In a somewhat surprising move, the Cubs released 30-year-old righty Colin Rea, who was set to make just $702,500 this season under the terms of a pre-tender deal that fell well under his projected arbitration salary. Though he wasn’t expected to be a difference-maker by any means, Rea probably slotted in as the Cubs’ fifth starter or one of a broad group that would serve as rotation depth.
So why would the Cubs, a team in dire need of pitching depth and unwilling to pay much for it, jettison a potential starter making less than $1 million? The answer is probably very mundane.
The #Cubs released Colin Rea overnight. My guess is that it’s so he can pursue a better opportunity in Japan, because until that happened, he was penciled in as the team’s fifth starter.
— Matthew Trueblood (@MATrueblood) January 5, 2021
As Matt Trueblood theorized, it’s entirely likely that Rea can land a better offer in Japan. Beyond just making as much or more money, Rea would have the opportunity to start on a regular basis and perhaps increase his value for a multi-year deal in 2022 or beyond. With one minor league option remaining and the Cubs looking to stream starters at the end of the rotation, Rea may have been looking at a lot of time spent aboard the Iowa Shuttle.
That’s neither very fun nor conducive to a decent deal in the future, so pursuing an option in NPB certainly makes a lot of sense for Rea. But we still haven’t really gotten around to why the Cubs would grant him his release. It may be as simple as having agreed to do so when he signed. Perhaps the contract with the Cubs was a security blanket that gave him a baseline while he pursued other opportunities.
Update: Rea’s release was indeed prompted by his desire to pursue an opportunity in Japan.
We can probably toss out the notion that this is an immediate precursor to a subsequent move or moves since the Cubs still had several open spots on the 40-man roster. But just for fun, let’s say the potential addition of one or two starting-caliber pitchers on the horizon made Rea that much more expendable. Pitchers like, oh, Chris Archer and/or Corey Kluber.
The former has been projected as a Cubs target, which would fulfill the long-unrequited desires of so many Cubs fans who were upset when he was traded to Tampa as a prospect. The 32-year-old righty was unable to pitch in 2020 following thoracic outlet syndrome surgery and would be a big gamble on a guaranteed deal, but the success rate of that surgery has gotten better in recent seasons.
The 34-year-old Kluber has pitched just 36.2 innings over the past two seasons due to a fractured arm in 2019 and a Grade 2 teres major strain that ended his 2020 campaign after a single frame. That led to the Rangers buying out his contract and making him a free agent. He began a throwing program in November and will hold a showcase on January 13 for interested teams, a group that is expected to include the Twins and Red Sox, among others.
While we’re at it, might as well throw Jake Arrieta in the mix as well. He’ll be 35 in March and has been trending down since leaving Chicago, but it’d be sort of poetic to have him rejoining the rotation after the Cubs traded Yu Darvish away.
Age and uncertainty dictate that none of these pitchers should command much, perhaps one-year pillow deals with hefty incentives. But even the slightest competition for their services could push a team like the Cubs out of the market, especially when you factor in competitiveness. Which is to say that the Cubs aren’t nearly as attractive a destination right now as they had been in previous years.
I think Archer might be a realistic possibility if he’s willing to do a minor league deal with a spring training invite, but Kluber seems far less likely. Arrieta is interesting for nostalgia alone. Still, getting any combination of them is even less likely than seeing a team in one of MLB’s three biggest markets slashing payroll in a de facto rebuild, the second in a decade. Wait…