Happy days are here again for the Cubs, who’ve reached an agreement with righty reliever Daniel Winkler on a one-year major league deal. The former Brave was designated for assignment following a trade to San Francisco and elected free agency at the end of the season, so he’s more or less in the category of non-tendered options we looked at earlier in the week. Winkler, who will turn 30 in February, is definitely along the fringes after a disappointing 2019 and overall roller-coaster career.
After beginning his professional career as a starter in the Rockies organization, the course of Winkler’s career changed as the result of Tommy John surgery in 2014. His 12 starts that season for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers were the last of his career, as the Braves picked him up in the Rule 5 Draft and made him a reliever. Winkler pitched just 1.2 innings over two appearances in 2015 while recovering from TJS, then manged just 2.1 innings in three 2016 appearances before fracturing his elbow.
The 2017 season saw him tally 14.1 innings with Atlanta after rehabbing for 14 more in the minors, and the results were solid. His fastball sat 94 mph, significantly higher than he’d flashed in previous seasons, and his 11.3 K/9 mark looked good with his 2.51 ERA. That led to a breakout 2018 in which Winkler pitched 60.1 innings across 69 appearances, notching a 3.43 ERA with 10.3 K/9 and 2.98 BB/9 with only three home runs allowed.
Two of the 23 earned runs he allowed came during an April 14 appearance against the Cubs during which he was mercilessly heckled by a fan in the 1914 Club seats who kept calling him Henry Winkler. As in, Arthur Fonzarelli. Or Mr. Coach Klein. The crowd was a little sparse because José Quintana and Eddie Butler had spotted the Braves nine runs in the first three innings, so the field mics picked up everything.
Fan in Wrigley stands audibly heckling Braves pitcher Dan Winkler by calling him Henry Winkler and The Fonz.
— Evan Altman (@DEvanAltman) April 14, 2018
You may recall that the Cubs came back to score 12 runs over their final three innings, including nine runs in the 8th, to win the game 14-10.
Following that outing, Winkler didn’t allow another run for 16 appearances and didn’t allow another earned run for 20 appearances, a span that stretched into June. That success was based primarily on the cutter he threw at a 51% clip en route to a value of 8.3 runs saved, a mark that ranked eighth in baseball among pitchers with at least 60 innings.
Nasty 91-mph cutter from Daniel Winkler. pic.twitter.com/zIpMqP7pYM
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) May 30, 2018
The 2019 season wasn’t nearly as successful, largely due to the cutter falling off. Winkler appeared to be going with the slider a bit more while backing off of the fastball as well, though how much of that is accurate and how much is a function of classification I’m not sure. The end result was a demotion to Triple-A and then the trade to San Francisco as part of the return for Mark Melacon.
As we see so often this time of year, the Cubs are taking a flyer on a guy who has shown flashes of being a competent reliever when he isn’t injured. Assuming the elbow issues are behind him, the bright side with Winkler is that he only pitched 32.1 innings from 2015-17 and only 145 over the past five seasons combined. In other words, there’s a lot of tread left on the tires.
Despite some more obvious red flags, the real concern as it applies to the Cubs and their specific needs is that Winkler has typically issued a lot of walks. That 2018 season was the only time he’s ever been under a double-digit walk rate, though it’s also the only time he’s logged enough innings from which to draw a reasonable conclusion about his performance.
He’s not a big groundball guy, either, and his splits aren’t indicative of a guy you’d want to leave out there for very long. In fact, his 2018 performance looked good almost solely based on his relative dominance of righties. Lefties tallied an .891 OPS with a .381 OBP that season, so the whole three-batter minimum could really burn him depending on the situation.
On the bright side, he’s a very capable bunter.
— Paul Byrd (@PaulByrd36) June 15, 2019
Terms of the deal have not yet been disclosed, but it’s only a one-year pact and Winkler still has minor-league options remaining and is arbitration-eligible in 2021. As such, this looks like nothing more than a depth move for a guy who’ll probably have an open ticket between Chicago and Des Moines for 2020. If he recovers that cutter, though, we could be looking at a replacement for Brandon Kintzler or Pedro Strop. That’s not a direct comp, mind you, but the 2018 version of Winkler would be a decent righty option to hold down those mid-late innings.
Here’s to hoping the Cubs haven’t jumped the shark with this move.
Update: Per Jon Heyman, it’s a split major league deal that features a $750K base salary in the majors and $200K in the minors. There’s an additional $750K in incentives for MLB production.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 6, 2019