Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said this afternoon the team was still monitoring the market for left-handed relief. Patrick Mooney of the Athletic adds some specificity to that search, reporting that players like Mike Minor, Will Smith and Brad Hand have all been under consideration. Mooney also adds Zack Britton — whose appeal to the Cubs has previously been reported — as a player the club has checked in on.
Interest in Smith, Hand and Britton is fairly straightforward for a club seeking southpaw help in the later innings. They’re arguably the three top unsigned relievers of either handedness. They’re all former All-Stars with strong career track records and more recent question marks.
Smith had a rocky first half of the season in Atlanta but quietly impressed following a deadline trade to the Astros. Hand allowed fewer than three earned runs per nine innings with the Phillies last season, but that came with strikeout and walk marks that were a few percentage points worse than the respective league averages. Britton has barely pitched over the past season and a half after battling elbow issues that culminated in September 2021 Tommy John surgery.
Smith has only previously been linked to the Tigers this offseason. Evan Petzold of the Free-Press reported Detroit’s interest a couple weeks back but noted that Smith was also drawing attention from clearer-cut contenders. The Cubs are coming off a 74-88 season but were well better than Detroit in 2022 and have had a far more active offseason in an effort for immediate improvement. The only other team that has been publicly tied to Hand are the Twins.
Unlike that trio, Minor hasn’t had any recent work out of the bullpen. He pitched exclusively in relief for the 2017 Royals after two seasons lost to shoulder problems. Since then, the veteran left-hander has pitched essentially entirely as a starter. He has started all but one of 119 appearances in the last five years. Minor had quite a bit of success in that capacity with the Rangers between 2018-19. Things have gone downhill in the trio of seasons since then.
Minor has allowed more than five earned runs per nine innings in each of the past three campaigns. Between 2020-21, he at least stayed mostly healthy and served as a source of back-of-the-rotation innings. That wasn’t the case in 2022, however. Minor was limited to 98 frames over 19 starts during his lone season as a member of the Reds. He posted a 6.06 ERA with a career-worst 16.7% strikeout percentage while allowing an untenable 2.2 home runs per nine.
It’s possible Minor’s struggles are attributable, at least in part, to injury. The 35-year-old began the season on the injured list with a shoulder concern and didn’t make his season debut until early June. He finished the year back on the IL thanks to renewed shoulder issues. The former All-Star hinted at potential retirement last fall but has apparently decided to give things another go. He recently held a showcase for interested teams.
Minor could appeal to teams seeking to stockpile their rotation depth, though the Cubs are presumably eyeing him as a potential relief option. Chicago has Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, Justin Steele and Drew Smyly penciled into their top four rotation spots. Hayden Wesneski, Adrian Sampson and Javier Assad headline the group competing for the final rotation job to open the year. Kyle Hendricks, who’d surely get a starting job once healthy, is reportedly looking towards May for a potential rehab stint after his 2022 campaign was cut short by a capsule tear in his shoulder.
The Cubs have been linked to a number of lefty relief options throughout the offseason. Brandon Hughes is the only southpaw assured of a season-opening bullpen job. There’s room for a second pitcher, though the club has slow-played that area despite an otherwise aggressive offseason that has brought in Taillon, Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger, Trey Mancini, Tucker Barnhart and a handful of right-handed ’pen arms.
There might not be much room left in the budget. Roster Resource projects the Cubs’ luxury tax number around $225MM, $8MM shy of this year’s base threshold. Mooney writes the organization presently views that tax marker “as a soft salary cap,” limiting the amount of flexibility for Hoyer and his front office. It seems unlikely any of the remaining relievers would secure an $8MM guarantee at this point in the offseason — Minor, in particular, might be limited to non-roster offers — but most teams prefer to leave a bit of payroll space for in-season acquisitions.
Whether ownership would approve a bump above the luxury tax if the team is competing for a playoff spot in-season remains to be seen. Owner Tom Ricketts spoke vaguely about the tax in January, saying there “will be times I’m sure in the near future where we’ll go over. But we’ll always keep in mind that there’s a balance there you have to always look to manage” (link via Meghan Montemurro of the Chicago Tribune). The Cubs last paid the luxury tax in 2020.