Cubs Appear to Be Maintaining Bargain Bullpen Strategy, Unless Emmanuel Clase Trade Rumors Have Legs

Ryne Stanek Could Provide Short-Term Boost

Remember early in the offseason when the thinking was that Jed Hoyer might break from his low-cost, high-volume strategy of bullpen construction in favor of a proven name or three? Well, it’s not looking as though that’s going to happen. Though Hoyer has said all along about he’ll maintain what I call a Mississippi River approach — a mile wide and an inch deep — he indicated strongly that buying greater depth was part of the plan.

“You have to be creative in the bullpen,” Hoyer said during the GM Meetings. “You have to find guys who have good stuff, find guys on bounce-back years, find guys coming off injuries. You take all those demographics and then a couple guys that might provide ‘certainty’ so to speak and you blend that all together. I do think taking a lot of shots on goal can help.”

I suppose I should clarify my use of terminology here since acquiring a large number of potential bullpen arms is typically viewed as creating depth. But when we’re talking about guys who haven’t pitched in MLB for several years and whose contracts aren’t guaranteed, you need a flat hull to traverse those waters. So while the Cubs have hit on quite a few bullpen lottery tickets over the years, last season showed all too clearly that you can run aground quickly when you aren’t willing to get a little deeper.

That’s one of the risks of seeking value in every free agent deal, especially when the reliever market has been running so hot. Jordan Hicks got four years and $44 million from the Giants, who apparently want to stretch him out as part of the rotation. Reynaldo López got $30 million over three years from the Braves and will likewise get a chance to move back into a starting role, which I don’t think is where he’s best served at this point but whatever.

Both of those hard-throwing righties were among several potential Cubs relief targets I put together back in late October, and now two other members of that list have come off the board. Josh Hader got a five-year, $95 million guarantee from the Astros and Robert Stephenson agreed to a three-year, $33 million contract with the Angels. Hader had been connected to the Cubs due in large part to Craig Counsell and the buzz continued through the week, but there’s no way in hell they were ever touching that number.

While Stephenson was a guy I really liked as well, his surge last season allowed him to ride a wave of hype that helped him out-earn his inconsistent past. Even though I think he’s got the potential to repeat his recent success, Hoyer certainly wasn’t going to pay a premium for that hope.

When you look through the rest of the list and beyond, there really aren’t many guys who profile as being worthy of more than a prove-it deal. Ryne Stanek made my list because he checks some boxes for the Cubs, specifically his name and 98 mph fastball. Bruce Levine mentioned him recently as someone to “keep an eye on,” along with Stephenson and Adam Ottovino.

The latter has been connected to the Cubs in the past and he’s been very productive for a long time, but no way is a 38-year-old getting more than a year. Stanek might be able to command a second year if a team is willing to look past his big walk numbers and wildly inconsistent performance, which would probably take the Cubs out of the running.

As things currently stand, the only way I could see Jed Hoyer landing a reliever with multiple years of control is if the oft-discussed deal for Emmanuel Clase ever comes to fruition. That talk started when Jeff Passan wrote back in early December that the Guardians were open to dealing the reigning two-time AL saves leader, and it’s persisted even as rumors about the Cubs checking in on Shane Bieber and Josh Naylor have quieted.

Levine noted that the Guardians have asked for Cade Horton as part of the deal, which, if true, means they are being wholly disingenuous and shouldn’t be entertained further. Don’t get me wrong, Clase is very valuable due to his performance and incredibly cheap club control for the next 3-5 years ($5.4M AAV for guaranteed years with max $12M options) and he’ll command a big return as such. That return just won’t be one of the top pitching prospects in the game.

There has been speculation, including from Levine, of a multiplayer deal with Cleveland that could get the Cubs to part with some big names. Not Horton, but maybe Christopher Morel or members of a group of prospects who could eventually feel the squeeze of a fast-improving system: James Triantos, Owen Caissie, Matt Mervis, Haydn McGeary, etc. I don’t see such a move as particularly likely, it’s just not out of the question as the Cubs seek to address an obvious area of need.

I can’t close this out without acknowledging the fact that choosing not to spend big on high-leverage relievers isn’t just a matter of being frugal. Value is part of it, sure, as is the lack of flexibility due to having so many bullpen guys — Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr., Drew Smyly, and now Yency Almontewithout options. But we can’t dismiss the notion that the Cubs have a lot of faith in that group, particularly the first two mentioned.

If Alzolay and Merryweather can pick up where they left off, Counsell will have the late innings locked down pretty well and can cobble together his middle-reliefs corps more easily. Get one other dude to step up and things really start to look good. Maybe that’s Leiter rediscovering his splitter, Luke Little coming up big, or Ben Brown breaking into the league as a reliever.

The Cubs still have a few moves left to make and some believe they’ll be “super busy,” but it seems like any impact additions will happen in areas other than the ‘pen.

Back to top button