- Cole Hamels’ return to the Cubs all but eliminated Mike Montgomery’s chances of opening the season in the team’s rotation, but Montgomery nonetheless tells MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian that he was “rooting” for the team to retain Hamels. Montgomery will return to a role with which he’s quite familiar — one that requires him to be ready to start, pitch in high-leverage spots late in games and also to enter in multi-inning stints as needed. “Be a guy that can start 20 games or close 20 games, because it has to be [that way],” said Montgomery. As Bastian notes, Montgomery not only started 19 games in Chicago last season, he also entered the game in eight different innings as a reliever and pitched multiple innings of relief on seven occasions. The versatile lefty is controlled through the 2021 season and will earn $2.44MM in 2019 as a first-time arbitration-eligible player.
- Potential new additions have “not been a heavy part of the discussion” between Cubs skipper Joe Maddon and the front office, Maddon told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times and other reporters. “That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen; I’m not saying that,” Maddon said. “But…I anticipate what you see showing up tomorrow [at camp], the [Opening Day] group’s going to be derived from that group.” It has been a quiet offseason for a Cubs team that is seemingly dealing with strict budget restraints, as the Northsiders try to stay under the $246MM payroll mark (to avoid a larger luxury tax penalty).
Junichi Tazawa is set to arrive in Cubs camp on Monday after working out visa issues that delayed his arrival, per the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales. Tazawa remains a long shot to make the Cubs Opening Day roster, as he hasn’t been an asset to a major league bullpen since 2016 with the Red Sox. After posting a 7.07 ERA for the Marlins and Angels last season, Tazawa looks to re-establish himself in Cubs camp for former employer Theo Epstein, though again, the window of opportunity in Chicago is slim. Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, Mike Montgomery, Brandon Kintzler, and newcomer Brad Brach all figure to hold down spots in the Chicago pen, leaving Tazawa to compete for the final remaining innings with Xavier Cedeno, Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Brian Duensing, Dillon Maples, Randy Rosario, and a few others. Brandon Morrow’s injury provides a limited-time opportunity for someone, but he’ll obviously take over one of those open spots when he returns for the injured list. Here are a few more notes from the Cubs bullpen and the rest of the NL Central…
- A couple weeks before being traded from the Orioles to the Braves last season, reliever Brad Brach noticed his arm slot had shifted higher than usual, writes the Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma. When his release point shifts over-the-top, Brach loses some of the deception in his delivery and changes the plane of his pitch movement. He is cognizant, however, that he’s more effective as he stays closer to a three-quarters delivery. The mechanical adjustment certainly seemed to help as he turned in 23 2/3 innings of 1.52 ERA ball after joining the Braves. His peripherals don’t wholly buy the shift in performance, but his fastball command certainly improved and that’s the foundation of his arsenal. Of course, the revelation is only one part of the process, as refining and automating the lower arm slot will continue to be a process as he starts throwing again this season. If Brach can repeat his delivery consistently, he may prove to be a significant addition to a Cubs pen who needs the help.
- Brach should have no trouble keeping his competitive edge with the Cubs, who are facing a dogfight in a tight National League Central. There’s no tanking here, where the Reds have raised the floor with marked improvements to their rotation this offseason. The Cardinals and Brewers have made obvious win-now additions this winter as well, and while the Cubs have largely stood pat (excepting additions like Brach above), there’s little doubt they will be in the competitive mix once again. The sleeper in the division and maybe the league is the Pirates, per Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The PECOTA projection system has the Pirates ahead of the Cubs, and though they’ve been quiet this winter, their biggest additions were made at least year’s deadline when they traded for Chris Archer and Keone Kela. It would certainly be a surprise for the Pirates to steal the NL Central from such a crowded field, but they’re only three years removed from the most successful stretch in recent franchise history and they finished above .500 last season. A Pirates division title would be surprising, for sure, but it’s not inconceivable.
