Choo trade gives Reds a step up in the NL Central

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Choo trade gives Reds a step up in the NL Central

While the Cubs continue to make minor moves this offseason, teams around them are pulling off big deals, from the Royals-Rays trade to the Zack Greinke signing in L.A.

READ: Cubs' offseason moves just beginning

But while those moves don't necessarily affect the Cubs, Tuesday night's trade directly impacts Theo Epstein's team.

In a three-way trade, the Reds acquired outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians, in addition to utility infielder Jason Donald. All they had to give up was outfielder Drew Stubbs (who went to Cleveland) and young Netherlands shortstop Didi Gregorius (who went to Arizona).

READ: The price the Cubs paid for Garza

Gregorius turns 23 on Feb. 18 and made his MLB debut in 2012, but boasts an underwhelming .271.323.376 batting line in his minor-league career, spanning more than 1,900 plate appearances. He has never shown much power (20 homers) or speed (40 stolen bases in 70 tries) and has not earned national recognition as a top prospect.

READ: The rundown on the Cubs' minor-league staff

Stubbs, 28, burst onto the MLB scene in 2010 with 22 homers and 30 stolen bases to go along with 77 RBI and 91 runs, but has seen his average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage drop in two straight seasons since, eventually falling out of favor in Cincinnati. The Reds were desperately looking for a leadoff man most of last season after Stubbs couldn't hang on to the gig, bogged down by a lofty strikeout total (588 in 1,791 at-bats, including a league-leading 205 in '11) and a low OBP (.277 in '12).

Choo, meanwhile, is a good get for the reigning NL Central division winners. The South Korean outfielder doesn't turn 31 until right around the 2013 All-Star break, so he's still in the midst of his prime. After three straight seasons with at least a .300 AVG and .883 OPS from 2008-10, injuries have slowed him a bit since, and he was arrested in May 2011 for a DUI.

But the outfielder spent much of his time in Cleveland as the Indians' No. 3 hitter and provides a nice balance of skills, from speed (76 steals since '09), power (80 homers since '08) and an ability to get on base (.381 career OBP). He stayed on the field for almost all of '12, posting a .283.373.441 line with 16 homers, 67 RBI and 88 runs.

Choo's patience may earn him the leadoff role on the Reds, setting the table for the likes of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. But no matter where he hits in the order, Choo is a major step up from Stubbs in the outfield.

The only issue is -- who plays center in Cincinnati? Stubbs was roughly average as a centerfielder, while Choo has been slightly below average in right field, so a switch to center would not be beneficial. Bruce is the other option, but he hasn't exactly played at a Gold Glove level in right for the Reds to date.

Choo is a free agent after the 2013 season and the Reds may not have the resources to retain his services, so this is likely only a one-year move. But the Reds have to be favorites to repeat in the NL Central, and if the Aroldis Chapman experiment as a starter goes well, they could garner some good World Series odds in Vegas.

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6-2 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.