Ed. note: The Cubs signed righty reliever Hector Neris as I was writing this, so you’re welcome.
The Cubs haven’t been too interested in adding new relievers, but they brought back an old one on Friday. As first reported by Robert Murray of FanSided, the team has agreed to a minor-league deal with 32-year-old righty Carl Edwards Jr. Selected by the Rangers in the 48th round of the 2011 draft, Edwards, who you may recall went by CJ back in the day, was sent to Chicago as part of the Matt Garza trade in 2013.
I’m sure a lot of people have stronger memories of him, but Garza is one of those dudes who, for me, just fell into a black hole at some point. He toiled in relative obscurity for four more years after said trade, though being with the Brewers that whole time meant he was still on the radar. I seem to recall some douchery involving him being upset about a bunt and maybe his wife got into a little online kerfuffle, but that’s all so hazy now.
Anyway, back to Edwards and his contributions to the Cubs both then and possibly moving forward. It’s hard to believe it’s been over four years since Carl’s Jr. pitched for the Cubs, especially for those who still suffer from PTSD after one too many walks followed by a homer. Perhaps more than any pitcher I’ve ever seen, it always seemed as though you’d know exactly what was going to happen in each of his outings based on the first pitch or two.
Ed. note: Fair warning, it’s going to be story time for a few hundred words before we circle back to Edwards in the present tense. Just look for the next note if you’d prefer to skip a bad memory.
My clearest memory of that came during Game 4 of the 2017 NLDS, a miserable affair that should have been played the day prior but was banged because TBS or whatever network was broadcasting it wouldn’t let them push the start time up to avoid incoming torrential rain. I ended up hanging out in the mezzanine and shooting the shit with Mike Bryant for about 90 minutes while waiting for the inevitable postponement. Scheduled starter Stephen Strasburg was initially scratched from the makeup start, which Nationals manager Dusty Baker blamed on mold, so there was a really weird vibe to the whole thing from the beginning.
The game was played in a constant drizzle and temps Baseball Reference says were in the upper 50s, but I had to buy a fleece that morning and would argue it was actually 10 degrees cooler. The Cubs’ bats were cooler still as they flailed helplessly against a Strasburg changeup that danced in the rain like Gene Kelly, effectively making their own pitching performance moot.
But this was an empty-the-tank game, as was Game 5 in Washington the following evening, so Jake Arrieta went four innings before giving way to Jon Lester. Arrieta had literally limped down the stretch after suffering a hamstring injury in early September, but he gutted out a very inefficient 90 pitches and limited the Nats to one run on two hits in his first start in just over two weeks. Lester had started Game 2 four days earlier and worked 3.2 strong innings, retiring 11 of the 12 batters he faced.
After three perfect frames, Lester struck out Bryce Harper and issued a one-out walk to Ryan Zimmerman in the top of the 8th. The southpaw then executed a rare pickoff that everyone in attendance could see clearly on the outfield video boards. A two-out single by Daniel Murphy ended Lester’s night and had Joe Maddon signaling to the bullpen for his Stringbean Slinger.
Edwards had pitched in each of the three previous games, earning a hold, a loss, and a win for his respective appearances. I was at the game with former CI contributor and current CHGO podcaster extraordinaire Corey Freedman, and I lamented to him as Edwards strode to the mound that Maddon would need to make a change if the reliever threw ball one.
Edwards did, Maddon didn’t.
To be fair, the lanky hurler came back to get Anthony Rendon into a 1-2 count on a pair of called strikes and then got a foul before running the count full. Another foul preceded ball four and the Nats had two on with two out. Matt Wieters then walks on five pitches, the fourth of which was taken for a strike as it appeared he had every intention of letting Edwards beat himself. That’s what Rendon had been doing as well, almost like the Nats knew the deal.
So Maddon went to Wade Davis 11 pitches too late, only to see his closer — who had saved the Cubs’ wins in Games 1 and 3 — give up a grand slam to Michael A. Taylor that iced the game. Davis then gave up a single to Adam Lind and walked Trea Turner before leaving in favor of Brian Duensing. Justin Wilson got the last two outs of the game for the Cubs, but Ryan Madson had escaped a spot of bother in the bottom of the 8th and Sean Doolittle made quick work of his opponents in the 9th.
Even though the Cubs went on to win the series the next night, the death watch was ticking loudly on their window of contention. Is that Edwards’ fault? Not in the least, but he was one of the main characters in a TV show that had lost its way and would flail for a few more years before finally recasting nearly every role.
Ed. note: We now return you to your regularly scheduled analysis.
Edwards had actually been a pretty effective pitcher in 2017 and went on to have a career-best year in ’18, but his penchant for ill-timed walks clouded most of the excellence. Injuries and terrible results for the next three seasons, during which he logged only 27.1 MLB innings while spending time with six different organizations. Coincidentally, a minor league deal with the Nationals in 2022 reinvigorated Edwards’ career.
Reuniting with Dave Martinez, his former bench coach in Chicago, provided a boost of confidence that helped Edwards move past his struggles. Even bigger for his bounce-back was the addition of a changeup, a firm offering that gave him a few ticks of separation from his fastball while presenting a different shape from his much slower curve. He’d actually had the offspeed pitch in his bag for a long time, he just never wanted to use it.
With nothing left to lose at that point, he was able to loosen up both emotionally and pitch-wise, which led to a $2.25 million contract last season. He was limited to just 31.2 innings over 21 appearances by right shoulder inflammation and a stress fracture in his right scapula, hence settling for yet another minors deal. We can probably assume the shoulder was bothering him for a while last year, as his velo was down a bit and his curveball usage fell off a cliff.
Part of that may have been a big uptick in his changeup, but it stands to reason that something about his delivery may have pushed him away from the curve. It was easily his most valuable pitch last year despite making up roughly 12% of his repertoire, so you’d think he’d have turned to it more frequently. Unless, of course, the decreased usage was the driving force behind its effectiveness.
If Edwards can get his fastball back up to sitting around 95 with good ride and can have both secondaries working, it’s easy to see him serving as an effective middle reliever once again. The curve sits around 80 with big drop and a little sweep while the change — which is more of a splitter variation — tends to fade to the arm-side. I like this move for the Cubs because the potential reward is much greater than the risk and it could even provide a few warm fuzzies.
Of course, the addition of Neris makes that comeback hill a little tougher to climb.