There is nothing horribly wrong with the Chicago Cubs bullpen. Pedro Strop is a good setup man. Hector Rondon is a good closer. But “good” doesn’t win you the World Series and, after 108 years of wanting, trying, and failing, that goal must top the Cubs’ to-do list in 2016. The question is how desperate the organization is to get that title and how much it is willing to pay.
Put another way: Are Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez on the table this trade season? Like any good baseball executive, Chicago’s Theo Epstein denies either would be a trade chip before the non-waiver deadline on August 1. Yet you have to wonder if the Cubs see a path to the World Series that doesn’t involve at least one more big arm out of the bullpen (two would be better).
Rondon’s July 19 loss to the Mets made it four losses and three blown saves for the Cubs bullpen time in the space of 10 games. This group needs help.
For this reason, most fans and speculative members of the media look at the New York Yankees, a team poised to sell at the deadline that happens to have three of the game’s top relievers. In a way, it’s the ultimate fantasy baseball play. You tack the Yankees bullpen onto the Cubs’ balanced lineup and rotation and imagine the super-team you would create.
Of course, such a team would cost Epstein and his organization plenty. Even if the great Andrew Miller were the only target Chicago had in mind, you would have to think the club would have to overwhelm the Yankees to acquire a player considered the game’s best reliever in most circles. That’s when Schwarber and Baez cease seeming untouchable, despite Epstein’s best protests.
Epstein told USA Today “it wouldn’t be right” to trade Schwarber on account of his ability and his fit within Cubs culture. He even pointed out how the young slugger got hurt trying to make a play in the outfield as more evidence of his importance to the organization. Again, those things make sense and ring true on all counts. But should it stand between the Cubs and a postseason-proof bullpen?
Like the Cubs with their young position players, the Yankees sit in a comfortable place with three relievers who could immediately take the closer’s job on any club in baseball. Aroldis Chapman, the flame-throwing lefty who topped 105 miles per hour in a July 18 save against Baltimore, is the most expendable for New York since he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. Yet he is an extremely valuable piece for clubs like Washington and San Francisco.
Dellin Betances and Miller are on another level because of their club-friendly contracts and the sort of clubhouse fit Epstein spoke about with Schwarber. Miller not only stepped into the closer’s role and dominated for the Yankees in 2015; the left-hander then accepted a nominal demotion and agreed to become the setup man when the club told him it was considering a trade for Chapman.
The shift has not affected Miller’s performance in the slightest: His ERA, strikeout rate, and walk rate are even better in 2016. Plus, he has two-and-a-half years left on his contract for a total near $22 million. Chicago and every other team covets that reasonable cost control.
Sliding Miller in at the end of the Cubs bullpen would instantly take pressure off Rondon and Pedro Strop, who have emerged as Chicago’s only two reliable late-inning arms. Middle-inning battles often determine the fate of teams in the postseason. Without real length in the pen, it’s tough to see the Cubs advancing beyond the NLCS. Miller would also be a long-term solution for a club that has plans to contend for a title in each of the coming two years.
Chapman could only be that solution for this year alone. On the question of the Cuban Missile, the asking price may be high, but the Cubs could certainly acquire Chapman for less than Baez, the sparkling all-around player, or Schwarber. Whether Epstein would part with Jorge Soler, who is under contract through 2020, for a half-season rental is anyone’s guess. Such an outfielder would seem to be expendable in the Cubs organization, even with Soler’s upside.
Then there is the ultimate question: What would it take to get both Miller and Chapman? The formula Joe Girardi has used in New York has proved this combination makes every game with a lead a win. On paper, it seems like the difference between a strong contender and a Cubs team ready to win a World Series. So how desperate are the Cubs for that first title in 108 years? We should have our answer before August 1.
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