The Cubs saw Andrew Miller’s upside, envisioned how the lefty reliever could dominate late-game situations and checked in with his representatives last year. It quickly became clear where the market would be heading – especially for a last-place team – and the New York Yankees gave Miller a four-year, $36 million deal.
The entire 2016 season will be a high-leverage situation after the Cubs won 97 games and Kris Bryant (Rookie of the Year), Joe Maddon (Manager of the Year) and Jake Arrieta (Cy Young) just made it a 3-for-3 sweep during awards week.
But it’s still hard to see Theo Epstein’s front office paying top dollar to rebuild a bullpen that helped the Cubs advance to the National League Championship Series.
The Cubs are looking to get creative at a time when they have more pressing needs and the asking price for Darren O’Day, the top reliever on the market, is a four-year deal in the range of $28 million to $36 million, according to Fox Sports.
The blueprint appears to be the one-year deal for Andury Acevedo announced on Thursday, signing a hard-throwing right-hander who had spent the last four seasons in the Yankees system, reaching the Triple-A level for the first time in August.
The Cubs also claimed lefty reliever Jack Leathersich off waivers from the New York Mets. During his minor-league career, he put up 356 strikeouts in 210-plus innings. He debuted with the Mets this year and underwent Tommy John surgery in late July.
“Adding to the bullpen – including possibly investing in a salaried reliever – is on the list of things that we would like to do to improve the club,” Epstein said. “But you have to prioritize, too. We’re not going to be able to accomplish everything that we want to do this winter. We just don’t have the means to do it all. No club really does, so we have to prioritize.
“It just happens to be a poor supply/demand dynamic this year for free-agent relievers, so I don’t necessarily think we’re going to talk our way into a really reasonable contract for a reliever. We’ll see. Especially considering that we really prefer to allocate the resources that we have to starting pitching and some other areas.”
Acevedo will be another project for Maddon and coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode. The Cubs have their pitching infrastructure in place and will see what it can do for Acevedo, who’s 25 years old and listed at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds.
Acevedo originally signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007 as an infielder out of the Dominican Republic. He switched to pitching in 2012 and made it through three levels of the Yankees system this year.
Acevedo’s Florida State League All-Star selection in 2015 doesn’t compare to what O’Day did for the Baltimore Orioles across the last four seasons (23-8, 1.92 ERA, 0.939 WHIP).
But the Cubs once struck gold in the Rule 5 draft and found a future 30-save closer in Hector Rondon. And when the Cubs bought Clayton Richard out of Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate for one dollar, no one expected the lefty to make six scoreless appearances in the playoffs.
The hope is Neil Ramirez will come back at full strength after throwing only 14 innings in the big leagues this year. The reality is that Trevor Cahill – an under-the-radar minor-league signing in August – might have priced himself out of Chicago with all that exposure in October.
Throwing money at the bullpen isn’t necessarily the answer. Kyuji Fujikawa and Jose Veras were two big misses for the Epstein administration, the Cubs wasting almost $14 million on two closers who saved two games combined.
At the same time, thoughts about the bullpen have evolved, the Kansas City Royals showing what a lockdown bullpen means in October by winning a 2014 American League pennant and this year’s World Series.
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
“By no means are we going to ignore the ‘pen,” Epstein said. “I just think we may look to add talent (through) some of the routes that we’ve used in the past to find quality relievers – the Rule 5 draft, minor-league free agency, smaller trades, buy-low scenarios.
“That might be more likely than investing a reliever, even though we’d be open to it. It was one of the things we talked about all year: ‘Hey, this might be a good offseason to invest in a reliever.’ But the reality is we can’t do that and preclude a shot at the starter that we need.”