The First Hundred
The Cubs offseason consisted of two major league signings. The troubling trend of quiet offseasons means that positive regression is going to have to be a major component of the 2020 success story. Javier Báez recent comments about the previous decline in performance give the easy narrative to follow and the face of that story is David Ross. The change in the dugout is meant to provide the needed spark with the the cliché switch from player friendly to task masker. Ross provides a friendly face and likely what the front office desired with Maddon in a larger say in matters within the clubhouse. So pervasive were those thoughts that Ross already loudly has had to proclaim his independence from Theo. If the Cubs can surprise, the face of window 3.0 will look very good.
Innuendo Bullpen Hashtag
Ross is getting two additions to the big league roster in right hander Jeremy Jeffress and Steven Souza Jr. The pair were the only major league contracts handed out this offseason for a combined total under $2 million. The pair could provide solid value in a low cost fashion, but neither seem likely to be more than useful parts on a surprising club.
The Cubs payroll crunch has been fostered by the twin desires of staying under the luxury threshold and providing a playoff caliber pitching staff. The formula with the core making league minimum was to pay for a veteran staff and that worked for the two most successful seasons in team history back to back. But the core began to make their actual value and that meant the pricey bullpen deals became far more marginally costly than before.
The 2020 campaign not really being given a directive to get under the tax threshold had an obvious place to slash. Allowing the veterans of the previous two years pen to walk freed up a substantial chunk of change. The Cubs had a number of internal options and have added a variety of intriguing lottery tickets. The front office is going into next season with the most untested pen since they actual began trying to win games at the big league level. And that is why the Jeremy Jeffress signing wasn’t that much of a surprise.
Now the exact name wasn’t known, but a buy low, veteran option to add to the Cubs intriguing mix at the end of the ballgame was a no-brainer. Jeffress has posted a number of strong seasons out of the Milwaukee bullpen, but his velocity dropped a tick and a half between a dominant 2018 and less than stellar 2019. His changeup velocity was up slightly resulting in a much smaller margin between the two pitches. Jeffress’ peripherals paint the picture of a pitcher with some bad luck in 2019 as well. A return to form, which happened after a subpar 2017, could turn the 2020 bullpen into a strength.
Jeffress would form part of the right handed trio at the end of the game. Rowan Wick who is looking to prove last year wasn’t an aberration and Craig Kimbrel looking to prove that it was after a full spring could be a hard throwing triumvirate. Big Brad Wieck and Kyle Ryan form a dependable if not intimidating left-handed pair for matchups. Alec Mills is intriguing as a right handed Mike Montgomery. Duanne Underwood Jr. and Casey Sadler round out the arms without options remaining and trying to find a spot in the bullpen. Unlike previous years, there is an interesting battle for the remaining few spots of the 2020 pen to watch.
I Like It but They Needed to Make Three More Moves
The Daniel Descalso whammy might be placed on Steven Souza Jr., but I like this move. It is a low risk, high reward signing that fits a needed role on the team. The Cubs certainly would be better if they had held onto Nicholas Castellanos, but with the shoestring budget left for additions after arbitration this was the best of a bad situation.
Souza has power and speed* from the right side of the batter’s box. Jason Heyward can show that his reemergence in his late 20s was real and build upon that while being shielded from unfavorable matchups. Souza provides a bottom of the order thumper that can add a little danger against southpaws that was missing most of last season. However, that is counting on a player who hasn’t played a big league game since September 30, 2018. The reason for that was a horrific knee injury.
*It remains to be seen what Souza will be like in the field after the long layoff. There are several factors that point to a successful return given his age when the injury occurred and that it was his left and not right knee. But this is a very high variance move that could payoff big.
This is especially the case since he was a high variance bat while delivering on the prospect pedigree in 2017. Souza hit 30 home runs, but provided a Ron Deer-like slash line. There is a lot of swing and miss that has to be offset by more damage being done when contact occurs. How the time off has affected Souza is an important factor that early reports in Arizona might actually provide useful insight into.
Am I mostly hoping that he does well so that I can make a lot of John Philip Sousa references in recaps this season? Possibly, but it feels like these low risk, injury gambles have recently been far more snake eyes than hitting the jackpot.
How Dan Winkler Will Save the Cubs Season
It was impossible to know then, but the Cubs 2020 season was saved on December 6, 2019 when Dan Winkler signed a minor league contract. Winkler emerged as a late inning weapon that allowed the Cubs to smother opponents at the end of games. Pitching was supposed to be the Achilles heel of the club, but the emergence of Winkler provided Ross with a four deep pen of high leverage relievers from the right hand side.
Winkler has the least impressive fastball of the group, but his stuff has always been good enough to strike batters out at a high rate. The problem was harnessing the stuff around the plate consistently enough. Winkler has never struck out fewer than a batter per inning in the big leagues, but he has also only posted one season below 3 walks per 9 innings. Also, his command left him worse than usual in 2019.
However, the Cubs pitch lab claims an early success story turning Winkler into the next Rowan Wick. The move was met with little fanfare back at the time, but Winkler’s addition provided the Cubs the needed depth to be more than the sum of their parts in 2020.
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