SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Two Colorado Rockies relievers will embark upon an altitudinally enhanced voyage of discovery this season. Wade Davis is settling in as the team’s new closer, and Bryan Shaw will be his main right-handed setup man, and all it took was a little sweet talk and a guaranteed $79 million over the next three years to convince them to chuck their apprehensions and buy into the program.
Lefty Jake McGee, the other target in general manager Jeff Bridich’s offseason bullpen spending binge, enters the first season of a three-year, $27 million deal with a more familiar orientation. He came to Colorado from Tampa Bay by trade in January 2016, and he has spent the past two years learning all about the flexibility, resilience and other attributes required to succeed in one of the most daunting environments for pitchers in the majors.
A year ago, McGee posted a 4.73 ERA at Coors Field and a 2.64 mark on the road. He decided to re-up regardless.
“Jake McGee is a testament to what’s happening here,” Bridich said. “He came over in trade, and he had no choice but to pitch and figure it out. When he did have a choice, he wanted to come back here. Not only did he want to do that, he wanted to help recruit his buddy Wade Davis. I think that says a lot about the stuff we have going on, and the belief that guys have in each other here.”
As Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas and a slew of less acclaimed players at the MLBPA academy for the homeless in Bradenton, Florida, can attest, the offseason was atypically slow, unproductive and unusually stressful for dozens of free agents. Relief pitchers were the notable exception. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 36 free-agent relievers signed deals worth a total of almost $340 million this offseason. That’s less than the total payout of $421 million that 33 free-agent relievers received in the winter of 2016-2017. But that total was skewed significantly by the $228 million allotted to three closers: Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon.
Relief pitchers have come a long way from the days when Scott Sullivan, Scott Proctor and Aaron Heilman were pitched into the ground and never attained that one big payday. McGee, Shaw, Luke Gregerson, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Brandon Morrow, Anthony Swarzak, Joe Smith, Juan Nicasio, Steve Cishek and Yusmeiro Petit all received multiyear contracts in the $10 million to $30 million range this offseason. Those 11 pitchers combined for 25 saves in 2017.
In front offices, it’s generally accepted that any long-term commitment to a reliever comes with a healthy dose of hope. Relievers spend so much time getting loose in the pen — and can be so vulnerable to overuse depending on the manager’s tendencies — that they’re prone to wide variances in performance from one year to the next. As a result, cost-conscious teams have been just as inclined to take a flyer on a kid with a big arm as to throw money at the problem. Exhibit A: Milwaukee’s Corey Knebel, who recorded 39 saves, struck out 126 batters in 76 innings and made the All-Star team for a salary of $538,900 in 2017.
“Teams think that some bullpens can come into their own, based on the unevenness of some guys’ careers,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “You have Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and a bunch of guys who’ve had great careers. But for a lot of relievers, it’s, ‘Great year, bad year.’ That’s been the case for so many of them.”
The Rockies’ $106 million offseason investment in three free-agent relievers is a record outlay for a big-league team, and Bridich took franchise history into account before embarking upon his plan. Curtis Leskanic, Steve Reed and Darren Holmes — currently the Rockies’ bullpen coach — formed the nucleus of a durable and fearless bullpen when Colorado made its first playoff appearance as a franchise in 1995. The Brian Fuentes-Manny Corpas-Jeremy Affeldt-LaTroy Hawkins contingent turned in some impressive work when the Rockies won the NL pennant in 2007, and Huston Street saved 35 games and logged a 154 ERA+ for a 92-win wild-card team in 2009.
Last year, the Rockies took a flyer on former Royals closer Greg Holland, and he performed well enough to make the National League All-Star team before fading down the stretch. The Rockies made an offer to re-sign Holland and appeared close to finalizing a deal before talks stalled and they moved on to Davis.
Bridich factored roster makeup into his decision to splurge on the bullpen. The Rockies have several young position players on the cusp and some talented 25-and-under starters, but they needed a quick injection of stability behind Adam Ottavino, Mike Dunn, Chris Rusin and the other relievers already in the fold. When owner Dick Monfort bought into the plan, Bridich signed veteran catcher Chris Iannetta and went to work fortifying the back end.
“Like any free-agent market, you’re not quite sure how it’s going to end up when you start out,” Bridich said. “I think we’re blessed that Dick gave us the ability to be aggressive. And we needed to be aggressive. As everybody saw, in a slow market, it was the relief pitchers that flew off the board first.
“The prices are different now than they were five years ago, so it’s happened fairly quickly. It used to be the closers that were getting $10-14 million a year. Now other guys in the bullpen are getting those sorts of dollars.”
Blown leads are debilitating for any team, but the idea of a deep, reliable pen is particularly resonant in Colorado. Rockies starting pitchers ranked last in the NL in innings for four straight years from 2012-2015 before ramping up to seventh in 2016 and ninth last season.
