Ian Happ being called up came as a surprise to pretty much everyone, even those who’d been clamoring for it, because the timing was unexpected. With the deadline less than a week away and Happ’s name being bandied about in trade rumors, the expectation was that the Cubs would leave him in Iowa until he was either moved or the calendar turned to August.
And while it’s still possible this is a roll of the dice to prove to potential suitors that Happ can indeed hit major league pitching again, that doesn’t seem like the type of gambit Theo Epstein is wont to make. Rather, it seems as though the Cubs have decided to move in a different direction. Perhaps other teams’ asking prices were too high and it just made more sense to recall Happ and turn their focus elsewhere.
There’s also the possibility that the cost to acquire someone like Nick Castellanos or Eric Sogard didn’t include Happ in the first place. And I suppose this could be a power move to show teams that the Cubs aren’t desperate for bats and won’t overpay, though that could fall apart quickly given the brief period between now and the deadline.
Whatever ulterior motives may or may not be factors here, the real driving force behind the Cubs’ direction over the next few days could be determined by their bullpen. Kyle Ryan is really the only lefty there since Mike Montgomery was traded, assuming Tim Collins is not long for the big club, and Pedro Strop has been shaky in terms of both health and performance.
Finding ways to strengthen the relief corps with a high-leverage pitcher is likely to be a priority, regardless of which hand he throws with. Rather than focus on handedness, the concern needs to be whether said pitcher can get batters out. As simple as that sounds, we saw how Montgomery was misused by being called upon to retire left-handed hitters who absolutely wore him out.
So where do they turn? The Tigers’ Shane Greene has been mentioned, possibly as part of a package with Castellanos, but his price tag may be too high because he’s got another year of control and is putting up career-best numbers. It’s perhaps too simplistic to say the Cubs are still gun-shy from the Justin Wilson deal in particular, but they might be leery of going big on another reliever with a similar profile when their track record of onboarding pitchers isn’t great.
One target that came up really early in the process is righty Ken Giles, about whom the Cubs inquired back in mid-May. The 28-year-old Blue Jays closer is still under control for one more arbitration year and is likewise posting some crazy numbers, but it’s his reverse splits that likely interest the Cubs. Always better against lefties, Giles has held them to a .507 OPS and .219 wOBA this season.
Royals lefty Jake Diekman is another possibility being floated, largely because of the two descriptors I just listed in front of his name. The Cubs and Royals have worked well together, including the aforementioned Monty trade and the deal that sent Jorge Soler to KC for Wade Davis. Diekman pitches to even splits and his career 4.89 BB/9 is ugly, but maybe he comes cheap as a rental piece.
So that gives us the Tigers, Blue Jays, and Royals, all of whom The Athletic reported have been scouting Double-A Tennessee lately ($). The Royals have also been scouting Triple-A Iowa (per The Athletic) and low-A South Bend (per Cubs Insider), for what it’s worth. CI can confirm that the Rangers have had a presence at South Bend games as well and could be in the mix to sell off as they fall out of competition for the Wild Card.
Should they indeed choose to deal, one very intriguing option — other than Hunter Pence, who is the most intriguing — is 33-year-old righty Chris Martin. He’s cheap (prorated $2M for 2019), he’s a free agent next season, he doesn’t walk anyone (0.74 BB/9), and he’s a reverse-split guy. To be honest, this feels like close to a perfect fit for what the Cubs want in their ‘pen and what they want to spend.
Their excellent working relationship with the Rangers could factor here as well, since they’re very familiar with each other and may have a little quid pro quo thing happening. The Cubs could have declined Cole Hamels’ option and forced the Rangers to foot the cost for the lefty’s buyout. Instead, the Cubs put themselves in a budgetary bind by picking up the $20 million for this season.
That ended up being a worthwhile investment, but it may also have been important in terms of future dealings. Now, the Rangers aren’t just going to gift the Cubs a coveted reliever because they’re BFFs or whatever, but it’s never a bad thing to maintain a level of trust and maybe even to have folks owning you favors.
We’ll jump away from the more obvious teams for a moment to mention Andrew Chafin, the 29-year-old Diamondbacks lefty who could be on the block if they decide to sell. Arizona is currently tied with the Giants at only 3.5 games out of the Wild Card, so their status is a little up in the air.
Chafin’s numbers aren’t fantastic and his splits show him to be worse against lefties than most of the pitchers mentioned above, plus he’s got another year of control. He doesn’t seem like a great fit for the Cubs, especially with all the moving parts, so this isn’t one I’m big on.
If we could circle back really quickly before closing out, we should note that the Giants suddenly being competitive again is having a significant impact on the relief market. Not only does it remove sought-after lefties Will Smith and Tony Watson, both of whom had been linked to the Cubs, but San Francisco could be a buyer at the deadline. That’s going to inflate values for Chafin and others of his ilk.
There are a great deal of other options available and relievers are going to be a hot commodity, though perhaps not as hot as Steve Phillips believes (he put the over/under at 30), so it’s entirely possible the Cubs end up with one or two different pitchers. And given what we’ve seen from them recently, it does appear as though they’re more focused on arms than bats.
Or maybe that’s just what the front office wants us to believe.