Cubs May Have Wanted Arbitration with Grimm, Who Faces Uphill Climb for Roster Spot

Out of all the Cubs’ moves this offseason, perhaps the most head-scratching involved their salary dispute with Justin Grimm. Though they had not previously gone to arbitration with any player in the Theo Epstein era, they were forced to do so in order to settle a $275,000 difference (Grimm’s camp asked for $2.475 million, the Cubs offered $2.2 million).

Though the Cubs “won” the case — is it really winning when you basically have to tell an arbitrator why your employee sucks and isn’t worth what he’s asking for? — and held Grimm to $2.2 million, it seemed strange to some that they’d quibble with the last man in an eight-man bullpen over so little money. And many thought it strange that they’d have tendered Grimm at all coming off the worst season of his career.

But as The Cub Reporter’s Arizona Phil deduced, the Cubs’ gambit may not have anything to do with Grimm’s potential salary figure. Phil points out that contract awarded in arbitration is automatically non-guaranteed during spring training. There’s a great deal more detail in the article, but the short version is this: The Cubs only have to pay Grimm $500,000 if he’s released less than 15 days before the start of the regular season and only $350,000 if he is released more than 15 days before the season.

So is it possible that, despite their previous track record of settlements, the Cubs actually wanted to go to arbitration with Grimm?

The big righty with the bigger curve really needs to turn it around this spring to save his job, which he’s seemed perilously close to losing on more than one prior occasion. Though it’s come over a very limited sample (4.0 IP), Grimm has struggled mightily thus far in Arizona, allowing four earned runs on four walks and six hits (2.50 WHIP, 9.00 ERA).

He’s allowed home runs in two of his four outings and his only scoreless appearance featured two walks. After posting a 5.36 FIP and 1.95 HR/9 in 2017, the writing on the wall is getting a little too plain to ignore.

Making matters even more, uh, grim for Grimm is the Cubs’ bullpen depth. Joe Maddon has said he prefers to open with an eight-man pen, but there are seven other well-established relievers who are locks for the roster: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Justin Wilson, and Brian Duensing. As such, the competition for that final spot is going to be really stiff.

Should the Cubs opt to move on from Grimm, the two most likely candidates to break camp with the big league team are Dillon Maples and Eddie Butler.

Maples, a Cubs Insider favorite, had a breakout year in the minors in 2017 and has electric stuff. He has struggled with his command so far this spring, issuing five walks, but has also looked dominant at times. For instance, after striking out the side against the Indians with the world’s filthiest slider/cutter, he gave up three runs against the Dodgers. The debate is whether Maples and the Cubs benefit more from getting consistent high-leverage opportunities at AAA or serving as sort of an intern in Chicago.

Eddie Butler, who made 11 starts for Chicago in 2017, appears to be the most likely candidate to take that last spot. He could provide valuable flexibility as a long man to pitch in blowouts or if a starter is injured. Perhaps more important is that Butler, like Grimm, is out of minor league options. Sending him to AAA means he would have to clear waivers, which, with a dearth of starting pitching in baseball right now, means he would likely be claimed.

Butler has had some issues with control in the past and he misses surprisingly few bats despite elite velocity, but he’s looked good this spring and the Cubs surely don’t want to lose him for nothing.

How does everything eventually shake out? Maples will likely start in AAA since he’s got options and would get more regular appearances in the minors. The Cubs can always bring him up if another reliever is injured or ineffective. That means it’s all about whether the Cubs would prefer to hang onto either Butler or Grimm.

The latter has a great deal more swing-and-miss in his game and has shown that he can be a shut-down MLB reliever, but he’s been woefully inconsistent and is far too prone to giving up home runs. While Butler isn’t flashy and has had his own struggles with consistency, he keeps the ball in the yard and gives the Cubs more flexibility.

Barring a marked change in Grimm’s performance, expect the Cubs to serve Butler with that final roster spot.

