Just last week the Chicago Cubs were celebrating a World Series title. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of saying that: The Cubs won the World Series. Baseball, however, doesn’t pause for reflection and the offseason is here with all the attendant moves to be made. As they begin the defense of their championship, one of the biggest concerns facing the Northsiders is the closer position.
Aroldis Chapman was acquired last July from the Yankees to make a push for that title. The Cuban lefty was used and abused through the playoff run as the Cubs achieved their championship goal. It would be an understatement to say that it’s unlikely they’re going to keep the free agent Chapman, what with his overuse down the stretch and his reported $100 million asking price. Knowing he was a rental, it makes sense that the Cubs would squeeze the most out of those three months and then let him go on his merry way.
So what will the champs do at the closer position in 2017?
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is also a free agent and is the 1b among the marquee closing options available for teams willing to pay the price. The Curaçao native posted a 1.83 ERA with an even lower FIP of 1.44 in 71 appearances in 2016. He also displayed excellent control with only 11 walks and 104 strikeouts. Jansen is a solid 6’5’’ 270 pounds and can pitch multiple innings if needed, something the Cubs front office values.
A cheaper free-agent option is former Pirates closer Mark Melancon, who was traded to the Nationals for the stretch run in 2016. The Arizona Wildcat had a better ERA 1.64 but significantly higher FIP 2.42 than Jansen, which essentially means the latter is a better pitcher if we exclude the defense behind. Melancon strikes out fewer batters and relies more on his fielders to get him outs. The Cubs have an excellent defense, so a pitch-to-contact closer may be more effective in Chicago. Melancon, who turns 32 in March, is roughly three years older than Chapman and Jansen, which lowers his price tag.
The trade market for closers is thin, but one intriguing name is Wade Davis. The Royals closer had an injury-plagued 2016, but his 2015 season was among the best in history: 0.94 ERA and 2.29 FIP after a 1.00 ERA and 1.19 FIP the previous season. Davis has a one-year team option for $10 million left on his contract, which the Royals will surely exercise. Given that they’re already receiving offers on the reliever, the Royals should be in the power position when it comes to negotiations. The question is what would KC ask for in a trade with the Cubs; if they demand Kyle Schwarber or Javy Baez, the chance is zero.
So those options are cool and all, but the Cubs front office has been hesitant in the past to pay a high price for help in the bullpen and they’ve reiterated that stance in no uncertain terms lately. So what internal options do the Cubs have if they don’t look to the free agent or trade market for a closer? Hector Rondon handled the 9th inning duties before Chapman arrived. In that time, Rondon had a 1.72 ERA and 14 saves before suffering a triceps injury and landing on the disabled list. Clearly he was never right after his return, posting an ugly 6.41 second-half ERA over 19 innings.
Renowned goat eater Pedro Strop had his typical solid, if at times bumpy, year out of the pen in Chicago. He posted a 2.85 ERA and 2.91 FIP in a setup man role for Cubs, but tore his meniscus in August and only pitched 9.1 innings all of September and the playoffs. Young Carl Edwards Jr. was forced into some higher-leverage situations and took on a bigger role as his rookie year wore on. That being said, neither seems a likely candidate to make the leap to closer next season.
I’ve thrown a lot of information at you in this article, but now comes the big question: What will the Cubs do about the closing situation in 2017? If I was making the call (my phone is on, Tom Ricketts), I would sign Jansen. He is young, durable, and has the stuff to be the best closer in baseball for years to come. He also doesn’t have the off-field baggage that Aroldis Chapman carries with him. However, I don’t think the Chicago front office agrees with me.
The bidding for Jansen and Chapman will be too much for Epstein and crew. They don’t believe in tying down that many resources in a closer, as even the most relief arms can have short shelf lives and are a risk in a long-term deal. On the other hand, I don’t think the Cubs believe that Rondon or other in-house options can carry the pen alone.
Because the Royals likely will ask too high a price for Wade Davis in a trade, I believe the next Cubs closer will be Mark Melancon. Like Jansen, Melancon has carried a heavy innings load the last few seasons. The Cubs’ excellent defense will help the more contact-oriented hurler to maintain his strong results. Being older, he will come at a lower price and on a shorter deal than the other closers named above. Given all the variables and what I think this front office values, I expect to see Mark Melancon on the mound in Wrigley in 2017.