The Cubs offseason is off to a start I don't think any of us expected. A coaching carousel, reports of financial constraints, and rumors of discord within the clubhouse have chipped away at our utopian visions of baseball domination. We were supposed to sign Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, trade our spare parts for Jacob deGrom, and cakewalk our way to another World Series title. Yeah, that's the ticket...
Instead, a cold, hard reality has blown in like a stiff November gust, leaving us with actual work to be done. There are several areas the Cubs can improve upon over their disappointing 2018 season. The stove will be hot and rumors will continue to fly (did you hear that Kris Bryant is on the trading block?), but things really heat up at the Winter Meetings next month in Las Vegas. Before things get too carried away, I'd like to take a look at each unit of this team, what we have and what we may target, starting today with the bullpen.
Jed Hoyer had this to say at the GM Meetings:
The key is not just to have a good bullpen all year, but you’ve got to have that bullpen pitching well down the stretch, and part of it is having the depth to not overuse guys… Our bullpen performed exceptionally well last season, but we have to make sure it does that again by adding enough depth. I’m actually impressed our bullpen held up as well as it did given the short starts early in the season.
The Cubs' bullpen, as a whole, was arguably the most consistent and effective unit in 2018. That changed down the stretch, first from injury and then, possibly, overuse. Most of the core unit returns, but questions abound.
- RH Brandon Morrow: The joke was Morrow could hurt himself putting on his pants, but his fragility is no laughing matter. When healthy, he's about as good as they come, and the closer's job is his. He is expected to be handled even more cautiously in 2019.
- RH Pedro Strop: After agonizing over such a difficult decision, the Cubs decided to pick up Strop's $6.25M option for 2019. Strop stepped in admirably in the absence of Morrow, saving 13 games before going down with a hamstring injury of his own. He courageously pitched the wild-card game in severe pain, later admitting that he lied to the coaching staff and that if we had won, he would not have been able to appear in the division series. I like this guy.
- RH Steve Cishek: As reliable as they come, Cishek appeared in 80 games in 2018. There's no reason to believe he cannot do the same in the final year of his contract.
- RH Carl Edwards Jr.: Edwards Jr.'s raw stuff is as nasty as it comes, but questions remain about his durability, control, and poise under pressure. He struggled through shoulder issues throughout the season, and ended the year amid questions regarding his elbow. I love the kid, but have concerns about his health going into 2019.
- RH Brandon Kintzler: The Cubs turned down Kintzler's $10M team option, as expected, and he picked up his $5M player option, as expected. He was bad as a Cub, but has had a solid career. Decent production is not out of the question, or he could be moved if we can unload his contract.
- LH Mike Montgomery: One of the best swingmen in the game, Montgomery was impressive again in 2018. He threw 124 innings in his 19 starts and 19 appearances out of the pen. If all the starters are healthy, Monty begins 2019 in the pen yet again. There is a chance he is dealt if the Cubs can get good value, but the trade of Drew Smyly makes that less likely.
- LH Brian Duensing: Duensing parlayed a solid 2017 season into a new two-year deal. 2018 didn't go well, but I believe a bum shoulder had a lot to do with that. If he isn't moved this offseason, he will have to prove himself in spring training, and his $3.5M salary could be eaten for a more valuable roster spot.
We have several depth options in-house. Michael has recently highlighted Dakota Mekkes, Dillon Maples, and Trevor Clifton. Alec Mills made a good impression while with the big club, and Adbert Alzolay may be ready. We always stockpile fringe arms, hoping one of them will break out. Bullpens are weird.
POTENTIAL FA TARGETS:
The free agent market for relief pitchers is deep, and this is one area where our cheap owner may actually spend some money. The focus on a dominant LH reliever will be a priority, but will not come cheaply. Fangraphs has posted it's 2019 FA Tracker, with a crowd-sourced estimate of contract length and value that has been historically very accurate, though none are precise, of course.
- RH Jesse Chavez (1y/$5M): I start here due to familiarity, and because of his desire to return. Chavez was a revelation upon his his arrival from Texas, notching a 1.15 ERA in 39 IP with the Cubs, and without him we may have lost the division ouright. At age 35, he is one of the older viable free agents available, and his 95.1 IP was 2nd in MLB only to Ryan Yarbrough, who accumulated more IP due to some wacky staff usage in Tampa Bay. The Cubs coaching staff made some mechanical tweaks when he arrived here, and he also nearly abandoned his curveball and changeup, becoming more of a traditional fastball/slider reliever. I wouldn't expect that level of dominance, but those changes lead me to believe his success could be sustainable.