“In our park, especially, run-prevention can be very uplifting late in the game,” Black said. “On the other hand, the lack of run-prevention late can be very demoralizing. If you can close out games where you have the lead — or you stay close and come back and win — it’s just great confidence for the group. The position players feel great about each and every game, and they’re not worried about, ‘Hey, here we go again.’ That’s a bad thought: Here we go again.”
Power pitchers and ground ball types are optimal at Coors, for obvious reasons. According to FanGraphs, the Rockies threw the third-highest ratio of fastballs in the majors (61 percent), behind only the Pirates and Padres, and the third-lowest rate of changeups (7.4 percent), ahead of only the Angels and Brewers. But Bridich and Black looked beyond individual repertoire and focused just as much on pitchers with competitive mentalities and iron wills.
They did plenty of legwork in their search. Black called Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona for a scouting report on Shaw and placed another call to Angels pitching coach Charles Nagy, who had worked with Shaw in Arizona. Rockies bullpen coach Steve Foster was well-acquainted with Davis from their mutual tenure in Kansas City. McGee, who pitched with Davis in Tampa Bay in 2011, was happy to make a recruiting pitch.
“We’ve talked about the mental part of the pitcher, and how important that is,” Black said. “The unselfishness when it comes to statistics. It’s about the team first and the ability to turn the page and resiliency both physically and mentally. We’re looking for those qualities in a pitcher. That’s what we’re trying to develop through our system too — that mindset of drafted Rockies and developed Rockies. Once you get to Denver, it’s heads-up. Things are a little different. But if you can pitch and make pitches, it doesn’t matter where you play. And we think this organization is a great place to be.”
Durability is part of the equation. Shaw leads the majors in appearances since 2013, with 378 games. As MLB executives who pay big money to relievers will attest, the numbers cut both ways. Viewed from a glass-half-full perspective, Shaw seems like a good bet to hold up because of his experience and track record. The alternate, more fatalistic flip side: He has logged a lot of mileage in the bullpen, and the wear and tear is destined to catch up to him eventually.
“For me, it’s just being smart, knowing my arm and my body,” Shaw said. “And if I need a day off, communicating that and telling Bud or [Foster], ‘Hey, I’m hanging a little bit today.’ The trainers have good routines for us, and you can get the right work done. If you’re going to go in there and do busywork just to do work, that isn’t beneficial.”
After two seasons of dealing with the demands of life at 5,280 feet, McGee is happy to provide a tutorial for the new guys on some of the challenges that await this season.
“I’ve already told them when you’re on a long homestand and you’ve thrown a few times, you’re going to be a little tired toward the end,” McGee said. “By June or July, your legs are going to be a little out of it. It’s going to happen, and you really can’t do anything about it. You just make the adjustments and go from there. Different pitches move differently at home and on the road. Once you get a feel for that, it makes it easier.”
Nothing will prepare Davis and Shaw for their new adventure except the reality of the grind. The Rockies have placed a historic bet on their bullpen. The coming months will determine if they spent that $106 million wisely.
Scouts, opposing pitchers on why the Cubs can’t hit
“Mind-boggling.” “A mystery.” “It’s hard to figure.”
Those are some of the words scouts and opposing pitchers used when asked about a Chicago Cubs offense that sits dead last in the majors in many categories, including a .192 team batting average that’s among the all-time worst through 15 games.
What’s most confusing is that the most foundational part of being a major league hitter has the Cubs turned upside down: simply handling a fastball.
“It’s almost mind-boggling,” one AL Central scout said. “There’s too much talent on that whole damn Cubs team. No one can figure it out. I’ve talked to a bunch of guys [other scouts].”
There was a time when throwing the Cubs a fastball was a bad idea. From 2016 to 2018, the combination of Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant hit .307 with a .559 slugging percentage against fastballs. But the numbers have steadily dropped since then, culminating in a .235 batting average and just a .419 slugging percentage over their past 75 games (the shortened 2020 season and first 15 games of this year).
As a team the Cubs have an MLB-worst .230 batting average and are slugging just .414 off fastballs in that time frame. Against fastballs of 95 mph or more, they’re hitting a paltry .178 since the start of 2020 and just .105 this season.
“It’s not the lack of bat speed,” one NL East scout said. “These guys all have awesome bat speed. It’s mental.”
While theories differed among scouts, the consensus explanation is Cubs hitters have been caught “in between.” Perhaps they’re worried about chasing pitches with a lot of spin — a recent problem as well — so they aren’t reacting to fastballs like they used to.
“They should be able to catch up to fastballs, and for some reason they are not,” an NL East scout who saw them recently said. “Are they using analytic tendencies too much? So, in a game they expect one thing but the opposition is doing something else?”
Normally 15 games isn’t enough to glean much of anything in baseball, but the Cubs are no longer getting the benefit of the doubt — not from opposing pitchers, scouts or even many fans. Not after years of disappointment since former team executive Theo Epstein famously declared their offense “broken” back in 2018. For all of the movement elsewhere in the franchise, five of the eight primary position players still remain from the Cubs’ World Series victory now a half-decade ago.
