- Cubs reliever Brandon Kintzler has dealt with a mild oblique strain for a month and hasn’t pitched since Sept. 10. However, Kintzler said he had a “great day” throwing from a mound Wednesday, and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy indicated the right-hander could return as early as Sunday (via Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times). If true, Kintzler (as well as the returning Craig Kimbrel) could help bolster the Cubs’ bullpen as the team tries to earn a playoff spot. Chicago’s relief corps took the loss against Cincinnati on Wednesday, leaving the Cubs in a tie with the Brewers for the NL’s second wild-card position.
WEDNESDAY: The Cubs expect Kimbrel to return Thursday or Friday, according to Maddon (via Wittenmyer).
MONDAY: Winners of five consecutive games, the Cubs have sizzled over the past several days as they attempt to earn their fifth straight playoff berth. A few of those victories came in blowout fashion, which means Chicago has largely been able to get by without the services of injured closer Craig Kimbrel. The club probably won’t be able to cruise to all of its wins over the next couple weeks, though, making it imperative for Kimbrel to return. It appears that’s close to happening, as president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and manager Joe Maddon suggested Monday that Kimbrel could be back for the Cubs’ crucial series against the division-rival Cardinals this weekend, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. In the meantime, he’ll throw a simulated game Tuesday.
The Cubs have been sans Kimbrel since he landed on the injured list Sept. 5 (retroactive to Sept. 1) with right elbow inflammation. The normally stellar Kimbrel had endured a rough season even before then, as he surrendered 12 earned runs on 18 hits and 11 walks (with 26 strikeouts) over 19 innings.
The 5.68 ERA, 6.64 FIP, 5.21 BB/9 and 2.84 HR/9 Kimbrel have posted this year aren’t the type of numbers the Cubs had in mind when they signed the 31-year-old to a three-year, $43MM guarantee in June, thus ending a long standoff in free agency between him and the league. At that point, Kimbrel was coming off yet another more-than-respectable season. The former Brave, Padre and Red Sox entered 2019 with a 2.04 ERA/2.13 FIP, 14.58 K/9, 3.52 BB/9 and a .67 HR/9 across 551 2/3 lifetime frames.
With the Cubs just a game up on the Brewers for the NL’s second wild-card spot and two back of the Cards in the NL Central, it would be a boon for a wobbly bullpen if Kimbrel were to revisit his vintage form as September nears a conclusion. Otherwise, more blowups from the Cubs’ prized summer signing down the stretch could help lead to a premature ending to their season.
The Cubs decided yesterday to place infielder Addison Russell on the 7-day concussion injured list, as Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reports. By doing so, the organization will avoid paying Russell a $100K roster bonus.
As Wittenmyer explains, this outwardly innocuous move makes for a complicated situation from a variety of perspectives. It’s even possible that it could ultimately lead to a grievance, he suggests, though it’s not clear whether that has specifically been contemplated.
With rosters expanded in September, the use of the injured list changes significantly. The 60-day IL remains relevant because it allows teams to open a 40-man roster spot. But the only real reason to use the 10-day or 7-day concussion lists is to make a recently optioned player eligible for an earlier recall.
In this case, the Cubs have nothing to gain beyond avoiding Russell’s next roster bonus. His arbitration contract includes a $4.3MM salary and $100K bonuses at 30, 60, 90, and 120 days on the active roster (plus $200K for 150, which he cannot meet).
The club issued an explanation centered upon respect for the concussion protocol. But as Wittenmyer explains, that wouldn’t seem to mandate this official roster move. While this brand of penny pinching at the expense of an employee isn’t generally justifiable, this contract was negotiated under unusual circumstances. Russell served the bulk of a 40-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy at the start of the 2019 campaign.
There isn’t any indication at this point of tension between team and player. But it’s tempting to wonder whether this hints at things to come. Even if Russell returns to action late this year and/or in the postseason, which remains to be seen, the Chicago organization could well be preparing to part ways at season’s end.
The Cubs already made the widely questioned decision to hang onto Russell despite the shameful circumstances of his suspension. He has been a significant part of this year’s team, spending time on optional assignment but also appearing in 76 MLB games. The Cubs control Russell’s rights for two more seasons and likely wouldn’t owe him a huge raise on his existing base salary. But he has not overcome his offensive struggles, turning in a .227/.303/.389 batting line in 229 plate appearances, so it’s amply possible that the club will simply determine that it’s time to move on from a pure baseball perspective.