- RH Craig Kimbrel (4y/$64M): Due to the price tag, and the fact he is the only reliever attached to a QO, I'd be shocked if the Cubs made a serious pursuit. It would be nice to have him on the team though.
- RH David Robertson (2y/$22M): A closer earlier in his career for the Yankees and White Sox, Robertson spent 2018 in a setup role in New York. Despite the lack of elite velocity, Robertson still managed 11.76 K/9 IP to go along with 3.36 BB/9 IP. He's also durable, having thrown over 60 innings in each of the last nine seasons. I can see the Cubs having interest, especially considering the injury concerns surrounding Edwards Jr. and Morrow, but I'm afraid the bidding may go higher.
- LH Andrew Miller (2y/$22M): Miller has been the darling of the high-leverage, multi-inning relievers over the last several years, but had an injury-plauged 2018. A hamstring strain, knee inflammation, and shoulder issues limited him to just 34 IP. It's possible he could settle for a one-year deal to re-establish value before hitting the market again next season. Anything longer could leave a team paying for his name and past success, rather than future performance, which is something Theo and Co. don't like to do.
- RH Adam Ottavino (3y/$30M): The set-up man from Colorado had a solid bounce-back year in his quest for a new contract. After undergoing TJ surgery in 2015, and shoulder issues in 2017, he may cash in. He sported an impressive 12.98 K/9 IP.
- RH Jeurys Familia (3y/$30M): A very good reliever. He was an All-Star in 2016 when he led MLB with 51 saves. But Familia was arrested for domestic violence on October 31st, 2016. No criminal charges were filed, but he was suspended 15 games during the 2017 season. I said I would be shocked if we made a serious pursuit of Kimbrel, and I would be beyond that if we pursued Familia, given the current situation with Russell and our previous experience with Chapman.
- RH Joakim Soria (2y/$16M): Still going strong at age 35, Soria has amassed 220 career saves. Despite a lack of elite velocity, he still baffles hitters to the tune of 11.13 K/9 IP with a skinny 2.37 BB/9 IP. A little long in the tooth but still effective, so you never know.
- LH Zach Britton (3y/$36M): Britton has been linked to the Cubs on several occasions in the past. He was once perhaps the best closer in baseball, but tore his Achilles in December 2017, and did not pitch again until June of 2018. If healthy, he is the type of dominant LHR reliever I expect the Cubs to make a strong push for.
- RH Cody Allen (2y/$18M): Despite being on the losing end of the World Series to a certain team that starts with a"C", ends with an "O", and in the middle is "hicag", Allen was the closer for some very good Indians teams from 2014 through 2017. In 2018, despite saving 27 games, his ERA ballooned to 4.39 and may have depressed his value just enough to make us interested.
- RH Joe Kelly (2y/$14M): Despite being one of the hardest throwers in the league, Kelly doesn't fan the amount of hitters you would expect for a reliever whose fastball averages 98.1 MPH, yielding "only" 9.32 K/9 IP. He also can get a bit wild as evidenced by his 4.39 BB/9 IP. He did have a very nice postseason with Boston, allowing only one run in 11.1 IP, with 13 K's and nary a free pass.
- RH Kelvin Herrera (3y/27M): Another fire-baller who sits in the high 90's, Herrera K's many and walks few but is prone to inconsistency. He underwent surgery on his left foot in August, and the timetable for his return is uncertain. For that reason, estimates of his projected contract fluctuate greatly. MBLTR has him at only 1y/$8M. He could be another one-year "pillow" candidate to re-establish value and re-enter the market. If so, and the price is right, the Cubs may be willing to gamble.
There are many other possibilities, from lesser names to former bullpen arms who are now seeking contracts as starting pitchers. Nathan Eovaldi is one who has probably earned a contract to start, and for that reason may be out of our price range, but maybe not. Bud Norris is another, but, no.
As much fun as it could be to ponder and propose specific trade proposals, I'm not foolish enough to try. But it is a very real possibility. The FO has stated they are more likely to explore trade opportunities than to shop at the high end of the FA market. One or more of our young outfielders may be traded, and if we acquire a veteran OF bat, that trade becomes a near-certainty.
If the rumored fire sale in Seattle comes to fruition, I would love to peel away Edwin Diaz. With oodles of talent and cost control, I'm sure the price to acquire him would make me throw up in my mouth a little, but a boy can dream, right?