell the whole story — the Cubs struggled mightily in the most important moments in games.

Theo Epstein summed it up thusly:

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," he said at his end-of-season presser. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1- and 2-run games. 

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

As a team, the Cubs ranked 24th in baseball in ERA (7.92) in high-leverage spots, as defined by FanGraphs, though two of the teams behind them (Dodgers, Nationals) wound up facing off against each other in the National League Division Series.

The Cubs bullpen had the worst K-BB percentage (5.3 percent) in the league in high-leverage spots, mostly because they walked a league-high 15.4 percent of batters in such situations, tied with the 105-loss Marlins. 

But it was also where the inability to miss bats came into play as Cubs relievers struck out only 20.7 percent of opposing hitters in high-leverage spots, which ranked 29th in baseball ahead of only the White Sox.

Meanwhile, in low- and medium-leverage spots (again, defined by FanGraphs), the Cubs tied for second in the MLB with a 3.19 ERA, though they still walked far too many hitters (ranking 26th with a 10.4 percent walk rate). 

In short, the Cubs bullpen had too many issues doling out free passes in 2019 and did not miss near enough bats to make up for it. Those issues were magnified in tight spots late in games and told the real story of the 2019 unit. 

Of course, high-leverage spots are an enormous part of a bullpen's performance, so how do the Cubs fix it? 

Epstein is looking at the glass half-full.

"We were actually fourth in the league in bullpen ERA, second in the second half — which doesn’t mean anything if you can’t pitch in high-leverage situations," Epstein said. "But I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well, because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level. 

"We’ve seen more of that. We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats, which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

A lot of that will come down to Craig Kimbrel, the embattled closer who is coming off by far the worst season of his career — a year filled with starts and stops due to his delayed free agency pursuit and then injuries and ineffectiveness once he got on the field for the Cubs. 

In addition to his issues with home runs and walks, Kimbrel recorded the lowest strikeout percentage of his career. Still, whiffing 31.3 percent of batters faced is nothing to sneeze at and, in fact, is the same rate at which Yu Darvish struck out batters in 2019 and would've ranked just outside the Top 30 relievers if Kimbrel had pitched enough innings to qualify.

Beyond that, the Cubs were really encouraged by what they saw in Brad Wieck and Rowan Wick late in the season and Kyle Ryan was a staple in the bullpen all season. In small sample sizes, Alec Mills and Duane Underwood Jr. also flashed the ability to miss bats while limiting free passes.

The trick now will be for Epstein's front office to augment that base group of relievers via free agency or trade, adding guys with proven track records in high-leverage moments and an ability to get a whiff in key spots.

David Ross is not the 'Grandpa Rossy' you thought you knew

David Ross is not the 'Grandpa Rossy' you thought you knew

More people might be familiar with the "Grandpa Rossy" persona than with David Ross' given name.

After all, "Grandpa Rossy" is a public hero - the affable backup catcher whose likeness is synonymous with the 2016 Cubs World Series championship that ended a 108-year drought. Grandpa Rossy made an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," was a contestant on "Dancing with the Stars" and was always wearing a smile on his face whenever he was shown on the big video board at Wrigley Field with "Forever Young" blaring over the loudspeakers.

But that's not at all the guy the Cubs just hired to be their 55th manager in franchise history - the guy they hope will take them back to the promised land.

Theo Epstein's front office wanted their new skipper to be able to hold the players in the clubhouse accountable and to form a winning culture that includes hard work, focus, intensity and everybody going through moments where they feel uncomfortable so they can push forward and become the best versions of themselves.

They think Ross is the guy to lead that charge and it's not because of his alter-ego.

“I know there’s a big fun-loving Grandpa Rossy theme out there, but if you ask any of my friends or ex-players what kind of teammate I was, I didn’t shy away from the tough conversations," Ross said in his introductory press conference Monday morning. "I know there’s a strong relationship with me and Jon Lester. If I would’ve been mic’d up for some of those conversations on the mound, they were rarely friendly conversations. 

"I think there’s a little bit of a misconception about the fun-loving Grandpa Rossy, which I love and I’m very thankful for. But I don’t think that’s me in the dugout, as much as I would love to say that I’m that guy. To the core, I’m a guy that has a lot of expectations when I come into work. I’m very professional, I expect professionalism. And those traits - the effort, the accountability - I don’t shy away from having those tough conversations, good or bad. 

"I know these guys, I hope to build their trust and respect. They will have mine. I hope to gain theirs. The Grandpa Rossy thing is a little overblown - people that know me and I think some of the media that sees me day-to-day knows that.”

