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Kyle Hendricks Jersey

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The Cubs are betting success can be found in a soft-tossing starting rotation.
Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks is unconventional in style. His fastball doesn’t touch 90 MPH, and he gets by with confusing hitters and inducing weak contact with a devastating changeup and the occasional curveball. Having a guy like this in your rotation can be a good thing because it’s a change of pace from the typical mid-90s fastball-slider combination.

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However, the Cubs must seem to think this is the only way to get outs these days? Heading into 2021, they will have three soft-tossing pitchers in the rotation with Hendricks, Alec Mills and now Zach Davies, who was acquired in the trade of Yu Darvish.

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Davies’ average velocity on his fastball for his career is 89.2 MPH. Mills’ average velocity is 90.1, and Hendricks tops out at 87.3. Davies and Hendricks have both had sustained careers of success at this point, and the jury is still out on what Mills actually is. He showed a lot of good things this season but there was a whole lot of bad, as well.

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While trading Yu Darvish is a compelling option, there are many reasons why the Chicago Cubs should not trade Kyle Hendricks.

by Brian MischlerDecember 22, 2020
After already diving into whether the Chicago Cubs should trade Yu Darvish, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras, it’s time to do the same for Kyle Hendricks. In a normal offseason, I wouldn’t even consider pondering this thought. Organizations with division title aspirations typically don’t trade frontline starters. However, with Theo Epstein’s premature departure and all the rumors of Jed Hoyer pushing for a heavy rebuild this offseason, it’s worth considering.

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Stats Prove Hendricks has been a Top 10-15 Starter During his Cubs Career
We can’t answer whether the Cubs should trade Kyle Hendricks without first dissecting just how great Hendricks has been in his Chicago Cubs career. So, let’s take a look at some statistics. The table below shows where Kyle Hendricks ranks in six relevant stats among all qualified starting pitchers since 2015.

Cubs Offseason Yu Darvish Trade Kyle Hendricks Trade Chicago Cubs
Source: FanGraphs
I don’t even have to ignore certain years to prove Hendricks’ greatness. There’s no anomaly here. Ever since his first full MLB season with the Cubs in 2015, Kyle Hendricks has been a top 10-15 MLB starter. All the above stats point to that conclusion.

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If you think this production hasn’t translated to the postseason, you’d be incorrect. Hendricks touts a 3.12 ERA in 57.2 postseason innings pitched for the Cubs. In the 2016 NLCS and World Series, he posted a 0.83 ERA in 21.2 IP. He’s not only been successful in the regular season, but he’s also dominated when the stakes are highest. Yet Kyle Hendricks is never talked about nationally, has zero All-Star appearances, and is never mentioned in any “Ace” discussions. Why is this?

Kyle Hendricks Doesn’t Strike Hitters Out…So What?
Well, the answer is that Kyle Hendricks doesn’t strike hitters out. Since 2015, Hendricks is 97th in K/9 at 7.78, a far cry from where he ranks in the statistics outlined above. The fact that Hendricks does not overpower hitters with a 98+ MPH fastball is another reason why baseball undervalues his abilities. Nothing about his physical makeup warrants intimidation. Thus, nobody outside the Cubs’ organization considers him an “Ace.”

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But this is a ridiculous mindset. I’m supposed to devalue the six above statistics that indicate Kyle Hendricks is a top 10-15 starter because he doesn’t strike enough hitters out? Why does that make his fWAR, ERA, and exit velocity over a six-year span any less impressive? It doesn’t. Give the Chicago Cubs credit for realizing this and refusing to doubt his early success. The rest of baseball holds on to this medieval thinking that the game’s top pitchers have to overwhelm the opposition with strikeouts. I reject that premise entirely.

Strikeouts are needed in certain situations, don’t get me wrong. When men are on base, missing bats is how pitchers get out of jams. But so does consistently generating weak contact. Kyle Hendricks is generating more weak contact than the “Aces” that are striking more hitters out than he does, so who’s to say which method is more “Ace” worthy? If anything, I’d contend Hendricks’ method is more valuable because pitching to contact keeps pitch count down. Constantly avoiding contact to strike hitters out is how starters have an 85+ pitch count by the fifth inning.

