Zach Britton

As Cubs search for bullpen help, how much should they weigh closing experience?

As Cubs search for bullpen help, how much should they weigh closing experience?

The Cubs undoubtedly will add options to their bullpen this winter, but in what form remains to be seen.

Will they acquire a high-leverage left-hander or continue to fill in the roster with veterans and unproven young southpaws and hope lightning strikes? Will they add more guys capable of throwing multiple innings per outing? Do they need to add another pitcher with closing experience?

Let's tackle that last question.

The Cubs signed Brandon Morrow during the MLB Winter Meetings last year and tabbed him as the closer assuming no other deals with Wade Davis or another stopper came to fruition.

Obviously no other deal came about, with Morrow and Steve Cishek serving as the top bullpen additions last winter. The Morrow Experience got off to a great start as he went 7-for-7 in save opportunities and didn't give up a run until May 5.

But then disaster struck — first in the form of a bad pants-taking-off experience in mid-June and then a bone bruise in his forearm in mid-July. The end result was Morrow missed the entire second half of the season, only throwing off a mound twice before being shut down in September.

Pedro Strop stepped in at closer and did a fantastic job...before he, too, went down with an injury in mid-September.

That left Joe Maddon to piece together a closer on a daily basis from Cishek (who seemingly ran into a wall in the season's final month from overuse), Justin Wilson and Jesse Chavez. Heck, even Randy Rosario (Sept. 13) and Jorge De La Rosa (Sept. 14) picked up saves in that span.

Morrow and Strop are in line to be 100 percent healthy by spring training and Cishek is well rested, but Chavez is gone and Wilson is expected to sign elsewhere this winter.

The Cubs have tabbed Carl Edwards Jr. as a future closer, but he needs to rebound from his most recent late-season fade and prove he can be a consistent, dominant force for a full season before jumping into that role.

Theo Epstein historically does not hand out megadeals to closers, understanding the volatility of relievers and how risky it is to sink so much of a team's payroll into a guy whose performance can fluctuate wildly from year-to-year and who will only throw 60-70 innings a season even in a best case scenario. That stands to reason this winter more than any other given the financial constraints the Cubs are working under.

So does that take the Cubs out on free agent pitchers like Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino and Zach Britton?

"Just weigh all the alternatives," Epstein said last month. "I do believe getting those last outs can be a little bit more challenging than getting the other outs, so it's not just any job. But I'm a lot more concerned with just like the overall [bullpen]. The way we look at it is I want as many really talented options as we can in the 'pen. That's what we ask ourselves more than do we have a 'closer'?

"...I just want to make sure we have a really talented 'pen with lots of different options and see how things shake out. I don't think given our other needs, given our roster and payroll situation now and going forward that investing long-term at closer at big money is really high up our priority list right now. But stranger things have happened. I think we have some other areas to address."

The Cubs took that same approach to building the bullpen the last two winters, opening the season with at least 5 arms they felt could be "even or ahead" guys - pitchers who can come in and get outs in high-leverage spots.

The Cubs would ideally add to their current stable of "even or ahead guys" — Morrow, Strop, Edwards, Cishek, Mike Montgomery (if he's not needed in the rotation) — but considering they are already projected to eclipse the $206 million luxury tax threshold even before any other signings or deals this winter, it'd be hard to see Epstein and Co. out-bid the rest of the market.

There are other guys on the open market with closing experience who probably won't break the bank this winter (Greg Holland, Ryan Madson, A.J. Ramos, Joakim Soria, etc.), but it's a matter of whether the Cubs feel those guys can become reliable pieces in the 2019 bullpen.

The issue hasn't been a lack of talent on the Opening Day roster, but rather injuries and late-season slumps. Edwards isn't the only Cubs reliever who has run into a wall in August or September.

However, the key may not lie in the season's final months, but rather in April and May, when the Cubs' top bullpen arms are being utilized early and often.

