Cubs Relief Targets Coming Off Board, Shifting Market Complicates Matters

To call the Cubs’ goals for the Winter Meetings an open secret would be a misstatement. Fact is, they have been very transparent since they were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs that pitching would be a priority. The additions of Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow bear that out, though it was never a matter of adding just two arms.

The Cubs still need another starter and at least one more reliever, though the recent revelations about Mike Montgomery’s desires could further add to the shopping list. Bruce Levine tweeted Tuesday evening that they were “optimistic” about adding another pitcher, and his parenthetical inclusion of Morrow seems to indicate that said pitcher would be a reliever.

Not long after that tweet, the Cubs signed Drew Smyly, a starter who’ll probably miss all of 2018 following Tommy John surgery. Boy, that sure doesn’t seem like it’s part of the plan. I know there are some differing thoughts on it, but I get why the Cubs did what they did. Smyly is a known commodity to them and he’s worked well in both relief and starting roles.

Even thought they’re essentially paying him $5 million (using AAV of guarantees) to not pitch this coming season, even the activation of the full $6 million in incentives he can earn as a starter makes him pretty reasonable. But no matter how well he bounces back from elbow reconstruction, Smyly isn’t doing anything to address the Cubs’ immediate needs.

And the fact of the matter is that, while still plentiful, the list of available options is growing shorter by the day. Maybe even by the hour. The Rockies have been very active in the relief-pitching market and landed the durable Bryan Shaw Tuesday on a three-year deal for what is reportedly in the $27 million neighborhood. They have since agree to re-sign Jake McGee to a guaranteed three-year deal with an option for a fourth at an AAV that may be similar to Shaw’s.

Both relievers had been mentioned as Cubs targets, so how does this change their strategy for the rest of the Winter Meetings and the offseason in general? Well, it may not. Or, to state it more accurately, these two signings don’t figure to alter the Cubs’ course any more than the shifting collective plans of so many other teams already have.

“There’s some things that have changed with teams since we were here last time,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday in Orlando. “Circumstances have changed or ideas have changed. There are teams shifting what they want to do.”

Rather than unpack all the latent meaning in that statement and leave metaphorical clothing all over the floor, I think we can address what Hoyer’s saying pretty succinctly. While the Giancarlo Stanton trade may have changed the thinking among AL East teams in particular, it seems as though the market as a whole is being inundated by new options as more teams are looking to sell.

Jesse Rogers confirmed as much in the linked piece above, though I’m not sure we need to hear from industry sources to understand what’s going on.

Hoyer wouldn’t get specific, but industry sources indicate there are more teams in seller mode than before the meetings began. They include Baltimore and, of course, Miami. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay could be in that category as well.

This could be why we’ve seen the Cubs proceeding a little more deliberately with free agency as more trade opportunities present themselves. It could also be that the slow-developing market for starting pitching is driving up the price for Alex Cobb and others, thereby pushing the Cubs to look elsewhere as a way to either hedge their bets or gain leverage.

Assign to these rumors however much veracity you like, but the Cubs have been linked to Danny Duffy and Scott Alexander of the Royals, Chris Archer and Alex Colomé of the Rays, and Danny Salazar of the Indians. The common thread running through all of these is cost control, tempered though it may be in many cases by the player capitol required to gain that control.

The best way to envision this process, at least for me, is to liken it to shopping on Amazon for a gadget you’d really like but that you don’t have much firsthand knowledge of. For me, that product was an automatic litter box. First and foremost, the sheer volume of options was overwhelming. Then you start comparing prices, functionality, accessories, size, whether or not it’s Prime-eligble; it can truly push you to the point of paralysis by analysis.

While I don’t necessarily believe that the Cubs are on the brink of indecision, I do believe that weighing the various options before them has resulted in a slower process than what we might otherwise have expected. Then you have the robust pursuit of their top targets by other teams, a factor that may have further complicated matters. That appears to be the case with Cobb, but it’s also evident in the relievers we mentioned earlier.

And that also extends to Wade Davis. The former Cubs closer has drawn interest from several teams, including the Rockies, Cardinals, and Nationals, though the former may be out after ponying up for McGee and Shaw. The Cards are reportedly in on Colomé and the Nats may have too many irons in the fire to devote significant money to Davis. So it’s possible his asking price falls, which is something the Cubs are probably willing to wait on.

Therein lies a possible advantage to the flooded market, which is that there’s really no need to pounce on the first opportunity that comes around. Again, it’s like going on Amazon and seeing multiple versions of the same product rather than heading to a brick-and-mortar store and finding the inventory cleaned out when you get there.

The Cubs have partially addressed two big needs already and are keeping tabs on so many more that there’s no reason to fear missing out completely. A changing market dictates changing strategy, and there’s perhaps no front office in baseball better equipped to make those changes than the one running the show at Wrigley.

Ed. note: As soon as I hit “Publish,” it was announced that the Mets had agreed to terms with Anthony Swarzak. Though he wasn’t necessarily tied to the Cubs, the righty reliever had pitched for the White Sox and Brewers and is yet another of the attractive relievers out there.

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