The Cubs will evaluate shortstop Javier Baez by week’s end to see when he’ll be able to start rehab activity, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times tweets. The club has been without Baez for just about all of September because of a hairline fracture in his left thumb, and it’s likely the injury will prevent the star from suiting up again in the regular season as Chicago tries to at least earn a wild-card berth. The Baez-less Cubs have been turning to recently recalled youngster Nico Hoerner at short, and fortunately for them, he has begun his career in outstanding fashion. Thanks in part to Hoerner’s contributions, the Cubs are 6-2 dating back to his Sept. 9 debut.
- Cubs reliever Brandon Kintzler hasn’t pitched since Sept. 10, when the right-hander allowed two earned runs on three hits in a third of an inning in a loss to San Diego. It turns out that Kintzler has been out with a mild left oblique strain, as Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic was among those to tweet. There’s no word on how much more time Kintzler will miss, but the sooner he returns, the better for the playoff-contending Cubs. The 35-year-old has bounced back from a shaky 2018 to post a 2.82 ERA/3.60 FIP with 7.62 K/9, 2.15 BB/9 and a 56.6 percent groundball rate in 54 1/3 frames.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has emerged from a medical check with lukewarm news on his injured ankle. An MRI revealed a moderate lateral sprain, the team told reporters including Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune (via Twitter).
Rizzo will not require surgery, which is promising. But he’s going to spend five to seven days in a walking boot, which seems to put a good bit of doubt on his ability to return to action before the end of the regular season.
A specific timeline isn’t known at this time; no doubt, more will be evident once the boot comes off. But it’s obvious the Cubs will go without the slugging first baseman for most or all of the stretch run, with his postseason availability also in question.
Unfortunately, Rizzo isn’t the only Cubs player to go down with an injury. The club is already missing Javier Baez and Addison Russel in the infield, which has forced youngster Nico Hoerner into earlier-than-anticipated action. Now, the team will need to dip into its depth further to fill in at first. Skipper Joe Maddon mentioned Victor Caratini, Ian Happ, and Jonathan Lucroy as possibilities (via Gonzales, on Twitter).
All that being said, the Cubbies remain in solid (though hardly certain) postseason position. They’re currently slotted into the second Wild Card slot, with the first WC position and the NL Central division still in play. While the Brewers are in hot pursuit, the rest of the pack has fallen four or more games back.
- Craig Kimbrel had no setbacks during a 20-pitch bullpen session today, Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian and other reporters. Right elbow inflammation has kept Kimbrel on the shelf since September 1, though he is now tentatively slated to toss a simulated-game scenario against hitters later this week. Theo Epstein said earlier in the weekend that the Cubs are “pretty optimistic” that Kimbrel can return before the end of the season, but nothing is yet certain about the closer’s status.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo left Sunday’s matchup with the Pirates in the third inning after he rolled his right ankle attempting to field a bunt. He underwent preliminary X-rays after the game, which revealed that he avoided a fracture, but suffered a sprained ankle, per The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma. He’s ticketed for an MRI on Monday, which will determine with greater precision the severity of the injury.
Of course, Rizzo and the Cubs aren’t out of the woods yet: though he didn’t fracture the ankle, a sprained ankle could still keep the slugger out for an extended period of time, depending on its severity.
If indeed Rizzo is required to miss time, it would only compound the Cubs’ injury frustrations that have taken hold of late. As the team takes aim at a postseason berth, star shortstop Javier Baez has been ruled out for the regular season, with his replacement Addison Russell landing in concussion protocol shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, closer Craig Kimbrel is fighting through elbow inflammation and has been unavailable for the last two weeks.
And while the Cubs are deep enough to tread water without team leaders and lineup stalwarts Baez and Rizzo, such a formula is less than ideal for the September stretch run, let alone in a postseason series. As the Cubs collectively hold their breath on the results of Rizzo’s MRI, look for Ian Happ and Victor Caratini to cover for him in the near-term.
For the season, Rizzo has slashed .289/.402/.516 with 26 home runs. Since joining the Cubs, he’s been a paragon of consistency and durability, playing 140 games or more in every year from 2013-2018 (He currently sits at 139 for this year).
