Our initial focus in terms of the Cubs bullpen was on possible left-handed free-agent relievers, but that doesn’t mean their righties are rock solid. In fact, there are at least as many question marks with that group, and that’s before we account for the inevitable fluctuation in reliever performance.
Closer Brandon Morrow battled injuries and missed the second half of the season and it’s hard to rely on him in 2019. Pedro Strop has been incredible as a Cub, but he missed most of September with injury and is entering his age-34 season. Steve Cishek was good before tiring out from overuse down the stretch. Carl Edwards Jr. had the same control problems that cropped up in 2017.
Jesse Chavez was outstanding after joining the Cubs at the trade deadline and had claimed that he’d either be back with the Cubs or retired. Alas, management appeared unwilling to guarantee the 35-year-old Chavez a multi-year deal and he went back to Texas in free agency. Brandon Kintzler exercised his $5 million option and may have to spend some of that money buying meals for the Iowa Cubs.
Minor league options like Dillon Maples and James Norwood failed to really take off in their big league appearances. Eddie Butler, Anthony Bass, and Luke Farrell didn’t do much before moving on. While Justin Hancock and Alec Mills showed some potential, you can hardly pin big hopes on them.
So if Chicago looks to the free-agent market, who might they target? As a backdrop, the team’s reported financial concerns and Theo Epstein’s general reluctance to spend big on relievers seemingly eliminates high-priced options. So I won’t really cover Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, Jeurys Famila, or Adam Ottavino. All three are projected by MLB Trade Rumors to get multi-year deals north of $10 million per season.
Cody Allen was excellent as Cleveland’s closer the past few seasons. His ERA was under 3.00 from 2014-17 and his career 11.5 K/9 is impressive, not to mention a 3.26 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Then the bottom fell out in 2018, as the 30-year-old’s walks increased and strikeouts decreased. His ERA ballooned to 4.70 and he lost the closer job. The Cubs could hope that downturn was a fluke and sign him to one-year prove-it contract to regain value.
Few pitchers were more dominant than Kelvin Herrera was during the Royals’ World Series runs. The fireballing reliever made two All-Star appearances and had a sub-3.00 ERA from 2014-16. Arm injuries in 2017 and ’18 limited his inning totals and he struggled to a 4.34 ERA in 15 innings after being traded to the Nationals last season. Herrera will turn 29 soon and is projected to earn a one-year $8 million deal, which would fit the Cubs’ desire for a short-term deal even if it’s a little saltier than they’d like.
Two other veteran options that could be had for a lower cost are Greg Holland and Joakim Soria. Holland (no relation) was an All-Star for Colorado in 2017 before posting a disastrous 7.92 ERA in St. Louis in 2018, but then he bounced back with a 0.84 ERA in Washington after his release by the Cardinals. Soria posted a 3.02 ERA between the Brewers and White Sox last season. Their ages, 33 (Holland) and 34 (Soria), mean they might be willing to take one-year deals.
Joe Kelly is capable of hitting triple digits on his heater, but has been wildly inconsistent. A good year with the Red Sox in 2017 was followed by a bad one last season. Adam Warren, who came to Chicago in the Starlin Castro trade and went back to New York in the Aroldis Chapman trade, is a familiar face. Warren had good numbers in low-leverage situations for the Yankees and Mariners last year and probably won’t come at a high price.
With the financial restrictions they appear to be under, don’t expect a big splash from the Cubs. They will likely sign a reliever or two to short deals in the hopes of extracting value without locking themselves into something down the road.