Non-Tender Candidates that fit Cubs’ Needs: Relievers

This year’s non-tender deadline (December 2) is perhaps more harrowing than any in MLB’s labor history. After a 60-game season in which revenues were sharply impacted by the ongoing pandemic, the unfortunate assumption is that clubs will be uniformly cutting payroll. This clearly has an impact on any free agent player not named Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, DJ LeMahieu, Marcell Ozuna, or George Springer, but a lingering fear runs deeper than that for the Players Union. Budget cuts across the league might very well lead teams to non-tender players at a rate with which we’ve never before seen.

Such an influx in newly minted free agents will saturate the market at several positions, eliminating any leverage second and third tier free agents might have. The result will likely be players accepting deals below their ordinary market rate, or further still, signing a minors deal with the hope they earn a roster spot.

A depressed financial market for players has an inverse effect on MLB clubs, of course — despite how much money they lost during the 2020 season. The result appears to be an influx of talent at bargain prices.

Truthfully, few teams stand to benefit from a saturated market as much as the budget-conscious Cubs. The roster on the Northside could use starting pitching depth, an impact (preferably lefty) reliever, and contact-oriented hitters, all while slashing a payroll that has crossed the Luxury Tax threshold in each of the last two seasons. It’s a tall order for the front office, to be sure, but the flood of curious talent that would result from an abnormally long list of non-tendered players enhances the odds they might unearth gems at team-friendly prices.

With the Theo Epstein era officially over, and word that the Cubs might finally shake up the roster with Jed Hoyer at the helm, this winter is shaping up to be one of considerable curiosity. However Hoyer decides to move forward, the best bet is that he tries to keep the roster competitive in 2021 while establishing a new window in 2022 and beyond.

Roster flexibility is a current strength, as the Cubs’ 40-man stands at 37 players after adding three prospects on Friday — protecting them from Rule 5 eligibility. The three open slots signal a strong likelihood moves are on the horizon; the Cubs will be worth paying attention to this winter.

This past week I examined three starting pitchers that might pique the Cubs’ interest should they be non-tendered. Today, let’s change focus, and look at three non-tender candidates that could fit nicely in the Cubs’ bullpen.

(For more on the impending non-tender deadline, Tim Dierkes provides excellent commentary over at MLB Trade Rumors.)

Cam Bedrosian (RHP), Los Angeles Angels

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Photo: John McCoy, Getty Images

Let’s open things up by cheating. Bedrosian, who was arbitration eligible, ended up being outrighted by the Angels late last month, and elected free agency after no team claimed him on waivers. That Bedrosian — whose $2.8 million pre-pandemic salary in 2020 wouldn’t have increased much in 2021 — cleared waivers is foreboding for lower-tier free agents this winter.

Next season will be his age-29 campaign, and in his 14.2 innings pitched in 2020 he managed superb run prevention despite questionable peripherals: 2.45 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 19.0 K%, 10.3 BB%, 34.1 GB%.

A two-pitch repertoire consists of a low-90’s four seamer (52.7 percent in 2020) and a complimentary slider (46.1). He’s also flirted with a split-finger the past couple of seasons, a pitch that could perceivably see more action moving forward in order to create more ground balls.

Despite the terrific ERA and matching FIP, Bedrosian’s strikeout numbers were markedly below his career rate (24.4 percent). He also walked batters a clip above his career norm, with a ground ball rate that dropped over 10 percentage points.

All of these factors, however dubious given the small sample size, help to shape why he might’ve been outrighted by the Angels — and why no team was eager to claim him off of waivers.

Still, a relatively youthful arm with a career 3.70 ERA (3.60 FIP) is a quality middle relief piece, one the Cubs might find valuable if the price fits. A one year deal around $2.5 million would be palatable for the Cubs if his market never develops.

Héctor Neris (RHP), Philadelphia Phillies

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Hunter Martin, Getty Images

The embattled closer is a strong non-tender candidate. The Phillies ‘pen was historically bad in 2020, authoring a 7.06 ERA (5.56 FIP), good for a -0.9 fWAR. As the unit’s anchor, Neris was rather uninspiring: 4.57 ERA, 2.50 FIP, 26.2 K%, 12.6 BB% in 21.2 innings.

With strike out numbers below career norms, and a walk rate that increased in 2020, you might wonder how his FIP was so low. The answer? He did not give up a home run in 2020. He did suffer a bloated .381 BABIP, however, with a comically low left on base percentage (59.5 percent) — highlighting yet more vagaries in the wild 2020 MLB season.

Neris relies primarily on a splitter (48.1 percent in 2020), with a four seamer (42.6) that still touches the mid-90’s, and the occasional two seamer (9.3.) He briefly utilized a slider earlier in his career, but it has been years since he’s employed anything other than the heater/splitter combo. That he’s authorized a career 3.38 ERA (3.72 FIP) suggests his repertoire is just fine.

Turning 32 in 2021, Neris enters his final year of team control. While the Phillies recently declined his $7 million option for 2021, he’s still under team control — and projected to make anywhere from $4.8-$6.4 million in arbitration. For a team dead set on competing for the NL East crown (amongst a crowded field) they’ll be especially focused on fixing their ‘pen. While it’s reasonable to think they tender Neris a contract, it’d be equally understandable if they cut him loose.

For a reasonable rate, a one year deal might be of interest for a Cubs team that could use an experienced, high-leverage arm. With Jeremy Jeffress‘ potential departure (who might become too expensive to re-sign), Neris would slot in nicely next to Craig Kimbrel and Rowan Wick.

If he could be had for around $4 million he’s a worthwhile gamble for the Cubs.

Daniel Norris (LHP), Detroit Tigers

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Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press

Norris is a long shot non-tender candidate, but it’s not entirely out of the question given the uncertainty of this pandemic-influenced offseason. The Cubs are somewhat desperate for a lefty presence in the ‘pen, and scouring the list of arbitration eligible candidates proffers next-to-nothing with regard to left-handed relievers. To that end, Norris is a name worth examining.

A headlining prospect in the David Price trade with Toronto in 2015, Norris never quite established himself in the Tigers rotation. In 2020 he transitioned to a multi-dimensional weapon out of the ‘pen, putting up terrific numbers: 3.25 ERA, 2.87 FIP, 24.1 K%, 6.0 BB%, 55.7 GB%, in 27.2 innings (14 appearances.)

A three-pitch mix includes a low-90’s four seamer (47.6 percent usage in 2020), change (30.6), and slider (21.6). In 2020, he almost completely scrapped his curveball and decreased his slider usage in favor of his changeup, and the results were notable. His ground ball percentage jumped over 15 points from his career rate (40.1), which while difficult to discern in a short season is nonetheless a positive development from the 27 year old. To wit, that changeup appears effective against same-handed hitters:

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Norris is set to make ~$3 million in his last year of arbitration. It’s not a steep number but could be a figure the Tigers decide isn’t worth paying for a reliever as their rebuild moves forward. With a bevvy of young starting pitchers, and the premier hiring of Manager AJ Hinch, perhaps Norris is viewed as a safety valve for a young, promising team. They might also explore a trade for Norris ahead of the December 2 deadline as an alternative to cutting him loose.

Regardless, Norris is an intriguing pitcher who would offer stability from the left side and starting pitching depth. For around $3 million, that’d be a solid get for the Cubs, who could sweeten the pot with a string of mutual options at escalating value.

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs
Arbitration Estimates courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors
Featured Photo: Brian Blanco, Getty Images

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