- The Cubs promoted executive Jason McLeod to senior vice president of player personnel, which could keep him in their front office for at least a little while longer. But McLeod said this week that his goal is to run a team’s baseball department, per Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic (subscription required). “I do aspire to someday lead an organization,” said McLeod, who has been on GM-needy clubs’ radars in the past. He interviewed for that position with the Giants last year, though they instead went on to hire Farhan Zaidi as their president of baseball operations.
- Padres rookie Chris Paddack will make at least one more start this season, AJ Cassavell of MLB.com tweets. Shutting Paddack down for the year looked like a possibility after he threw six scoreless innings against the Cubs on Wednesday. The rookie standout, 23, has now racked up 135 2/3 innings this season, easily surpassing the previous professional high of 90 he set in 2018 as a minor leaguer.
When David Phelps signed with the Blue Jays this past offseason, his $2.5MM contract contained a club option for the 2020 season initially that was valued at $1MM — a likely reflection of the fact that his performance and general health were question marks coming off Tommy John surgery. Unsurprisingly, the contract allowed for him to boost the value of that option with a solid showing in 2019.
Activated from the IL on June 17 and traded to the Cubs on July 30, Phelps has been terrific for both teams, working to a combined 3.18 ERA with a 30-to-12 K/BB ratio in 28 1/3 innings (33 appearances). When he took the mound for the 30th time in 2019, he boosted the value of his 2020 option from that initial $1MM baseline to $3MM. He’s also already earned $500K of incentives and will earn another $250K when he makes his 35th appearance. If Phelps takes the ball seven more times before the end of the regular season, he’ll again boost the value of his option, this time to $5MM, and secure another $350K bonus.
The level at which his 2020 option settles is of particular intrigue because that will also determine the amount of incentives available to him next year. Phelps’ contract came with three different possible tiers of incentives, each of which was based on the option’s ultimate value. MLBTR has learned some of the specifics surrounding those incentive packages. If his option is valued at $3MM (i.e. he appears in 39 or fewer total games), Phelps would be able to earn an additional $2.75MM in appearance-based bonuses: $250K for reaching 25, 30 and 35 games as well as $400K for reaching 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 games.
Were he to reach that 40-appearance threshold in 2019 and boost the value of the option to $5MM, he’d be able to earn an additional $1.5MM in appearance-based bonuses: $150K for reaching 25, 30 and 35 games as well as $210K for reaching 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 games. Both tiers contain added incentives for games finished, but the Cubs’ signing of Craig Kimbrel doesn’t bode well for Phelps’ chances of an extended run as the team’s closer.
All of those factors will be weighed by the Cubs when they determine whether to bring Phelps back for the 2020 season, as will the fact that they stand to see a large chunk of their ’pen depart via free agency. Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Derek Holland, Xavier Cedeno, Tony Barnette and Brandon Morrow (who didn’t throw a pitch in 2019) are all off the books at season’s end.
From a pure performance standpoint, Phelps has improved as the season has worn on. His fastball averaged 92.1 mph with the Jays but is up to 92.8 mph with the Cubs. That’s still less than the 94.4 mph he averaged prior to Tommy John surgery, but the life on that heater does seem to be coming back. Phelps also managed just a 5.4 percent swinging-strike rate in Toronto but has seen that rate leap to 11.1 percent in Chicago — a rate that would represent a career-high. He’s also benefited from a sky-high 98.6 percent strand rate with the Cubs, though, which no pitcher can be expected sustain over a larger body of work. Phelps has held righties in check nicely (.232/.311/.377) but struggled against opposing lefties (.263/.349/.553).
Phelps’ usage over the regular season’s final couple of weeks will be worth monitoring, as it may ultimately play a large role in determining whether he’s back with the team in 2020 or searching for a new deal in free agency this winter. Neither the $3MM or $5MM price point is any sort of back-breaker, particularly with a fair bit of money coming off the books. But the Cubs also likely want to maintain as much flexibility as they can, and tacking on an extra $2MM to Phelps’ option is probably something they’d like to avoid, if possible, unless they’re planning to decline the option either way. There’s no buyout on the option, so this’ll be a straight $3MM or $5MM decision, depending on how many more times Phelps takes the ball prior to Sept. 29.