The Cubs have a lot of work to do this winter, and one area of need is a bullpen that simply didn’t have enough weapons to hold up down the stretch. Jed Hoyer’s only outside addition at the deadline was sidewinder José Cuas, who ended up being pressed into almost daily duty in September. The Cubs didn’t have much balance in the ‘pen either, relying primarily on righty Mark Leiter Jr. to serve as their lefty specialist to injuries or lack of performance.
As such, Hoyer may need to swim in deeper waters when it comes to building out a relief corps with more than just spare parts and hope. Despite cashing in several lottery tickets over the years, it’s become clear that such a strategy isn’t viable if the Cubs want to take a big step forward next season. The most obvious (and expensive) option will be former Brewers closer Josh Hader, who may be targeting a number higher than Edwin Diaz‘s record $102 million deal for a reliever.
Aroldis Chapman will also be a free agent, though I’m not so sure the Cubs would be too keen on going that route again. Matt Moore, Will Smith, and Wandy Peralta are likewise part of a very strong class of back-end lefties that got even stronger when it was reported that Japanese closer Yuki Matsui will exercise his free agent rights in a bid to either come to MLB or negotiate with other NPB teams.
Matsui, who turns 28 at the end of October, has already played 10 seasons for the Rakuten Golden Eagles and will be a full free agent when the time comes. That means no additional posting fee and no restrictions tied to the league’s international bonus pool rules. Even considering the difficult time some Japanese relievers have had transitioning to MLB, all the factors here make him a coveted target for several teams.
According to the report linked above, the Cubs are among nine teams that recently scouted Matsui in Japan. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Padres were also mentioned, and you can bet that interest isn’t confined to only those groups that were reportedly in attendance.
Matsui led NPB in saves for the second consecutive year in 2023, logging 39 in 59 games with a 1.57 ERA. He became the youngest player in NPB history to earn 200 saves when he reached that mark in April and he finished with 236 for his career. The combination of a mid-90s fastball that tops out around 96 mph, a power splitter around 86-88 mph, and a sharp slider has led him to average 12 K/9 in Japan.
That mark was down to just 11.3 last season, but his 2.0 BB/9 tally was half of his career average. One big knock on Matsui is that he’s listed at just 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds, which leads to questions of durability over the longer MLB season. On the other hand, he probably won’t command as much money as some of the older guys mentioned above and might not demand the closer’s spot.
Personally, I’d like to see the Cubs get a little splashy with two big bullpen additions along with whatever else they do to upgrade the lineup and, ideally, the rotation. Maybe they can make it a double dip with Japanese pitchers and land Yoshinobu Yamamoto as well. While I’d be surprised if the Cubs end up with either of the two imports, it does seem very likely that they’ll be in the market for name-brand pitching this offseason.