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10 Comments

  1. Can’t say that I’m all too thrilled at the prospect of Grimm or Butler in the pen. Butler is better right now, but just feels like a regression waiting to happen. While I realize that they aren’t ready, and a call up to the big league bullpen may slow their progress – but part of me would rather Alzolay and Hatch have a shot at that spot.

  2. I think we pretty knew this at the time. Really the only mystery surrounding the handling of Grimm was whether they go to arbitration or non-tender him like Rondon. And yeah I tend to agree that Butler is a lock for the final spot.

  3. I agree that, barring a surprise (like Zambrano coming out of retirement), Butler is likely the leading contender for the last bullpen spot. Does anybody have his MLB or MiLB relief stats? I know he hasn’t been good as a MLB starter, but I haven’t seen his relief stats.

    1. Very small sample sizes, but he’s actually been worse as a reliever. At the ML level, only 21.1 innings pitched with an ERA of 7.59. His numbers in the minors aren’t much better.

  4. Great article. Offered a lot of insight on arrbitration that I wasn’t aware of. Looks like Grimm didn’t think this one through, particularly knowing he could be cut over a couple hundred thousand dollars & considering the awful season he had last year. That’s the problem with finesse “touch” pitches….when they are not dropping right, u r really screwed.

    1. I doubt it was Grimm’s decision. I’d bet my right arm that during salary negotiations the Cubs made it clear that they had no intention of settling on a contract. This is somewhat supported by the laughably small amount of the money that separated the two arbitration figures. I wouldn’t doubt that they gave Grimm a choice: be non-tendered and enter free agency, like Rondon, or go to arbitration and try to make the team in Spring Training. Given that we’re down to, what, 19 days before opening day, we might see Grimm DFAed this week. Assuming nobody picks him up, he could accept a minor league deal with the Cubs, if I understand the process correctly.

      1. I think it a win win, a mutual decision. The CR link lays it out pretty well:
        If Grimm is outrighted to the minors prior to becoming an Article XIX-A player (that is, prior to reaching 5+000 MLB Service Time on April 16th) he does not have to give his consent before he can be sent to the minors, and although he would have the right to elect free-agency instead of accepting the outright assignment, he gets no termination pay if he elects free-agency, meaning the Cubs would owe him nothing (which actually is even better financially than releasing him prior to MLB Opening Day!). The Cubs would also owe him nothing if he is claimed off waivers (and if that’s the case, they would receive the $50,000 waiver price as well).

        If he is not claimed off waivers and is outrighted to the minors, Grimm would have the right to elect free-agency immediately or defer free-agency until after the conclusion of the MLB regular season (presuming he isn’t added back to an MLB 40-man roster in the meantime), but he would be able to deduce from not being claimed off waivers that none of the other 29 MLB clubs wanted him on their MLB 25-man roster (at least not if he’s making $2.2M), so it would be unlikely that he would get a better contract from another club if he were to elect to be a free-agent immediately. And so it is very possible that if he is not claimed off waivers, that Grimm would actually accept the outright assigment to the minors (deferring free-agency until after the conclusion of the MLB regular season), and the Cubs could keep him in their bullpen “inventory” at Iowa until there is an actual need for him in Chicago – AND – not risk losing Eddie Butler off waivers (if that becomes a concern). Of course Grimm would be making $2.2M to pitch in AAA, but the Cubs might consider that to be a reasonable price to pay to have an MLB-ready insurance policy on the back-burner at Iowa available to be called-up at a moment’s notice.

  5. This is an interesting byproduct of the arbitration process I wasn’t aware of.

    Makes sense that they would finally take a case to arbitration to take advantage of a loophole.

    I’d imagine they talked to him beforehand, ‘Hey Justin. Instead of outright cutting you we’re gonna take you to arbitration and give you the opportunity to earn your full salary. Otherwise you’ll get a severance pkg.’

    I doubt this was a surprise to him

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