As the Cubs enter the offseason, only a handful of players remain from the "Grandpa Rossy" days and even that group may get whittled down more as Epstein and Co. make moves and shake up the roster. But Ross is still a step ahead of the game as a new manager because of those relationships formed with guys like Lester and Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez that have only grown over the three years since his retirement.

Ross joked he already told Lester he can't wait for the first time he gets to walk out to the mound and pull the veteran pitcher from a game in the middle of an inning.

But he also talked more seriously about his time as a player and how he called attention to aspects in those guys - and other Cubs players - that he felt needed to be fixed in order for the team to win. The results speak for themselves, both on and off the field.

Epstein has talked to some of Ross' former teammates to get their take on how he would be as a manager and how he might make that transition from teammate/friend to boss.

"I will say, that is the least of our concerns just based on the way he conducted himself as a teammate," Epstein said. "He wasn't somebody who needed to praise guys to high heavens to be their friend or to make them feel good about themselves. He'd be *the* guy telling players what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. And they would still keep coming back with bonds of friendship and bonds as teammates and brothers. 

"After talking to a few of our players, I think some of them were rooting for somebody else just so they'd get a little bit easier road for them," Epstein joked. "...David's just always uniquely gifted that way where he can be hard on guys. He will be very direct, he can cut right to the core of the issue. It's hard to get away with anything around him because he'll hold you accountable. 

"Yet, somehow, he's just got that magnetism and that personality where guys want to be around him. I've seen it where he's leveled a guy and told him exactly what he needs to hear and later that night, they're the ones going out to dinner that night to keep talking it over and also having a good time."

Still, this will be a transition for everybody - from those within the organization to the fanbase that is used to relentlessly cheering Ross and loving that "Grandpa Rossy" vibe.

From now on, he will be judged solely on wins and losses.

"It is different - I'm no longer the fun-loving grandpa I think everybody perceives me as," Ross told NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull. "They’ll see a little bit different side of me I think now." 

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Why should White Sox fans care about the World Series? Free-agent stars are a good start

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USA TODAY

Why should White Sox fans care about the World Series? Free-agent stars are a good start

The Washington Nationals swept away the St. Louis Cardinals, the Houston Astros walked off the New York Yankees, and we’ve got ourselves a World Series.

The final chapter to what’s been an immensely entertaining postseason should be mandatory watching for baseball fans across the country. But if even a titanic Game 1 showdown between Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer isn’t enough to hook South Side fans irked their team is sitting at home for an 11th consecutive October, there are plenty of reasons to tune in to the Fall Classic — and that’s not even counting the fact that football season appears to be over.

The next South Side superstar?

The guys who will potentially be the three biggest names on this winter’s free-agent market are playing in this World Series: Astros ace Gerrit Cole, Nationals MVP candidate Anthony Rendon and Nationals hurler Stephen Strasburg. Cole and Rendon will be the top pitcher and position player available, respectively, while Strasburg can slide right behind Cole on the pitcher rankings if he chooses to opt out of the remainder of his current contract.

The prospects of any one of that trio landing on the South Side ought to have White Sox fans drooling, especially after Rick Hahn’s front office lost out on Manny Machado last winter. But Hahn has vowed to be aggressive once more in trying to bring in an impact talent to be the cherry on top of his rebuilding effort. That 11-season playoff drought isn’t irritating to just fans, and the team is setting up for an offseason that could bring the transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode as soon as 2020.

Hahn has already outlined his offseason to-do list, and the White Sox will have a new right fielder, a new designated hitter and likely a couple new starting pitchers by the time next Opening Day rolls around. Considering the rash of injuries and under-performances that affected the team’s mid-tier prospects in 2019, it looks like the free-agent market is a more realistic way to address those issues (at least when it comes to acquiring big-name pieces) than the trade market. So all eyes are understandably on the top of that market after the White Sox chased the two biggest names there last winter in Machado and Bryce Harper.

Cole has been downright outrageous all year, especially since his loss to the White Sox, coincidentally, on May 22. He hasn’t lost since, with a pencil-thin 1.59 ERA in that span. He finished the season with an AL-best 2.50 ERA and a baseball-leading 326 strikeouts. In three postseason starts, Cole has a 0.40 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 22.2 innings.

Basically, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball in 2019, so he would obviously look good at the top of 30 starting rotations across the game. The White Sox could pair him with Lucas Giolito at the front of their starting staff and produce a seriously fearsome 1-2 punch. Of course, Cole is expected to receive the richest pitching contract in baseball history, and whether the White Sox would be willing to hand out such a contract or not has been the topic of much social-media debate.