- In a video for CBS Sports, Jim Bowden expresses optimism that Paul Goldschmidt will outperform both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado en route to an MVP-type season. Goldschmidt should certainly bolster the Cardinals offense in 2019, though his long-term future with the club remains uncertain. The Cardinals are pursuing an extension with Goldschmidt, and given the current free agent market, Goldy would be wise to at least consider locking up his long-term future now if the offer is fair.
Feb. 15: Chicago’s announcement of the contract reveals that Cedeno’s contract is actually a non-guaranteed Major League deal, meaning he’s been added to the team’s 40-man roster. He can still be cut for only a portion of that salary this spring, but the Cubs would be on the hook for the full $900K if he makes the Opening Day roster.
Feb. 13, 8:28pm: MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets that Cedeno can earn an additional $300K worth of incentives on the contract. He’ll be in Major League camp as a non-roster invitee.
7:52pm: The Cubs are in agreement on a contract with left-handed reliever Xavier Cedeno, per Patrick Mooney and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (Twitter link). Mooney further tweets that it’s a non-guaranteed deal that would pay Cedeno a $900K base salary if he makes the roster. Cedeno is represented by MDR Sports Management.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein voiced earlier this week that he hoped to be able to “squeeze” one more reliever into the team’s apparently limited budget (Twitter link via Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago), and landing Cedeno on a non-guaranteed deal is certainly a nice means of doing so. The southpaw split the 2018 season between the White Sox and the Brewers, pitching to a terrific 2.43 ERA with 9.2 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 0.27 HR/9 and a 54.4 percent ground-ball rate in 33 1/3 innings. That marked a strong bounceback effort for the former Rays reliever, who pitched just three innings in 2017 owing to a forearm injury.
Though the 32-year-old Cedeno is far from a household name, he had a solid run from 2014-16 leading up to that forearm issue. In 94 1/3 innings in that time, he worked to a 3.05 ERA with 95 strikeouts against 27 walks with just seven home runs allowed. He’s been especially hard on left-handed hitters throughout his career, holding same-handed opponents to a bleak .218/.285/.298 batting line over the life of 384 plate appearances.
The Cubs aren’t exactly short on left-handed volume in the ’pen, with Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Randy Rosario and Kyle Ryan each already on the 40-man roster, though Cedeno will give them yet another depth option with a fair bit of MLB experience to add to that mix.
The Cubs have announced their long-awaited formation of a regional sports network. The organization will partner with Sinclair Broadcast Group to launch the “Marquee Sports Network” beginning with the 2020 season.
There’s risk and opportunity aplenty in taking this route, as the Cubs will now be seeking to work out carriage deals for a channel reliant all but entirely on their ballclub and brand. Obviously, it’s quite a popular franchise, but one that — like any other — is hardly immune to on-field downturns or off-field controversy and won’t have live games to market for much of the year.
The Ricketts-owned Cubs have obviously thought through all of the competing considerations and decided to take the plunge. This is hardly their first notable business initiative. Rather, the move comes on the heels of a multi-year, multi-fronted plan to overhaul the organization’s business and baseball operations. There have certainly been some notable successes along the way, though there’s also suddenly quite a bit more uncertainty (at least on the baseball side) than anyone anticipated when a young Cubbies squad broke the curse in 2016.
In the announcement, Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney promised a “Cubs-centric” network that will feature the iconic organization but also some unspecified “other local sports programming.” (The remaining three Chicago professional sports teams are already committed to remain with NBC Sports Chicago.) Kenney adds that the the network will “feature uncompromising, in-depth and behind-the-scenes coverage.”
Sinclair, which is best known for its conservative-oriented news coverage, is one of the country’s most powerful media companies. The company is presently bidding against MLB and others for the regional sports networks that are being auctioned due to Disney’s pending acquisition of certain Fox media assets. Sinclair already has media ties to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf through the Stadium network.
If the partners are successful in structuring and marketing this channel, they could reap major profits. It’s not hard to imagine how that might continue to support investments in the club’s baseball operations. Indeed, the organization has long emphasized the connectivity between its business initiatives and roster-building efforts, with salary ramping up quite significantly over the past several years. On the heels of a disappointing conclusion to the 2018 season, though, the Cubs are wrapping up a surprisingly inactive 2018-19 offseason with clear budgetary limitations in place.
