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 Braves closer Mark Melancon.
When looking at the Cubs roster entering 2021, the bullpen seems to have the best chance of all position groups to closely resemble the 2020 version.
With the exception of free agent Jeremy Jeffress, the Cubs could bring back the same group of relievers from 2020, a group that finished 13th in baseball in ERA (4.38) after a bad start but third over the final month plus (2.93 from Aug. 28 onward). A potential 2021 bullpen is as follows:
Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam, Kyle Ryan, Duane Underwood Jr., Brad Wieck, Dan Winkler
This group is anything but settled; young flame-throwing lefty Brailyn Marquez figures to compete for a spot in spring training, and the same may be true for 2020 second-round pick Burl Carraway. Kimbrel offers an experienced closing option after the Cubs went by committee in 2020, and while Jeffress — their most consistent reliever and saves leader in 2020 — may get higher offers on the open market, a reunion shouldn’t be ruled out.
Whether Jeffress returns or not, the bullpen is the ultimate add-depth position for teams every winter. The Cubs signed Jeffress, Winkler, Tepera and Adam to low-cost deals last winter and each were contributors in 2020.
The Cubs are in cost-cutting mode after a season of pandemic-related revenue losses. Meaning, any bullpen additions from a market full of veteran arms will likely come on team-friendly deals. One option is Braves free agent closer Mark Melancon.
Melancon, 36 next March, is a ground ball pitcher (56.4 percent career rate) whose primary pitch is a low-90s cutter. Despite not featuring high velocity, he was effective as the Braves closer following a trade from the Giants last season.
Dating back to last August, Melancon converted 22 of 24 save tries with Atlanta, holding a 3.30 ERA and 1.214 WHIP in 46 appearances. His strikeouts per nine innings with Atlanta dropped from 2019 to 2020 (10.3 to 5.6), and his walks per nine rose (0.9 to 2.8).
The Cubs are trying to thread the needle of retooling while remaining competitive in 2021, and Melancon could fit that goal as someone with plenty of postseason experience, having made 20 career appearances between the Pirates, Nationals and Braves. He’s largely been reliable in October (3.72 ERA) and didn’t allow an earned run in 6 1/3 innings this postseason during the Braves’ run to the NLCS.
Kimbrel bounced back down the stretch in 2020, but it’s always good to have a couple of high-leverage veteran relievers. As we saw this past season, Jeffress came up big for the Cubs as Kimbrel worked through early struggles.
The free agent market has a ton of closing options in Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, Alex Colomé, Trevor Rosenthal and Melancon, and other late-inning arms include Jeffress and Shane Greene. The Cubs won’t be in play for a guy like Hendriks, but Melancon’s market could be more in their range. It’s also true he may be scooped up before they make any additions.
If he’s available at the right price, Melancon could fill out the Cubs bullpen and give manager David Ross another trustworthy arm to use late in games.