Hot Stove season is here, and NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at free agents who could fit the Cubs’ needs — and budget. Next up is Indians closer Brad Hand.
During the 2019-20 offseason in which the Cubs’ free agent additions came via low-cost deals, their best by far was signing reliever Jeremy Jeffress on a one-year contract.
Jeffress was the Cubs’ most reliable reliever in 2020, pitching the Cubs out of numerous high-leverage spots. He delivered a 1.54 ERA in 22 outings, providing a steady closing option as Craig Kimbrel worked through early issues — leading the team with eight saves.
Kimbrel righted himself after that rough start, with a fastball that frequently hit the upper-90s paired with a sharp breaking ball. He posted a 1.42 ERA in his final 14 outings with 26 strikeouts and seven walks. This includes 7 1/3 September innings where he didn’t allow a run, striking out 13 with no walks.
Jeffress is now a free agent, and although a 2021 return isn’t out of the question, he’ll likely get more lucrative offers on the open market. The Cubs still have an experienced closing option in Kimbrel, entering the last season of a three-year pact in which he’ll make $16 million.
But what if they can get another to bolster their bullpen, one whose market may fall to a comfortable level for a Cubs team in cost-cutting mode after pandemic-related revenue losses with an inability to predict 2021 revenues?
Late last month, the Indians placed closer Brad Hand on waivers. They held a $10 million club option on his contract for 2021 but bought it out for $1 million. The move was stunning, though not entirely surprising, considering the financial circumstances.
What was surprising is that no club claimed the three-time All-Star on waivers, making him a free agent. Although clubs have to make every dollar count this winter, $10 million for a closer with Hand’s pedigree is fair value. Since 2016, he holds a 2.70 ERA and 1.066 WHIP, converting 104 of his 127 save chances. He led MLB in 2020 with 16 saves, converting all of his save tries.
Where does that leave the Cubs?
Former team president Theo Epstein said in October adding starting pitching depth will be a priority this winter. Two starting pitchers have already signed one-year deals (Robbie Ray, $8 million, Blue Jays; Drew Smyly, $11 million, Braves) and NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer and others could go off the board fast.
If the Cubs determine they can’t address the rotation well enough within their resources, perhaps their focus shifts to beefing up the bullpen with a closer-type reliever like Hand, who they were interested in trading for at the 2018 deadline. They’re facing a roster retool this winter but are looking to contend in 2021.
With the tough financial circumstances, the Cubs could get creative with a backloaded, short multi-year deal, giving them a strong lefty relief presence. And if they aren’t in postseason contention next year, they could flip Hand at the deadline for assets.
The Cubs wouldn’t be the only team thinking this way, of course, and they already have significant money tied up to a closer — which comes off the books next winter. It’s also probably too early to tell what the top left-handed reliever on the market will command this winter.
But if he fits, he would be a difference maker even if they’re not able to do what they want with the rotation.