If David Robertson wasn’t outright promised the closer’s job, then Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer was fairly direct in selling him on the opportunity to potentially work the ninth inning at Wrigley Field. There shouldn’t have been any miscommunications because Robertson didn’t hire an agent and represented himself in negotiations.
While David Ross has not formally anointed Robertson as the Cubs closer, his actions speak louder than words: Robertson is 4-for-4 in save chances with a 0.00 ERA and only one hit allowed through six relief appearances. Ross appreciates Robertson’s experience in those moments and his sense of calm on the mound. Robertson also has the athleticism and ability to consistently throw strikes and match up with right- and left-handed hitters.
There were some questions when Robertson signed a one-year, $ 3.5 million contract that includes $ 1.5 million in performance bonuses. Robertson underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019, missed the 2020 season, played for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics and then pitched out of Tampa Bay’s bullpen during last year’s playoffs. But this seems like the moment Ross described in spring training when asked about the closer situation.
“Those things have a way of defining themselves,” Ross said then. “We have an idea of what everybody’s stuff does and how it plays. With each individual lineup, we’ll try to match that up correctly. You may see some different guys on the back side. But you also may see somebody who starts to stand out a little bit. You guys will notice it. I’ll notice it. ”
Contending teams looking for bullpen help will also notice it. During the last rebuild, the Cubs leaned on a sign-and-flip strategy, adding pitchers on one-year contracts, coaching them up, marketing them at the trade deadline and adding to their inventory of young talent. Robertson said Hoyer didn’t outline his expectations for the 2022 team – their conversations centered on the fit and opportunity in Chicago – or address the possibility of a midseason trade.
“We didn’t really go into that much,” Robertson said. “You just kind of have to play out a season. You never know who’s going to win. Things can happen. They can make moves upstairs that can make us better down here. In the meantime, you just play as hard as you can. There’s a lot of talent in this clubhouse. At any point, a team can win a division, and then you’re in the playoffs. All you got to do is get a ticket to the show. ”
At this stage, Hoyer isn’t overly interested in clubhouse intangibles, but he does believe in the value of veteran relievers who can show younger pitchers how to prepare and develop a short memory. Robertson, 37, made his big-league debut with the Yankees on June 29, 2008, during a Subway Series game at Shea Stadium. During those two innings, Robertson faced a group of Mets hitters including José Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltrán and Carlos Delgado while Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were positioned on the left side of the infield. Robertson eventually developed into an All-Star set-up guy for Mariano Rivera, whose presence created a bullpen order that is difficult to replicate.
“There was a Hall of Famer at the back end,” Robertson said. “You didn’t have to worry about it. You knew, just get to that inning and it was over. It’s not like that now. The game has changed, it’s evolving. Guys are going to get put in different situations and they’re still expected to do their job. We’re out there to throw strikes, work quick and get outs. I try not to get into (the labels) too much. I just don’t want to worry about it. I want to have fun and play baseball. ”
The trade deadline traditionally presents a binary choice of adding major-league talent or subtracting from the roster to accumulate prospects. History indicates Hoyer’s baseball operations department will likely choose one of those two paths this summer and prioritize the future. But maybe this week’s trade with Atlanta – acquiring left-hander Sean Newcomb, 28, for veteran reliever Jesse Chavez, 38, and a cash consideration – could be a template if the Cubs hover around .500 and want to get younger without completely writing off the final two months of the season.
The Angels selected Newcomb out of the University of Hartford with the No. 15 pick in the 2014 draft and later included the 6-foot-5 pitching prospect in the Andrelton Simmons trade with Atlanta. Newcomb made 49 starts combined for the Braves in 2017 and 2018 and then became an effective reliever (3.04 ERA in 51 appearances) the next year. Newcomb struggled to maintain a role with the team that won the World Series after a flurry of moves at last year’s trade deadline. The Braves designated him for assignment and found a match with the Cubs in an early-season trade.