Here are the day’s minor transactions from around the game…
- The Cubs announced a list of 27 non-roster invitees to Major League Spring Training, including the addition of right-hander Carlos Ramirez. The 27-year-old (28 in April) logged 25 innings at the big league level between the Blue Jays and Athletics across the past two seasons, working to a combined 2.88 ERA in that time but with a less-impressive 19-to-12 K/BB ratio. He’s had some success in the upper minors, posting a 2.71 ERA with 65 strikeouts against 28 walks in 63 innings of work at the Triple-A level. Ramirez represents the latest in a series of low-cost and/or minor league signees that the Cubs have added in an effort to bolster their bullpen depth while operating under the specter of payroll constraints.
The 30-year-old Bergman was a member of the Mariners over the previous two seasons, though he spent the majority of that period with their Triple-A affiliate. Bergman pitched to a 5.00-plus ERA in both the 2017 and ’18 seasons in Tacoma, where he combined for 227 2/3 innings and 42 appearances (41 starts). Overall, Bergman – who’s also a former Rockie – owns a 4.66 ERA with 6.6 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 in 376 2/3 frames at the minors’ highest level.
While Bergman has seen major league action in each season dating back to his 2014 debut, he had difficulty preventing runs in all five of those campaigns. In 215 2/3 innings, 14 of which came in 2018, the soft-tossing Bergman has managed just a 5.59 ERA/5.09 FIP with 5.43 K/9, 2.04 BB/9 and a 37.1 percent groundball rate.
It doesn’t sound as if the Cardinals are planning to make another addition to their roster. Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quotes president of baseball operations John Mozeliak in stating that the team has accomplished much of what it set out to do this winter. “Any move we would make now would sort of complicate things,” said Mozeliak. “Even if we were to break (camp) today, we’re going to have guys competing for at-bats already. And we still feel we have a lot of depth in our pitching.” Beyond that, Mozeliak indicated that he “[sees] no reason” that left fielder Marcell Ozuna wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day. Ozuna played through a shoulder injury in 2018 and underwent offseason surgery, but Mozeliak notes that the outfielder is already swinging a bat and is on track to begin a throwing program when he reports to Spring Training in February.
More from the division…
- Nick Senzel will be given every opportunity to earn starting centerfield duties this season, per John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The Reds have no shortage of outfielders, with Yasiel Puig, Scott Schebler, Jesse Winker and Matt Kemp all in the corner outfield mix, but none of them are natural fits in center. Phil Ervin will have the chance to take some at-bats, but he profiles better in the corners as well. The hope appears to be that Senzel will prove a quick study, able to secure his spot in the bigs by learning yet another new position. Senzel, of course, comes to big league camp a third baseman by trade, and he’s spent some time at second base as well – but with Eugenio Suarez locked into a long-term deal at third, and Scooter Gennett at least temporarily installed at second, Senzel’s path to the the bigs goes through the only position on the Reds lineup card without a starter in place.
- Former first round pick Luke Hagerty is attempting a comeback at age 37, writes ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Hagerty hasn’t pitched professionally since 2008 when a case of the yips drove him from the game. Hagerty has reworked his arsenal and his mindset at the Driveline Baseball Program, the same facility where Kyle Zimmer of the Royals trained last season. At a recent Driveline pro day tryout, the 6’7″ Hagerty averaged a 96.9 mph fastball, impressing himself and the area scouts in attendance. Sixteen and a half years after they signed him the first time, the Cubs signed Hagerty again, this time to a minor league deal. The first time through the Cubs system, Hagerty suffered from the yips, a hiccup rooted in psychology wherein an automatic physical ability, like throwing a baseball over the plate, suddenly and without apparent cause, becomes no longer automatic. The yips are a hurdle that Hagerty appears to have cleared, however, and the southpaw is throwing electric stuff. If Hagerty does make it to the show, he would be the oldest player (without international experience) to make his major league debut since Satchel Paige in 1948. Even Jim Morris, made famous by Dennis Quaid in Disney’s The Rookie, was three years younger than Hagerty when he took his last/best shot at the bigs.
