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.