“They’re trying to change their philosophy, but with this core group, they had one philosophy and all these guys bought into it,” one scout opined. “It’s turned into a one-dimensional offense. There’s something to be said about contact and putting the ball in play.”
Due to that one dangerous dimension — the ability to hit the ball out of the park — the opposition has consistently pitched the Cubs out of the strike zone. Since 2016, they’ve seen the lowest proportion of strikes, just 47.9%, of any team in the National League. For a while, they took advantage of it, ranking fourth best in chase percentage in 2016 while leading the majors in walks.
Perhaps those hitters became a little overconfident or the league simply figured them out, but they began to chase.
The Cubs went from fourth to 19th to 25th and then 23rd in chase percentage over the span of four seasons.
“The perfect example is Javy Baez,” one scout said. “I remember when he got to the big leagues and he had no clue what the strike zone was. Then he got better. Then I saw him last year and it was like the old Baez is back.”
Baez is an extreme example, but the sentiment held true for the offense as a group.
“Throw them up and in and then down and away,” one opposing pitcher said. “That’s what you do with any hitter, but especially the Cubs.”
And that’s where the Cubs are unique compared to other teams: The majority of their hitters can be pitched to in the same manner because their strengths and weaknesses are very much alike, according to those in the game.
“They’re down-ball hitters,” an opposing pitcher said. “All of them. Just don’t throw a mistake down there. Even David Bote who’s relatively new likes it there.”
This year alone Bote, Baez and Bryant have golfed balls into the stands for home runs. In last year’s postseason, the Miami Marlins shut the Cubs down by straying away from that hot zone.
“Don’t let them extend their arms,” another opposing pitcher said. “Everyone but Rizzo is the same. You can jam them. All the righties and even Jason Heyward from the left side.”
Perhaps the up-and-in approach is the reason the Cubs have been hit by more pitches than any other team. Most hit-by-pitches with the lowest team batting average is a tough way to go about an offense.
“Teams are throwing more up in the zone, from the games I saw,” said a scout who saw their first six games this season. “Guys are overswinging. Trying to do too much. Everyone is trying to get the whole team out of slump so they look like they’re pressing.”
With Jacob deGrom and Brandon Woodruff on the docket later this week, things aren’t going to get easier anytime soon. And that’s before the trade rumors that will come with Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Joc Pederson and others all set to enter free agency at the end of the season have really started heating up.
“It’s got to be in the back of their minds, they’re going to break up the team,” one scout said. “Everyone knows it’s totally going to be different next year.”
Those in the game do agree on one thing about this season’s lineup: The parts are better than the sum. One opposing pitcher summed it up with a comparison of the Cubs of 2016, and the Cubs of now:
“They don’t grind you out the way they used to. It’s just an easier lineup to pitch to.”
Cleared to travel, Minnesota Twins prepare for Tuesday doubleheader with Oakland Athletics
OAKLAND, Calif. — The Minnesota Twins have been cleared to travel and are moving forward with plans for a doubleheader in Oakland on Tuesday after having their season interrupted by coronavirus concerns.
The Twins haven’t played since Friday to allow for virus testing and contact tracing as the club has had at least four positive coronavirus tests in the past week.
Kyle Garlick, another unnamed Twins player and a team staff member tested positive in the two days before the postponements against the Angels, manager Rocco Baldelli said this weekend. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons already hadn’t made the trip to Anaheim after testing positive early in the week.
Games between the Twins and the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim were postponed Saturday and Sunday, and Monday’s series opener in Oakland was also postponed. That game will be made up as part of Tuesday’s doubleheader.
There have been six MLB games postponed this year because of the virus, including a season-opening, three-game series between the Nationals and Mets after Washington’s coronavirus concerns.
There were 45 regular-season games postponed for virus-related reasons last year, but only two _ between St. Louis and Detroit _ were not made up.
Short-handed Philadelphia Phillies place three players on injured list amid MLB’s COVID-19 protocols
PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies placed three players on the injured list due to COVID-19 protocols and two more coaches weren’t with the team for a game Monday against the San Francisco Giants.
A source told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that one player tested positive and the others were placed on the list due to contact tracing.
Left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado, lefty starter Matt Moore and infielder Ronald Torreyes went on the injured list. First-base coach Paco Figueroa and assistant Bobby Meacham also entered COVID-19 protocols, joining hitting coach Joe Dillon, third-base coach Dusty Wathan and bullpen coach Dave Lundquist.
The team did not say if any of the players or coaches had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Infielder Nick Maton and left-handed pitchers Damon Jones and Cristopher Sanchez were recalled from Philadelphia’s alternate site.
Infield coach Juan Castro served as first-base coach Monday night against San Francisco and Triple-A manager Gary Jones came up coach third base.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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