“I was pretty pumped,” Newcomb said Friday inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. “I was not pitching as much as I wanted to. There was a bunch of talent there, a bunch of good arms. So this new opportunity, this new perspective from the coaching staff, it’s just a bunch of little things that all add into it. ”
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and bullpen coach Chris Young already met with Newcomb and began presenting ideas. It doesn’t always work for each player, but the Cubs do have a pretty good track record with taking a pitcher with this profile from another organization, helping him identify his strengths and allowing him to benefit from a change of scenery.
“There’s a lot of cases where guys switch up teams and have success just because of a bunch of different aspects,” Newcomb said. “I’ve definitely seen it happen and I’m looking forward to working with them.”
Clint Frazier – another first-round talent looking for a fresh start on a rebuilding team – is now sidelined while getting treatment for appendicitis. The Cubs placed Frazier on the 10-day injured list and recalled Alfonso Rivas from Triple-A Iowa before Friday night’s 4-2 loss to the Pirates.
Frazier represented a potential sweet spot for the Cubs when he signed a one-year, $ 1.5 million contract just before Major League Baseball’s owners assigned a lockout. Frazier is only 27 years old and potentially under club control through the 2024 season. Once spring training finally started, Frazier became one of the interesting stories in Cubs camp, given the flashes of potential he had shown with the Yankees and the hopes that he could stay healthy after parts of five up-and-down seasons in New York. Frazier’s bat speed and powerful right-handed swing helped convince Cleveland to select him with the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft and the Yankees saw that upside when they acquired him in the Andrew Miller trade ahead of the 2016 World Series.
Reading too much into April lineup decisions or early-season results can be misleading. There will be more injuries and players’ performances will ebb and flow. But Frazier, when healthy, already appears to be more of a player the Cubs will utilize for certain matchups and situations. Those mix-and-match options are a big idea behind their roster construction and the pivot away from their 2016 championship core. So far this season, Frazier has made five starts and played seven innings total in left field. Since his pinch-hit double on Opening Day, Frazier is 2-for-20 with two walks and no home runs or RBIs.
“In general, especially with the DH, there’s going to be role players and then there’s everyday starters,” Ross said. “I think we’ve got a lot more flexibility than some teams would use.”
Timing is everything and Ian Happ understands how hard it is to stay sharp while receiving inconsistent playing time. Those opportunities also have to be earned and Happ was hitting .181 with a .628 OPS when Hoyer’s front office finished a massive sell-off at last year’s trade deadline. Happ’s strong finish during the final two-plus months of an otherwise lost season – he hit .288 with 15 home runs and a .944 OPS – helped him refine his approach as a switch-hitter and make a case to be an everyday starter this season.
“Getting consistent, everyday at-bats was big for me at the end of last year,” Happ said. “Being able to go in there with a little bit of rhythm and free things up right-handed was huge. It’s something I hadn’t really done for the last few years, probably since ’17. It’s being able to kind of free that swing up and get it off early in counts. ”
While Happ has been a streaky hitter, the Cubs have also sent some mixed messages about his role and fit within the organization, originally drafting him with the No. 9 pick in 2015 with the thought that a polished college hitter could be flipped for a frontline pitcher. Happ made his big-league debut with the defending World Series champs in 2017 and earned Rookie of the Year consideration. The Cubs kept Happ off their 2019 Opening Day roster and demoted him to Triple-A Iowa. Happ got an MVP vote during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign before struggling through most of last season.
If Happ, 27, can maintain the sense of balance he developed after that upheaval at the trade deadline, the Cubs will face another interesting decision on a player who’s positioned to become a free agent after the 2023 season. Happ is hitting .308 with a .772 OPS so far in April.
“That’s always the goal, to maintain that flow, that level of seeing the ball,” Happ said. “That’s always part of my process, just having those good at-bats from Pitch 1.”
(Photo of David Robertson: Nuccio DiNuzzo / MLB Photos via Getty Images)