"We have to provide that depth," GM Jed Hoyer said. "It's hard. If the same guys are pitching in every close game, you're gonna wear them out. We have to have a deep enough bullpen where Joe has more options. When you're a good team — and we're a good team — you play a lot of close games. You win a lot of close games and the games you don't win are usually close and that wears down your bullpen.

"It's easier to protect your relievers if you're getting blown out every fourth or fifth day. When you're playing games that are in the margins all the time, it's hard. So going in, the only thing you can do is have depth."

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Jesse Chavez has already emerged as one of the Cubs' most valuable relievers

Jesse Chavez has already emerged as one of the Cubs' most valuable relievers

Jesse Chavez hasn't even been in a Cubs uniform for a week, but he's already become one of their most valuable pitchers

When the Cubs traded for Chavez late last week, a lot of Chicago fans might have reacted to the move with puzzlement and a little intrigue.

It was no surprise the Cubs were adding more pitching on the trade market, but it was a bit surprise that it came in the form of an under-the-radar arm. 

Instead of immediately adding a big name pitcher (think: Zach Britton) like summers past (Jose Quintana, Aroldis Chapman), the Cubs began their trade deadline season by adding a new Swiss Army Knife to the bullpen.

If the Cubs need Chavez to go multiple innings, he's ready. If they need him to get one hitter, that's fine too. Spot start? OK. Closer for a game? That's fine, too.

"That's been the conversation — about doing anything," Joe Maddon said. "He's the Swiss Army Knife out there and he does it so well. I mean, God, he's so upbeat and he's very professional about it."

Maddon said he and pitching coach Jim Hickey talk to Chavez before each game and try to give the veteran right-hander an idea of how they may use him that day.

And yes, that even could mean some closing opportunities with regular stopper Brandon Morrow still on the disabled list.

"I have no qualms about putting him in the latter part of the game at all," Maddon said. "Just the fact that once he got here, we needed that lengthy guy and he's provided that, too. 

"He's just been interesting already. He's as advertised and so we'll see how it plays out. So if we need him early to get out of a jam, you'll see him in there. And if we don't, you might see him in the latter part of the game, yes."

Chavez has actually been better than advertised since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Sure, it's only been a week and he's only pitched in three games, but the 34-year-old has retired all 12 batters he's faced, 6 of which have come via strikeout. 

He attributes a lot of that early success to how welcoming the Cubs clubhouse has been, making him feel like he's been a part of the team since Day 1.

It helps that he's played with guys like Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Mike Montgomery and Morrow in the past, too. This is Chavez's 9th MLB team, after all.

Like Maddon said, Chavez is ready to do whatever, from eating innings to pitching in high-leverage situations. He said he's stretched out enough to do any role and has thrown 60 pitches as recently as June 1.

Still, Chavez was flying completely under the radar when the Cubs acquired him and Maddon credits the organization's scouting for the find.

After a rough start to the season with the Texas Rangers (5.48 ERA), Chavez said he was sitting in the bullpen in Houston on Mother's Day before a game and just decided to mess around with his arm slot, dropping it a bit as he delivered his pitch. He figured he didn't have much to lose.

He wound up pitching 3 perfect innings that day, striking out 4 as he shut down the defending champs.

Since that fateful moment, Chavez has a 2.08 ERA, 0.897 WHIP and 33 K vs. 7 BB in 39 innings.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said of the new arm slot. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball)out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Chavez joked that he actually thought the results were too good to be true from such a simple mechanical fix. 

But he feels good about it now and gives the Cubs another versatile option in the bullpen as well as possible rotation depth.

While baseball world buzzes about Yankees trade for Zach Britton, White Sox have their own closer to deal at deadline


While baseball world buzzes about Yankees trade for Zach Britton, White Sox have their own closer to deal at deadline

Contenders looking for a closer had their attention on Zach Britton. But the New York Yankees were the only team to get him.