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Kyle Hendricks Does Have Nasty Stuff
When analyzing Hendricks’ lack of strikeouts, most fans, even Cubs fans, jump to the false conclusion that he doesn’t have nasty stuff. This is wrong. We all know how deceptive Hendricks’ changeup is. Nobody would be surprised that it ranks second in baseball since 2015. But a fact that eludes almost every baseball fan? His fastball ranks 11th in that same timeframe. And he throws 86 MPH.

Hendricks’ fastball is effective because he mixes speeds and changes the hitter’s eye level better than anybody in MLB. He can also place any of his pitches wherever he wants. This allows him to not only get away with throwing 86, but use it as a weapon. It doesn’t matter that Hendricks’ approach to the game lacks the “wow” factor that comes with strikeouts. The end result is the same: he gets hitters out.

Kyle Hendricks Cubs
Photo: David Zalubowski/AP/Shutterstock
Team-Friendly Contracts for Starting Pitchers are Rare
Everything I’ve outlined is why the Cubs were able to extend Kyle Hendricks through 2024 at $14 million annually Baseball touted his early success as unsustainable given his perceived lack of overpowering stuff. Rather than write him off under a cloud of doubt, the Chicago Cubs capitalized and signed a top 10-15 starter on the cheap relative to his value. That is seldom seen. Frontline starters typically come with a hefty price tag.

Given Hendricks’ production, team-friendly contract, and age, his trade value should be as high as any starter in MLB not named Shane Bieber. But given baseball’s tendency to undervalue Hendricks’ skillset, it’s almost a certainty that no other ballclub values him that high. And if that’s the case, why should the Chicago Cubs trade Kyle Hendricks if the offered returns won’t match his historical production?

With those three, you have three of the softest-tossing arms in the league in the rotation. Chicago, which has badly needed a philosophical change at the plate for years now, now seemingly need to think about an overhaul on the pitching side of things. With two spots left in the 2021 rotation, the Cubs need to think big picture when it comes to rounding it out.

A rotation full of low-velocity pitchers might be a recipe for disaster. If teams can time it up, the Cubs could be in for some trouble. It’s one thing to face one of those guys, but facing three of them consecutively is a different story.

This article is not meant as an indictment or an attack on the Cubs. It’s a plea as a fan to change the organizational philosophy as fans have been wanting it for a long time. Theo Epstein stepped away, which ushered in a new era, and with that, philosophies should change – or at the very least be reevaluated.

Hendricks, on his best day, carves up hitters with the best of them, but most soft-tossing pitchers just aren’t entertaining or aesthetically pleasing to watch, and the Cubs will now have three of them starting games. Fortunately, the bullpen for the Cubs has more velocity than the rotation, although that’s a low bar at this point.

NEXT: Chicago Cubs: Examining the return in the Yu Darvish trade
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Given he’s heading into his final year of team control, we don’t even know if Davies will make it past the trade deadline. If the team’s treading water and he’s performing well, the righty could make a perfect ‘flip’ guy. But, at least out of the gate, the Cubs are betting heavily on a group of arms that are hardly overpowering in any sense.

Adbert Alzolay Jersey

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Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic did a lengthy and informative and delightful and nerdy Q&A with recently-promoted Cubs Assistant GM/VP of Pitching Craig Breslow. It is the kind of awesome deep dive that makes my day.

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For all the Cubs prospect hipsters out there, all eyes are going to be on Craig Breslow and the Cubs revamped pitching development apparatus. “I think we’ve built an infrastructure around this group to extract as much talent and value as we possibly can.”

— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) December 22, 2020

There’s so much in there that you can sink your teeth into, including Breslow’s development, where the Cubs think they can find edges, how you marry the process and the players, and how physical high performance programs might be the next wave.