The White Sox certainly have the financial flexibility to do it, but until they do sign a player to such a deal, as Hahn will readily admit, the notion that they can’t will stick. Even if the White Sox plan to be in the race for Cole, though, they figure to face plenty of competition, and a couple of Cole’s teammates have already predicted that the Southern California native — who grew up minutes from Angel Stadium — will end up pitching in the Golden State.

None of that eliminates the White Sox at this stage, obviously, and if they’re looking to make the absolute biggest splash they can this winter, then Cole would be the guy. And he’ll pitch, probably multiple times, during the World Series.

Just below Cole on the list of top-of-the-rotation pitchers available could be Strasburg, and the “could” is hardly a reflection of his quality. The 31-year-old righty has been just about as filthy during the playoffs, with a 1.64 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 22 innings over four appearances, three of which were starts. Those numbers go along nicely with the 3.32 ERA and career-high 251 strikeouts he posted in an NL-best 209 innings during the regular season.

The “could” comes from whether or not Strasburg will even be available to sign, as he has an opt-out clause he can exercise if he wants, though he’d leave a guaranteed four years and $100 million in search of an even better payday. But while he’s had plenty of health issues throughout his now decade-old major league career, it seems like outdoing those numbers wouldn’t be a problem, especially if he turns in continued spectacular performances in the World Series.

Strasburg would fill much the same need that Cole would if we’re talking hypothetical White Sox additions. Cole is two years younger and performed objectively better this season, making him more attractive. But he’ll also be more expensive. Strasburg obviously wouldn’t be cheap, either, but adding a top-of-the-rotation pitcher who can help vault your rebuilding team into contention mode never is. Ask the Cubs about Jon Lester. Ask the Astros about Justin Verlander. Ask the Boston Red Sox about Chris Sale.

Given the White Sox history — a history of trends Hahn is trying to veer away from, or at the very least not remain beholden to — perhaps a pricey contract for a hitter is more likely than one for a pitcher. Hahn has already indicated that starting pitching will be tops on the to-do list, but considering there are offensive holes to fill, too, Rendon bears watching.

He’ll be the biggest name among free-agent bats, and that status is well deserved after several seasons of somehow quiet MVP-caliber production. In 2019, he had a career year with a .319/.412/.598 slash line (a 1.010 OPS, goodness) to go along with 34 home runs, a major league leading 126 RBIs and an NL-leading 44 doubles. That’s a middle-of-the-lineup stick, for sure, one that would look good alongside Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and in all likelihood, Jose Abreu.

Rendon’s postseason numbers have been similarly gaudy: a .375/.465/.594 line with a homer, four doubles, seven RBIs, eight walks and eight runs scored. The bat screams “sign him up,” and his glove is pretty great, too. Just one problem: The White Sox already have a third baseman, and a darn good one, in Moncada, who turned in his own career year at the plate and showed why he was ranked the No. 1 prospect in baseball not long ago. So does that prevent them from even pursuing Rendon this winter?

Maybe. Maybe not. The White Sox chased Machado last year despite having shortstop spoken for in the long term, so we know they’re not shy about it. But this time around, they have more specific needs to fill. Their resources, while potentially ample, need to be deployed to get a right fielder, a couple starting pitchers and a DH. Would they divert a bunch of those same resources to get another third baseman?

That all remains to be seen. But you can see these three superstars take center stage during the World Series before they take center stage in the White Sox expected free-agent activity.

White Sox trying to follow the Astros’ plan

The Astros are baseball’s model franchise right now. In the World Series for the second time in three seasons, they have perfected the now-popular trend of undergoing a total rebuild, gutting through seasons as dire as 100 losses in the name of player development, building a core stocked with MVP candidates and bringing in players from outside to bolster their chances of staying on top.

This is the exact model the White Sox are trying to follow, and the Astros’ continued place at the top of baseball’s mountain should convince even the most skeptical fans that it’s a blueprint worth following.

The Astros’ success has been driven by patience while a young core developed, and that young core is still the driving force of a team that went outside to add its three best pitchers and an All-Star outfielder. More on that later. But how fitting that the guy who’s been around the longest, Jose Altuve, was the one who blasted the Astros into the World Series with Saturday night’s walk-off homer. Altuve grabbed an MVP back in 2017, the year the Astros won the World Series, but he could soon have company if voters picked Alex Bregman over Mike Trout this season. Regardless, Altuve and Bregman are two of at least four young Astros stars that can win the MVP on an annual basis, with Carlos Correa and George Springer falling into that same category. Yordan Alvarez might join the group, too, as he’s the logical favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year vote.