The last-place Baltimore Orioles are in sell-off mode, dealing Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers and then Britton to the Bronx on Tuesday night after rumors flew all over the place in recent days. Among the non-Yankees teams that were reportedly interested in acquiring Britton and his very good track record — 139 saves in the last five seasons, including an American League leading 47 of them in 2016 — were the Cubs, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks. Britton's got plenty of value regardless of whether the Yankees, who also employ Aroldis Chapman, want him to close games or not, a lefty who is two years removed from an eye-poppingly low 0.54 ERA.

But now that the Britton derby has come to a close, there are still plenty of teams looking for bullpen help, and that's where the White Sox come in.

The South Side bullpen isn't packed with attractive trade chips like it was last summer, when Rick Hahn dealt away David Robertson, Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle, Dan Jennings and Tyler Clippard from his relief corps. It's why the general manager said he expects this to be a quieter deadline than last year for his front office. But that doesn't mean the cupboard is bare, and Joakim Soria could be one of the more attractive options on the market now that Britton has a new team.

Soria's been great out of the White Sox 'pen this season, specifically since mid May. He's got a 0.77 ERA in his 24 appearances since May 21, allowing scoring in just one of those outings, when he blew a save against the defending-champion Astros. Take that game out of the mix, and Soria's allowed only 10 hits since May 21, with 31 strikeouts and seven walks in that span.

He was back at it Monday in the White Sox series-opening win against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim. He didn't work a 1-2-3 inning, but he didn't allow any runs to score, either, pitching around Mike Trout with a runner on before striking out Justin Upton to get his 15th save of the season.

A quick glance at will yield several other possibilities for those teams looking for bullpen upgrades: Raisel Iglesias of the Cincinnati Reds, Felipe Vazquez of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke of the Minnesota Twins could all be trade candidates. Is Soria a more desirable addition than those guys? Maybe. Maybe not. But he's included among them, which is good news for the White Sox, clearly a seller this summer as they move along with their rebuilding effort.

This seemed like the hoped-for scenario when the White Sox acquired Soria in a three-team trade over the winter. After all that success dealing relievers and bolstering the farm system at last season's deadline, the team acquired a bunch of veteran arms for the bullpen, appearing that the White Sox were trying to replicate the strategy used a summer ago, when they brought prospects such as Blake Rutherford and Ryan Cordell into the organization.

So what will the White Sox be able to get for Soria? And could the return package be improved if they're able to package him with one of their other better-performing relievers, Xavier Cedeno or Luis Avilan?

A look at some of the already-completed deals involving bullpen arms might or might not be a helpful guide. The San Diego Padres dealt away All-Star relief arm Brad Hand and another bullpen pitcher and received one of the top 15 prospects in baseball. The New York Mets just traded their closer, Jeurys Familia, to the Oakland Athletics and received two prospects, neither of which was highly ranked. Neither of the prospects the Tampa Bay Rays received when they traded their closer, Alex Colome, back in May were highly ranked. The Kansas City Royals traded Kelvin Herrera to the Washington Nationals last month, and two of the three prospects they got back are currently ranked in the top 15 in their system. The Orioles got a couple highly rated Yankees prospects as part of the package for Britton.

It's also worth looking back at last summer's trades and looking at those return packages. The multi-player deal with the Yankees that featured Robertson and Kahnle (in addition to Todd Frazier) brought back Rutherford, among others. Swarzak netted Cordell from the Brewers. Jennings went to the Rays in exchange for Casey Gillaspie. The diamond in the rough was Ti'Quan Forbes, the minor league infielder in the midst of a nice season, who was the return piece in the August trade that sent Miguel Gonzalez to the Texas Rangers.

Bottom line: There's a wide range of possibilities. But given Hahn's track record of acquiring minor league talent, White Sox fans should have some confidence that he'll be able to help his rebuilding effort in a deal involving Soria.

Such a trade could now materialize now that teams outside the Bronx have found themselves sans Britton. Bullpen help is always coveted at this time of year, and this season appears to be no different, especially as the importance of relievers in the postseason continues to increase. Perhaps Soria will play a role this October.