Because Justin Grimm’s release had been a very real possibility since at least last August, there has been rampant speculation as to who would take his place on the roster. Now that we’re actually living in a reality in which Grimm’s inconsistency finally proved to be too much for the Cubs, they’ve got less than two weeks to name a replacement.
While there has certainly been no consensus, most of the smart money seems to be on Eddie Butler, who has starter’s credentials and is out of minor league options. That latter point could be viewed as something of a detriment, but it also makes Butler a use-him-or-lose him candidate who could earn a roster spot rather than be released like Grimm.
I don’t want to make it sound as though Butler has no value on his own merits, though said value lies more in what he could be than what he has been. He’s got a fastball that touched 97 in his first Cubs appearance and he did a great job of keeping the ball in the yard with only 0.66 HR/9 over 54.2 innings last year. But as we’ve mentioned time and time again, the dude has a total inability to miss bats.
Despite what appears on the surface to be good stuff, the 27-year-old righty averaged only 4.94 K/9 on a mere 7.1 percent swinging-strike rate. If that doesn’t mean anything to you absent context, understand that the MLB averages in those categories were 8.34 and 10.5 percent, respectively. And they were 8.97 and 11.6 percent for relievers, which is obviously where Butler would be slotting.
Far from an aberration, Butler’s performance last season was right in line with his career marks, which suggests we shouldn’t expect him to suddenly bust out. Not that it’s necessary for him to be a big strikeout guy, as there’s real value in coming in and getting outs, not to mention simply keeping the ball inside the fence. And in light of the Cubs’ wealth of high-leverage whiff artists, Butler could provide a nice balance.
Other possibilities for that last spot include Alec Mills, Jen Ho Tseng, Adbert Alzolay, Luke Farrell, and Dillon Maples, though the Cubs don’t seem likely at this point to roster any of them to open the season. The former quartet will likely serve as emergency rotation depth for now, while the latter still needs more time to iron out control issues by getting more regular appearances.
So who’s left?
As Sahadev Sharma wrote for The Athletic, 30-year-old righty Anthony Bass has emerged as a sleeper candidate (you’ll need a subscription, so click here for that). Pardon the record scratch, I’m just a little — okay, a lot — surprised to see Bass named as a legit option. It seemed like a total flyer when the Cubs picked him up this winter, and little about his past performance points toward future success.
Here’s what I wrote about Bass back in December, some of which appears to maybe have faint echoes in Sharma’s reporting (not that he saw what I wrote, just that the concepts are similar).
Bass has a career 4.60 ERA and 4.28 FIP and a 1.76 K/BB ratio that’s anything but notable. His fastball can touch mid-90’s but sits around 92, and he’s got a decent slider that he’ll employ from time to time. He’s not a bad pitcher, per se, there’s just nothing I can find that earmarks him for some sort of leap forward.
On the other hand, Bass does seem like a really good dude whose public persona — and, I can only assume, his private one as well — is incredibly positive. Not that that alone will win ballgames or earn you a roster spot, but it’s nice to have players of that ilk in the organization.
Sharma reports that the Cubs have made adjustments with Bass on where and how he attacks hitters, getting him to work more up in the zone with the fastball and to lean more heavily on the slider. They also like the experience he brings to the table, particularly how he’s responded to various setbacks throughout his career.
You should really check out the full article, which is chock full o’ good stuff from Bass, but here’s a very small snippet:
When he’s gotten innings in the big leagues, Bass has used his slider about 30-35 percent of the time. If he’s given the chance in the regular season, it’ll be interesting to see just how much Bass uses the pitch in 2018 and in what situations he decides to unleash it. Bass has struck out five, walked none and allowed no runs in his four innings of Cactus League work this spring. The Cubs believe if he leans more on his slider, he’ll miss more bats and significantly increase his career 15.4 percent strikeout rate. The same scouting department that found a diamond in the rough with Brian Duensing last season is hoping to do the same this season.
Along with changing how he attacks hitters, Bass also said he learned a lot and grew mentally during his time in Japan in 2016. Bass didn’t get much of an opportunity to show that last season with the Texas Rangers, as they used him for just 5 2/3 innings of mostly mop-up duty. However, he believes his time overseas was an invaluable experience that will make him a better pitcher in the long run.
While in Texas in 2015, Bass started experimenting with a splitter. He really learned how to use the pitch while in Japan.
Theo Epstein spoke recently about what the Cubs look for when scouting players, and I believe it applies as much to veteran journeymen as to amateur prospects.
“I think responding to adversity is key,” Epstein explained to Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies during a Cubs broadcast. “This is a game where there’s just so much failure and a lot of players will fail for the first time in pro ball, certainly at the big league level.
“[We look at] how they handle failure and adversity and whether they can make the requisite adjustments. Having enough of a foundation, a strong mental foundation, to make adjustments and come back better is really important.”
So with the Cubs almost at their limit, will they decide to reel Bass in and give him a shot when they break camp for Miami? I never would have guessed that even a week ago, but now it’s starting to make sense.