Sound familiar to what the White Sox are trying to pull off with Moncada, Anderson, Jimenez, Robert, Abreu and Nick Madrigal? Drawing such a comparison a year ago — when Anderson was a .240 hitter, Moncada struck out 217 times, Jimenez hadn’t played a major league game and Robert went an injury-shortened minor league season without hitting a home run — might have sounded like lunacy. But in the year since, Anderson won a batting title, Moncada turned into the team’s best all-around hitter, Jimenez blasted 31 homers as a rookie, Robert was the best player in the minor leagues, Madrigal had his own sensational minor league season and Abreu kept on being Abreu, with some of the best production in his six years as a big leaguer. It all adds up to a core that should have White Sox fans really excited.

Then there are the outside additions of consequence, which the Astros have made to perfection, bringing in Verlander and Zack Greinke in midseason trades, dealing for Cole two winters ago and signing Michael Brantley as a free agent last offseason. The Astros don’t win the 2017 World Series without Verlander, and the same will be true of Cole and Brantley if they’re champions again this time around.

Certainly the White Sox would like to make similar moves, hence their aggressive approach last offseason when Machado and Harper were on the market and their stated aggressive approach this winter with so many names out there that could get the team over the rebuilding hump. Signing a Cole, a Rendon, a Strasburg, a Madison Bumgarner, a J.D. Martinez, et cetera, et cetera, would be a very Astros-like move.

The Astros aren’t the only team that has done this kind of thing. But the Cubs, who succeeded with a similar strategy, fired their manager after playing all of one playoff game in the last two seasons. The Red Sox, who despite their frequent spending did something not too dissimilar in assembling their championship core, missed the playoffs the year after winning it all. So following the Astros’ plan is about more than just winning the World Series one time. It’s about that sustained success and that perennial contention that Hahn is always talking about.

Who won the trades?

Teams generally don’t care about winning trades. They care about winning championships.

But if the Nationals win the World Series this year, that will make back-to-back championships for the teams the White Sox traded with to kickstart their rebuild. Sale and the Red Sox won it all last year. Now it could be Adam Eaton’s turn with the Nationals.

Certainly, no one is going to claim that Eaton has the same level of importance to these Nationals as Sale did to last year’s Red Sox. Sale was that team’s ace and closed out the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. But Eaton is an everyday player and the two will remain connected as the guys Hahn traded away to stock his farm system with top-rated prospects.

But if winning titles is the ultimate desired outcome of any big deal, then consider the Red Sox winners for what Sale did for them in 2018. If the Nationals win the whole thing this month, they’ll be in the same category.

Meanwhile, though, the White Sox are seeing some pretty big upsides from dealing away those two players. After terribly disappointing seasons of growing pains for Giolito and Moncada in 2018, they emerged as arguably the two best players on the team in 2019. Michael Kopech will return to the team in 2020 after his Tommy John surgery. The same goes for Dane Dunning. And while Reynaldo Lopez’s ups and downs provided a bunch of frustration this season, the White Sox aren’t counting him out of their long-term plans yet.

All those guys came over in those two trades. And so while the two teams who the White Sox made those trades with after the 2016 season could end up world champs within three years, the White Sox still have to be thrilled with their ends of those deals.

One more former South Sider

White Sox fans with any interest in rooting for their team’s former players will be forced to cheer for the Nationals, with no ex-South Siders playing for the Astros. And if you’re not about to jump into all that 2016 drama involving Eaton — or also can’t remember the Javy Guerra Era — you’ve got one option left: Daniel Hudson.

The White Sox dealt away Hudson when he was a youngster not long up from the minor leagues back in 2010. Hudson was shipped to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Edwin Jackson, had a couple Tommy John surgeries and has kicked around the big leagues ever since, getting traded from the Toronto Blue Jays to the relief-desperate Nationals earlier this season.

Well, he’s been a remarkable find for the Nationals, who have turned him into their World Series closer. Hudson’s gotten some huge outs during this postseason run, locking down the ninth inning of the NL wild card game, making three scoreless appearances against the Dodgers in the NLDS and picking up saves in Games 2 and 4 during the Nationals’ NLCS sweep of the Cardinals. He hasn’t allowed a run yet and has 11 strikeouts in his 11 innings.

So celebrate Hudson, White Sox fans, if for nothing more than his cool late-career renaissance. Also, he’s a free agent after the season’s over. Just saying.

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