“[I]t will be important for us to bring in some reliable strike-throwers going forward out of the pen,” Theo Epstein said shortly after the Cubs had been eliminated by the Dodgers in last year’s NLCS.
While their aggregate 4.34 BB/9 mark is still the worst in baseball, we’re starting to see signs that the Cubs are coming around. The numbers are inflated by some early struggles but more recent improvements have them creeping in the right direction. Justin Wilson, who was at a 6.23 BB/9 heading into Thursday’s walk-less third of an inning, has pitched to a very acceptable 3.24 BB/9 mark over his last 11 innings.
Anthony Bass has walked only one man in 14.1 innings, so he’s bringing the average down. Carl Edwards Jr.’s 4.03 BB/9 is nearly half a walk below his career average and is heading even lower as he’s walked only two men in his last nine innings (only one in 4.0 IP since returning from DL).
Their addition of 34-year-old righty Jesse Chavez further reinforces the strike-throwing strategy and gives them the consistent long man they’ve lacked since Mike Montgomery shifted back to the rotation. Chavez’s 1.92 BB/9 mark over 56.1 innings is the best of his career, but even his overall 2.95 mark is quite solid.
After spending most of his career in the rotation, Chavez still has a starter’s repertoire as well. Highlighted by a sinker/change combo that he’s throwing better than ever, he can unleash any of six different offerings on the mound. That’s part of why he has gone at least two innings in half of 30 appearances this year, something the Cubs may well need from him this weekend.
Stack that all up against his paltry $1 million salary, which the Cubs are only paying about 40 percent of, and you can see that Chavez is definitely a good get for the ‘pen. But he’s not really a dude, if you know what I’m saying. Like, Joe Maddon’s not calling for Chavez in a tight situation where you need two or three outs to seal the game.
And that’s why the Cubs are probably not done making deals to button down the back end. Even if Brandon Morrow’s latest malady results in as minimal a DL stay as he and Maddon seem to believe if will, recent history tells us they’d do well to create a little more redundancy.
Between Morrow’s tenuous health, the unproven consistency of Wilson and Edwards, and the fact that Scuba Steve Cishek is on pace to obliterate his career-high mark of 69 appearances, the late innings could use some help. Zach Britton is the name that keeps coming up and the Cubs have certainly been engaged in talks with the Orioles about him.
But competition for the oft-injured closer, not to mention some other mitigating factors, could push the Cubs out. If Morrow’s biceps inflammation isn’t as innocuous as he and the team are letting on, they lose a lot of leverage because they’re dealing more from desperation. And as Peter Gammons said on Mully and Hanley Friday Morning, Baltimore’s GM still hasn’t completely gotten over Theo Epstein replacing him in Boston.
Gammons also mentioned concerns with Britton related to his health, and not just when it comes to him staying on the field. Velocity and control can often drop off pre- and post-injury, though we’re seeing that Britton’s throwing his sinker as hard as ever. His walk numbers look ugly (5.52 BB/9), but most of that comes from three free passes in his first game back from a ruptured Achilles.
In 13.2 inning since, Britton has walked eight, good for a 3.95 BB/9 that isn’t too far from his career average (3.37). A deeper dive, however, reveals some troubling peripheral numbers. Britton’s 46.7 first-strike percentage is by far the lowest of his career and his overall zone percentage of 37 is lower than ever, though by a smaller margin. He’s also generating fewer swings than he has since 2013, which isn’t a great sign.
Add that all up and you could have a guy who’s ready to fall off the regression cliff like Wile E. Coyote. On the other hand, we could temper those numbers somewhat with the knowledge that they come from fewer than 15 innings of work and are subject to change drastically for the better with two more solid outings.
Even if the Cubs don’t pursue or land Britton for whatever reason, it seems next to inevitable that they’ll bring in another high-leverage reliever. Raisel Iglesias and Felipe Vazquez probably aren’t being traded within the division, so that means looking to the next tier of Shane Greene and Kyle Barraclough (mmmm, donuts). There are others out there as well, but those two names have come up on the periphery of the Cubs rumors.
We’ll find out soon enough whether and how the Cubs seek to address any bullpen wants. Duquette has said that he would like to move quickly on Britton, which, with Brad Hand already off the market, could set in motion a run on relievers.
If you’re GM for the day, which of these guys are you going after? Is there another you’d target? Or are the Cubs solid enough to stand pat?