Theo Epstein said recently that the Cubs’ trade priority is adding a lefty reliever or a righty who can stifle left-handed hitters, but he went on to lament the restrictions imposed by the organization’s unfavorable financial situation. That would mean “having to potentially cut in other areas that also hit very close to home and are painful” in order to bolster the roster.
The added complications of COVID-19 safety protocols and expanded playoffs create a very different environment for Epstein and the front office to navigate. Not only must they remain conscious of the budget, which is very real whether or not you like and agree with it, but they need to trust that a player they acquire has followed protocols and will follow those in place with the Cubs. What’s more, the lists of sellers and buyers might be dramatically different than initially expected.
Specifically, there should be more teams looking to add than subtract, which could skew the cost for coveted players at the deadline. All things considered, the Cubs might try to avoid the top of the market altogether as they look for a player to serve a very specific need at a very low cost in terms of both salary and trade return.
“There are a lot of years when we know we have an impactful move or two in us. It’s just a matter of finding it and executing on it,” Epstein said prior to the weekend series with the Sox. “This year, the moves might be more complimentary and there might be more internal solutions.”
While there could be some serious deep-cut names in their conversations, the Cubs are almost certainly going to be looking for proven players with little to no financial obligations beyond this season in order to limit their total payroll exposure. It’s also possible that they end up being priced out for one reason or another, which could turn their focus inward.
With that in mind, here are seven relievers the Cubs could target to help them through the shortened season’s final month and the playoffs.
The 35-year-old lefty has been one of the top names on this list for the last two or three years, and for good reason. His $3 million contract expires after this season, so he could fit from a budget standpoint. He’s also putting up some of the best numbers of his career, generating more grounders than ever en route to a 0.98 ERA through 11 appearances.
As good as he’s been against left-handed hitters this season and over the previous decade, Watson has actually been better against righties. That’s huge in the new age of three-batter minimums, as is his excellent control. He’s issued just one walk in 9.2 innings and has a career 6.5% walk rate that fits with the Cubs’ oft-stated desire to add strike-throwers.
There are, however, some major hurdles when it comes to acquiring Watson. Chief among those is that the Giants might not be looking to move him at all if they think they can compete ($) in a wide-open NL, though they might just be playing coy to drive up their asking prices. That’s the bigger issue with Watson, who’s sure to be coveted by other teams and could cost more in player capital than the Cubs are willing to spend.
A former Cardinal who’s rebounded nicely on the other side of Missouri, Rosenthal is very familiar to the Cubs from his days with the Cardinals. Believe it or not, he’s still just 30 years old and still has plenty of gas in the tank with a fastball that has touched triple digits this season. What’s more, the righty has absolutely destroyed left-handed hitters this year, holding 24 of them to a .189 wOBA with no extra base hits.
Though not quite as stark over his previous few seasons, Rosenthal has always been tougher on lefties than righties. His cutter has him looking like a dominant reliever again and his $1.75 million contract expires at the end of the season. The competition for his services could be fierce with the hapless Royals almost guaranteed to move anything that’s not nailed down, but the Cubs might be able to leverage what has been a very good working relationship with KC.
Here’s another guy who’s been on the Cubs’ radar for quite a while and probably would have been moved last year had he not battled chronic elbow soreness throughout the summer. Despite the issues, the 29-year-old saved 23 games in 53 appearances for the Blue Jays while recording a career-high 14.09 K/9. Reports of solid progress from a forearm strain that landed him on the 10-day IL after just two appearances are promising, but the risk factor here is obviously very high.
That could also mean the cost is very low, maybe next to nothing, for a guy who’s on a $9.6 million expiring deal. The Jays are in the hunt for a playoff spot with a .500 record, so they could just view Giles as a sunk cost with potential to help down the stretch. If they hit a cold run soon, that calculus could change in a hurry.
The right-handed Giles has consistently performed better against lefties and has a ton of high-leverage experience, so he’s exactly the kind of guy the Cubs are looking for. Except for the injury thing, that is.
A converted starter, Norris has been working out of the bullpen after starting in his first appearance this season. The southpaw has yet to allow a hit to a left-handed batter in five outings, though we’re only talking about six batters at this point. That could change dramatically in short order, particularly when his career numbers are actually slightly worse against lefties, but it’s also possible that a repertoire shift will yield better results.
Norris is throwing a little harder out of the ‘pen, which is to be expected, and he’s offsetting his 93 mph fastball with a firmer changeup that he’s throwing with much greater frequency. That’s resulted in an increase in grounders and decrease in hard contact, with fewer walks to boot.
This one could get tricky when it comes to cost, since the 27-year-old still has one more year of arbitration eligibility before hitting free agency. His deal for this season is less than $3 million, though, so the Cubs could see Norris as bullpen help for this season and a cheap insurance policy against likely rotation losses this winter. If the Tigers don’t think they can compete next season, Norris could be moved.
Nah, just kidding.
It should be noted, however, that Holland is limiting lefties to a .151 wOBA this season in his return to the rotation. Why he’s starting ballgames is a mystery because he’s got a 6.17 ERA and still has a very difficult time retiring righties. When they Cubs acquired Holland last season, they did so with the express purpose of using him as a LOOGY. That inexplicably ended up not being the case at all as 43 of the 68 batters he faced in a Cubs uniform were righties.
There was also that mind-numbingly bad decision to have him face the switch-hitting Matt Wieters because the catcher didn’t hit as well from the right side. The subsequent home run said more about Holland’s inability to retire righties consistently.
Holland had an 8.10 ERA with two homers and a .369 wOBA allowed to right-handed hitters, holding lefties to a .313 wOBA with that mammoth homer by Bryce Harper. As bad as he was, his misuse made him seem much worse. So while I still can’t imagine a scenario in which the Cubs actually go back to this well, they’ve got ties to Pittsburgh GM Ben Cherington and could find a way to go Dutch on the remainder of a $1.25 million deal if literally all else fails.
As out of character as it would be for the Cubs to put faith in a pitching prospect to develop at the MLB level, particularly one with zero professional experience, Carraway is a lefty with what the club’s development staff believes could be once-in-a-decade stuff. They’d probably need to see more consistent performance from the rest of the bullpen, though the continued success of the three-headed monster at the back end could mean using Carraway in lower-leverage situations for a while.
The only cost in this case would be a 40-man spot and an early start on his arbitration clock, neither of which should be real issues. As much as people fret about the latter, it really shouldn’t factor as heavily when you’re talking about pitchers. Carraway throws in the upper 90’s and has a wicked hammer, so it’s possible he could be MLB-ready this fall.
This is an extreme longshot and would again only be viable if nothing else materializes and if the Cubs are convinced the big southpaw has the maturity to handle the jump. He hasn’t pitched above high-A ball, but throwing 100+ mph with nasty breaking stuff can get outs anywhere. Marquez held lefties to a .106 average with a 0.92 WHIP last season as he really started to embrace the idea of pitching rather than just throwing.
He’s still just 21 years old and isn’t close to a finished product so the Cubs would have to be pretty desperate in order to make this move. At the same time, there are some cases in which being faced with a huge challenge brings out the best in someone. I think it’d be a big mistake to call Marquez up this season, but I don’t know him as well as the Cubs do and it’s not my decision to make one way or the other.
There are dozens more possibilities out there when it comes to additions from both outside and within the organization and I’d love to hear your suggestions below. Who do you think the Cubs should add and why? The best response will receive a virtual pat on the back and, well, that’s actually all you’ll get.