The Cubs’ search for bullpen help was thrown into stark relief last week when it was revealed that erstwhile closer Brandon Morrow had undergone an arthroscopic cleanup on his right elbow and wouldn’t be ready for the start of the season. But that wasn’t anything new for the brass, who’d known about the early November procedure for more than a month. And when you figure they were already looking to reinforce Morrow and the back of the ‘pen regardless, their plans haven’t changed much internally.
And that means finding relatively cheap alternatives to fill key roles without adding much to the payroll, something the Cubs have been very vocal about — almost too much so — to this point in the offseason. As our Tom Loxas wrote in late November, a play for someone like Zach Britton isn’t likely to happen without a corresponding move to shed salary.
We’ll get back to Britton in a bit, which we kind of have to since he’s the titular protagonist of the story, but for now I want to address the spending stuff as it regards Bryce Harper. Despite multiple reports and public statements to the contrary, I’m told they are going to pursue the big-ticket outfielder in earnest this winter.
Exactly what that means we don’t really know yet, due in large part to Scott Boras’s secretive proceedings. What has become quite clear, however, is that money is not the only thing in play here. The assumption all along has been that the team with the biggest offer will sign Harper, and that may end up being the case, but his courtship and decision will be made with the overall comfort of his family in mind.
One area in which the Cubs have distinguished themselves is as a recruiting juggernaut that has drawn comparisons to the University of Alabama (subscription). And while it’s not hard to find fans who wish the Cubs hadn’t done as good a job when it came to luring Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish, it was tailored pitches that focused on much more than baseball that brought them to Chicago. Now, if only those two starters had better tailored their pitches…
In any case, there’s a wide gulf between the value in signing Harper and bringing in a high-profile reliever. So even though Epstein said no individual hitter can transform the entire lineup, it’s easy to see how someone of Harper’s caliber could impact the offense to a much greater degree than Britton or Andrew Miller could help the pitching staff.
And now we’re back around to Britton, who the New York Post‘s George A. King III says is “close to a lock to leaving [the Yankees] for a team he can close for.” The Cubs have been connected to Britton for quite some time, having targeted him at each of the last two trade deadlines, and they’ve got a clear need at the back of the ‘pen. But if he’s looking to be paid as a closer heading into his age-31 season, that could mean getting at least the $33 million over three years MLB Trade Rumors predicted at the start of free agency.
If the return was 2016 Zach Britton, it’d be a steal. But after forearm and Achilles injuries limited him to 78 innings in 79 appearances over the last two seasons, the risk might not be worth it for a team that is already dealing with an injury-prone closer. And while Britton’s grounder-heavy game (65.4% career, 77.8% in 25 IP with Yankees) is a big plus, his 1.62 K/BB ratio is mediocre at best. Neither his 7.27 K/9 nor his 4.50 BB/9 marks over the last two seasons are desirable from a high-leverage guy, though he does at least keep the ball in the yard.
Bottom line: If the Cubs were interested in Britton, it would make more sense as a setup man for a healthy Morrow. Between durability questions and the disparate trends of missing the zone without missing bats, the lefty is probably too big a gamble if he’s looking for closer money.
Which is where we loop the Harper stuff back in. This isn’t a situation in which the Cubs have earmarked a ton of extra money that will go elsewhere if Harper isn’t signed. It appears as though their big pursuit will be rooted in their holistic recruiting approach and that it may be for less money that everyone seems to thing he’ll demand. But if they’re blown out of the water or just don’t prove to be the best fit, they’ll dial things back and focus on next winter (Nolan Arenado, anyone?).
As we’ve been saying the whole time, though, the situation is fluid and the Winter Meetings could have the winds of change blowing all over the place.