5:55pm: The deal also includes roster bonuses, with $250K available if Barnette breaks camp on the active roster and again if he lasts there for 155 days of the season, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today (via Twitter). There’s also a quarter-million-dollar incentives package.
It’s worth noting, too, that if the Cubs do pick up the option, they’ll be required to release Barnette thereafter rather than tendering him a contract and offering arbitration.
3:04pm: The Cubs have now announced the Barnette signing.
2:40pm: The Cubs and right-handed reliever Tony Barnette have agreed to a one-year contract with a club option for the 2020 season, reports Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune (Twitter links). Barnette will receive a $750K salary for the 2019 season and has a club option valued at $3MM for a second season, per Gonzales. Barnette is represented by Wasserman.
Additionally, Gonzales tweets that lefty Ian Clarkin cleared waivers and been assigned outright to Triple-A Iowa. That move wasn’t made to accommodate the addition of Barnette, though, as the Cubs already had a spot open on the 40-man roster.
Barnette, 35, pitched brilliantly for the Rangers in 2018 but had his season truncated by shoulder issues. The right-hander logged a 2.39 ERA with 8.9 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9 and a 51.4 percent ground-ball rate in 26 1/3 innings but made his final appearance on July 3.
That season wrapped up an uneven three-year stint with the Rangers organization for Barnette, whose track record is among the more unique in today’s game. A 10th-round selection of the Diamondbacks in 2006, Barnette spent four years toiling in the Diamondbacks’ system before accepting an offer to go pitch for the Yakult Swallows of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. That initial one-year offer was parlayed into a six-year run with Yakult, where Barnette emerged as one of the top closers in Japan. He saved 97 games there after ascending to that role and pitched to a 1.29 ERA in his final season there before signing a big league deal with the Rangers.
The righty justified the hype surrounding him with a 2.09 ERA in 60 1/3 innings during his rookie season, but he was clobbered for a 5.49 ERA a year later in 2017 as he also dealt with finger injuries. In all, Barnette comes to the Cubs with a long track record of success in Asia and a 3.50 ERA with a 132-to-43 K/BB ratio in 144 Major League innings — all with Texas.
The Cubs’ budgetary constraints this offseason are well known, as the team had to trade Drew Smyly and his $7MM salary to the Rangers simply to pick up their option on Cole Hamels. Since that time, the team’s only expenditures have been small deals for utility infielder Daniel Descalso, right-hander Brad Brach and now Barnette. While the limitations are an understandable point of contention for fans who’d hoped to see ownership support a run at a franchise-altering talent like Bryce Harper, the front office has seemingly done well in adding a pair of potentially useful setup men (Brach and Barnette) for a combined total south of $6MM.
As for Clarkin, he’s a former first-round pick (No. 33 by the Yankees in 2013) that has bounced back and forth via waivers between the Cubs and White Sox on multiple occasions this winter. Clarkin was hit hard in 68 innings of Double-A ball last year, turning in a 4.98 ERA with nearly as many walks (4.1 BB/9) as strikeouts (4.6 K/9), and he’ll now stick with his new organization and likely head to Major League Spring Training as a non-roster invitee.
- The Cubs have re-signed righty Allen Webster to a minor league contract, Baseball America’s Matt Eddy reports. Webster resurfaced in the big leagues late in the 2018 season with Chicago — his first MLB action since the 2015 season. Webster tossed just three big league innings and managed only 17 minor league frames in an injury-shortened season. Webster posted a 2.64 ERA and 24-to-3 K/BB ratio in those 17 innings, and while most of them came all the way down at Rookie ball as he worked his way back, Cubs internal evaluators were clearly encouraged by what they saw based on bringing Webster to the Majors and now bringing him back to the organization for a second look.