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One part that really stood out to me was confidence you could sense from Breslow that what the Cubs were able to do with Adbert Alzolay, who developed and deployed an effective new slider at the dang big league level within the span of just a few weeks, isn’t necessarily a fluky one-off. To be sure, Alzolay is a stud who worked so hard and was so open to the process that he deserves all the credit in the world. You can’t presume every pitcher will be able to approach things like Alzolay did. But, like I said, you get the sense that Breslow and the Cubs believe they have a real angle in pitcher development here.

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Starting pitcher Adbert Alzolay #73 of the Chicago Cubs delivers the ball against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on September 27, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Cubs haven’t been able to cross much off their offseason checklist so far. And with the winter meetings now over, the bulk of their work still lies ahead.

Things haven’t moved as quickly as anyone would like, and the Cubs still have moves they must make before heading to spring training in two months.

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Here are three key areas the Cubs still need to improve this offseason:

Starting pitching

Right-handers Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks showed last season that they can be a formidable 1-2 punch and lead any rotation. In fact, with two frontline starters at the top, the rotation might be the Cubs’ biggest strength going into 2021. Both pitchers are under club control for the next three seasons and should give the Cubs some hope that a few moves can put them back in a position to contend.

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But there are questions about the rotation after Darvish and Hendricks. Right-handers Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay seem to be in line to be the Cubs’ No. 3 and No. 4 starters, and while both showed flashes of what they might be able to do with more opportunities, can they perform that way over a full season?

Among Breslow’s comments on that topic:

What I can say is that type of process is something that we have implemented and are scaling such that if it turns out that other pitchers in the organization have the latent ability to make that adjustment as quickly as Adbert did, I believe that that will manifest itself on a much broader scale ….

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I’m very hopeful and optimistic that we should expect more. I think we have a really talented group of minor-league pitchers and I think we’ve built an infrastructure around this group to extract as much talent and value as we possibly can by being more aggressive in initiatives, whether they are pitch design initiatives, velocity programming, pitch usage and attack plans. We’ve tried to do this through a process that should be scalable and transferable.

So if we look at Alzolay as proof of concept — and it’s difficult because he’s just one individual, but I think we can talk to the flashes of success that even Tyson Miller showed with a couple of new pitches and the excitement around Brailyn [Marquez]’s sinker, Justin Steele, who didn’t get into a game at the big-league level, but showed really well at the alternate site with a new pitch (slider) — I think we can start to point to more than just a single individual and we can start to talk about actually a development approach and philosophy. And to me that’s the difference between the one-off success stories and propelling an entire player development apparatus to the forefront of the industry.

Hey, bonus eyeball emojis there for the specific name drops of Miller, Marquez, and Steele.

There’s nothing new about organizations trying to help pitchers add and/or refine pitches. But what you only very rarely see is a guy adding a new pitch and then using it effectively against hitters in the span of a single season, let alone a single month. Usually, a guy has always tinkered with a pitch, and maybe had a breakthrough over the course of an offseason, and then maybe he starts to incorporated it more and more over the course of a season. And that’s if things go very well for a pitch’s development. So if the Cubs actually have some way to know when and how to get a guy throwing a new pitch – at a game-ready level – within a single season, then, yeah, that’d be a monumental step in pitcher development.

That’s not to mention refining and improving existing pitches, which all kinda falls under a similar umbrella, and which we kinda got some hints at this past season for a number of pitchers (not just prospects).

Because the Cubs only started the overhaul of their player development infrastructure in the pre-2019 offseason, and didn’t really complete the hiring process on that front until last offseason, this was actually the first year where the battle station was fully operational, so to speak. Except thanks to the pandemic, there was no minor league season, so even if all the personnel and behind-the-scenes processes were in place this year, there wasn’t actually an opportunity to work through these things in games. So, like you keep hearing from me, next year is potentially going to be eye-popping in the minor leagues for the Cubs. Or at least we hope it will be, and then we hope it keeps improving from there.

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The Chicago Cubs hope Jonathan Holder can provide the same success that Ryan Tepera and Jason Adam did in 2020 at a thrifty price.

