Signing Craig Kimbrel solidified the back of the Cubs bullpen, but it was by no means a singular fix. If anything, being able to land Kimbrel on a three-year deal for just money actually increased the team’s desire to further improve the relief corps. With their closer locked in for the remainder of this season and the next two, it’s now possible to address more situational needs.
Chief among those if the lack of a real shut-down lefty, no disrespect to Kyle Ryan and Mike Montgomery. Both southpaws are viable options for Joe Maddon, though neither sets up as a reliable high-leverage option on par with Pedro Strop when it comes to holding down the back end of the ‘pen.
Enter the San Francisco Giants, who boast a pair of strong lefty relievers and a likely desire to deal sooner rather than later. Behind new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, it’s been expected that the Giants would be looking to jump out ahead of a market that has been compressed with the elimination of waiver trades. At 12 games under .500 and 18 games out of the division lead, the time to trade is drawing nigh.
That means moving Will Smith and/or Tony Watson, both of whom have pitched quite well this season and are mentioned in a recent post by 670 The Score’s Bruce Levine. Smith is the clear top choice, converting all 14 of his save chances this season while posting a 2.19 ERA and striking out 35 men against just five walks. Oh, and his 1.97 FIP tells us that low ERA isn’t a mirage.
Watson isn’t nearly as prolific on the strikeout front, but he’s K’d seven times as many men as he’s walked (21:3) and his 2-0 record and 2.55 ERA over 27 appearances say he’s not giving games away. A 3.51 FIP says he’s benefiting from a little good fortune, however, and his hard-hit rate is elevated a bit from previous seasons.
Another consideration is age and control: Watson just turned 34 at the end of May and has a $2.5 million player option for next season ($500K buyout), Smith will be 30 in a month and is a free agent at the end of the season. Neither player will be owed more than $2.5 million or so from the time of their potential acquisition, so payroll isn’t a big concern.
Ah, but therein lies the real trick. High-leverage lefties are always in demand and not having to pay much for their services means parting with prospects. So what would it take for the Cubs to land someone like Smith? This example below is too steep, but perhaps not terribly far from the general idea.
Cubs get: LHP Will Smith
Giants get: INF/OF Ian Happ, RHP Adbert Alzolay
— Brooks Knudsen (@BrooksKnudsen) June 9, 2019
As I had noted on Twitter when this proposal was making the rounds, the Cubs would be silly to part with top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay just as he’s coming into his own at Triple-A. Ian Happ, on the other hand, might be part of a deal. Given the regression of his development this season, Happ could represent the kind of buy-low change-of-scenery player a rebuilding team covets.
Then again, another team might see a player who’s not been able to develop and doesn’t have a true position in the bigs. Either way, I’ve delved further into trade speculation than I’d like and I want to come back to the idea that the Cubs are certain to at least kick the tires on the aforementioned pair another others.
Brad Hand, acquired by the Indians in a trade with the Padres last year, is another possibility. His 19 saves, sterling 0.98 ERA, and 5.71 K/BB, all while allowing only one homer in 27.2 innings, makes him a desirable target. He’ll be a little more costly than the other two because he won’t turn 30 until March and is under club control through next season with an option for 2021.
There are others out there as well, some of whom you can speculate on below if you like. This was going to be a direction the Cubs headed regardless of what happened with Kimbrel, but having him there has whetted their appetite for a really elite ‘pen. There’s also the matter of following through on the oft-repeated goal to have strike-throwers in the bullpen, something that simply hasn’t happened.
Did you notice how all three of the pitchers discussed here have very low walk rates? Two of them also have double-digit K/9 marks, which would strengthen another of the Cubs’ weaknesses. If Theo Epstein can add a lefty who misses bats without also missing the zone, and can do so without having to give up top pitching prospect(s), you know he’s going to do it.
The only question is, how soon before the deadline do they make something happen?