Grant Balfour is one reliever on their radar as the Cubs look into reinforcements for their bullpen.
The Balfour connection is obvious since the Australian right-hander used to play for Cubs manager Joe Maddon. The Tampa Bay Rays officially released Balfour this week and will be responsible for what’s left of his $7 million salary this season.
Balfour emerged as a key piece to Maddon’s worst-to-first team that shocked the baseball world and made it all the way to the 2008 World Series. Balfour notched 38 saves for the Oakland A’s in 2013 and has pitched in seven playoff series throughout his career.
But Balfour is also 37 years old and struggled in his return to Tampa Bay last season (2-6, 4.91 ERA). The Rays designated him for assignment after only six appearances this month. He gave up three runs on three hits and four walks – with no strikeouts – in 4.1 innings.
The Cubs bullpen – which appeared to be a game-changing strength on Opening Night – has been exposed as hard-throwing right-handers Justin Grimm (forearm) and Neil Ramirez (shoulder) recover from injuries at the team’s Arizona complex.
A one-run game on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field got out of hand as Gonzalez Germen and Phil Coke combined to give up six runs during an 8-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
General manager Jed Hoyer said Grimm threw a bullpen session on Tuesday and could pitch in a simulated game by the weekend. Hoyer indicated Ramirez is feeling good and playing catch but hasn’t progressed to throwing off the mound again yet.
The Cubs are not interested in chasing Rafael Soriano, a Scott Boras client still out there on the open market with 207 career saves. The super-agent is waiting for maximum leverage and at that price the Cubs probably won’t be the desperate team looking for a quick fix.
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Soriano, 35, is coming off a two-year, $28 million contract with the Washington Nationals. The right-hander saved 32 games last season but struggled after the All-Star break (6.48 ERA).
The Cubs bullpen has blown four saves but the overall numbers still look decent (5-2, 3.38 ERA, 1.16 WHIP). It’s also skewed when Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon are such a devastating endgame combination (two runs allowed plus 20 strikeouts through 19.1 innings). Lefty Zac Rosscup has also impressed during his eight appearances (1-0, 1.04 ERA, two holds) since his promotion from Triple-A Iowa.
One internal option could eventually be James Russell, who returned to the organization on a minor-league deal after getting released by the Atlanta Braves near the end of spring training.
Russell hasn’t given up a run or a walk through 7.2 innings at Iowa while striking out 11. The 29-year-old lefty appears to be motivated to get back to Wrigley Field.