Holder, 27, who pitched parts of the last five seasons for the New York Yankees, agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed contact with the Cubs on Thursday. He is 10-6 with a 4.38 ERA in 157 major-league games, averaging 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

Holder was 3-0 with a 4.98 ERA in 18 games for the Yankees last season. His ERA was inflated by eight earned runs over his final three games. Holder posted a 3.14 ERA in a career-high 60 games in 2018.

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Holder will receive $750,000 if he makes the team, according to a source.

Earlier this month, the Cubs claimed reliever Robert Stock off waivers from the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs’ 40-man roster stands at 36.

It’s weird to be digging into a set of projections for the Chicago Cubs 2021 season before they’ve really done anything this offseason, but, hey, at some point publications have to pull the trigger. Also, it’s not actually true that the Cubs haven’t done anything yet this offseason – they’ve done a lot of subtracting! Also, reliever additions!

That is to say, I do expect the final Cubs roster to look different come Opening Day (whenever that is), but for now, you can still get a lot of insight into how the ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs is eyeing the current composition of the roster, and how it sees 2021 playing out for certain players.

It ain’t great!

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Head over to FanGraphs to see the particulars on each player, because I’m planning to just discuss the groups more generally.

A blanket caveat, I guess, is that because the NL Central figures to suuuuuuck in 2021, the Cubs don’t have to look like a behemoth to be competitive. Indeed, it kinda seems like they’re banking on that. And in the aggregate, FanGraphs sees the Cubs as more or less competitive. Is that good enough to keep the band together? Good enough to make additions? Or should the Cubs sell further from here?

Starting Rotation
An extreme version of what we say narratively, what with two very good starting pitchers at the front, and then a whole bunch of questions thereafter. Even Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills project horribly (more than 15% worse than league average), Alzolay presumably because of the limited track record of success, and Mills presumably because of the rough peripherals. You can have reasons to be more optimistic than the system on each, but it’s a reminder that these guys are not sure things. And they’re the third and fourth starters!

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The system is not a fan of any of the Cubs’ upper-level minor league starters either, and for you to be optimistic on that front, you’d have to believe the Cubs did more than the average team in developing those guys over the lost minor league season.

Any way you slice it, you come to the same conclusion we’d already been at for a while: if the Cubs want to be competitive in 2021, they’re going to need to add a quality starting pitcher or two. Especially because we already know that the innings are going to have to be spread around to more guys this year. At least the starting pitching market is extremely deep this offseason in the buy-low, reclamation pool where the Cubs will be swimming.

Craig Kimbrel projects decently well, and that’s about it. But what did you expect for a positional group where the Cubs have made it an affirmative strategy not to load up on guys whose on-paper projections would necessarily look great? By way of example, Jason Adam projects as 10% worse than league average, which seems pretty reasonable when you look at his statistical body of work. But we know that he’s pretty dramatically changed his pitch mix with the Cubs, and thus have reason to suspect that the version of Adam we see in 2021 could bear very little resemblance to the guy he was before 2020, and on which most of the projections are based.

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That said, you would nevertheless like to see a lot more rosy projections for your young, upper-level arms who figure to be rotating in and out of the bullpen. A lot of those guys, plus additions like Jonathan Holder and Robert Stock, project as just around average.

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Whatever the forecasts here, though, I’m less worried about the bullpen over the course of a full season than I would’ve been four years ago if you’d shown me the group. The Cubs’ pitching system has just been very, very good at this recently.

ZiPS is deeply unimpressed by the improvements in Willson Contreras behind the plate in 2020, which is understandable because it was a small sample … but also, we know that framing is one of those skills that can develop rapidly, and then you tend to have it until/unless there is a physical issue. I’m comfortable projecting Contreras to be much better defensively than ZiPS says (and also, frankly, much better than merely 4% better than league average offensively).

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Victor Caratini is right there where you’d expect him, below average offensively overall (but solid for a catcher), and about average defensively. There’s probably upside in the bat from here, but even at what he is right now, that’s a valuable player to have.