Should The Cubs Trade For A Lefty Reliever?

The Cubs entered play on Sunday with a record of 39-15, so it requires squinting to pinpoint any areas that require improvement via trade. The most discussed area has been the starting rotation, but the longer the season wears on, the Cubs’ existing starters appear as desirable or more than most of the options likely to be on the trade market. That’s not to say they won’t go for a starter if the right deal presents itself, but the next most discussed area is the need for a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen, and that one might make a little more sense.

The rotation has received the majority of attention this season (for good reason), but the bullpen has been stout as well, limiting opponents to a .198 batting average and .622 OPS. The two lefties in the pen—Clayton Richard and Travis Wood—have had mixed results, though, with Wood finding more success of the two. Richard has had a tough year, and it’s been especially bad against lefties, as they are achieving an OPS of .978 against him, compared to just .683 for righties. This is exactly the opposite of his career splits, as he’s traditionally allowed an OPS of .615 against lefties, and .805 against righties. Richard may very well turn his season around, as his BABIP-against is an unfathomable .432, which somewhat explains the huge 8.00 to 3.36 disparity between his ERA and FIP. I’m not ready to give up on Richard yet, as I’d like to see him for a few more weeks before determining whether he belongs in the bullpen group for the rest of the season.

As for Wood, he is benefiting from an equally unsustainable BABIP-against as Richard, though this one is in his favor as balls-in-play are turning into hits at a minute .170 rate. Again, this mostly explains his 2.66 ERA versus his 4.66 FIP. He’s been better against righties (.568 OPS against) than lefties (.685) as well, but not so much that you wouldn’t trust him in a LOOGY situation in a critical spot. The problem is, Wood is also the Cubs’ best long man, meaning he could be unavailable by the time the opponents best lefty comes up in the eighth inning of a tight game. Now, adding another lefty does not necessarily mean one of Richard or Wood has to go, as Neil Ramirez’s designation for assignment means the Cubs are currently carrying only seven relievers. If they decide to move back to the eight-man ‘pen as they did earlier in the season—signaling they are comfortable with Miguel Montero’s health—an eighth reliever could be added, likely at the expense of Tim Federowicz.

One final thing to consider before deciding whether you think the Cubs should trade for a left-handed specialist, Justin Grimm has been absolutely dominant against lefties this year, allowing just an OPS of just .347 in 27 plate appearances. He’s been essentially split-neutral in his career, so it’s not entirely just a fluke this season. Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have also been effective against lefties, so along with Wood and Grimm there are four relatively good relief options against lefties.

I could argue the need for a lefty specialist is overplayed, but thankfully for Cubs fans, I don’t make the roster decisions. Assuming there is fire where the rumored smoke is, we can expect the Cubs’ front office to be in the market for a bullpen lefty. Let’s take a look at some of the possible names that could be bandied about as we get closer to the trade deadline.

Jake McGee – Colorado Rockies
3.66 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 4.64 DRA

McGee—a rumored target of the Cubs even while a member of the Rays—is one of the surest bets to be traded on this list, as he’s just one season from free agency and playing for a team unlikely to make the playoffs either this season or next. The problem is, the move to Colorado has not been a friendly one for him, as he stopped enjoying the success he’s had in recent seasons. This is especially true against lefties, as they are destroying him to the tune of an 1.060 OPS. Similar to Richard, this could be a bit of a fluke, as he has been fairly split-neutral in his career. Another issue is he’s making $4.8 million this year, and stands to make a significant raise in his final round of arbitration next year. So while Colorado will likely trade him, you can expect the prospect return to be rather tepid. All-in-all, I don’t think McGee represents a clear enough upgrade over existing options for the Cubs to make a move.

Sean Doolittle – Oakland A’s
2.66 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 2.96 DRA

For my money, Doolittle is one of the most intriguing options on this list. He’s been quietly fantastic over the years in Oakland, as evidenced by his 5.86 K/BB rate, and sparkling 2.39 DRA. He’s been dominant against both lefties and righties in his career (with an OPS allowed of under .600 for each), but he’s taken his game to a new level against lefties this season, allowing an OPS of just .439. He gets even more exciting as an acquisition target from a contract perspective, as he’s signed to a five year, $10.5 million contract that runs through 2018. Oakland also owns team options for $6 million and $6.5 million for 2019 and 2020. Of course, keep in mind that for these very reasons, the return Billy Beane will ask for will be significant. With Josh Reddick injured and Sonny Gray mostly ineffective this season, look for Beane to milk every penny of value out of Doolittle if he trades him. However, it’s no secret Beane and Theo Epstein have a long history of making deals, so don’t be surprised if they put something together before the deadline.

Fernando Abad – Minnesota Twins
0.93 ERA, 2.03 FIP, 3.75 DRA

Between Doolittle and Abad, this list is just full of players defying their names. Mr. Abad is enjoying a career year in Minnesota, and the biggest reason is because lefties have hit just .083 off of him. Peripheral stats suggest his performance has not been as wonderful as his ERA tells you it has, as his 3.75 DRA is only mediocre. This is mostly due to having given up no home runs this season, and a good but not great K/BB of 3.60. One of the biggest reasons for the spike in production for Abad is a huge increase in ground balls, as his 55 percent ground ball rate is far greater than his career rate of 42 percent. All of this said, look for some regression in his traditional stats in the second half of the year. Similar to McGee, Abad will be a free agent after next season, and will likely get a big raise in arbitration next year. He’s right at the top of the list of guys who will likely be traded, and some of the above factors may suppress his value more than you think. As the prospect cost could be manageable and the profile fits the Cubs’ needs, Abad could actually be agood target come July.

Justin Wilson – Detroit Tigers
3.74 ERA, 1.40 FIP, 2.47 DRA

The Tigers were expected to be competitive in the American League Central this season, and despite their fourth place standing, they are still only 3.5 games out of first place. Owner Mike Ilitch has been outspoken about his desire to remain consistently competitive, so Wilson may not be on the market, even if the Tigers start to fade out of the race. Wilson has been a solid reliever the past several years, collecting a 9.1 K/9 rate, while holding a 3.04 ERA. This has been by far his best season, as he has elevated his strikeout rate and paired it with a drop in walks to establish a stellar 7.75 K/BB ratio. He’s been almost identical against lefties and righties in his career, and he’s stayed true to form this year. He’ll enter his first year of arbitration next year, so he would be an ideal fit for the Cubs long term. However, this same fact makes the Tigers rather unlikely to trade him.

Will Smith – Milwaukee Brewers
0.00 ERA, 1.63 ERA, 4.20 DRA

Smith offers a very similar profile to Wilson, with a slightly higher tendency to issue free passes. He just made his 2016 debut on June 2nd, after suffering the common balancing-on-one-leg-in-the-shower knee sprain we’ve all been victim to once or twice. Historically, he’s been slightly better against lefties than righties (.709 OPS vs. .759), but not so much that he’d be a dedicated LOOGY. He’s entering his first round of arbitration in 2017, meaning the Brewers have plenty of time to decide whether to trade him or save him for teams that have a better chance of contending. He’ll be relatively attainable in trade, but if they are going to make a move, I’d rather see the Cubs acquire someone a bit more dominant against lefties.

Jose Alvarez – Los Angeles Angels
4.05 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 3.62 DRA

The definition of a LOOGY, Alvarez has seen his ability to get righties out completely disappear this year, as they are hitting a robust .347 and slugging .531 against him. Lefties have been a different story, as they are achieving a minute .545 OPS against Alvarez. The Angels are bad, and are likely to be bad for some time, so it remains to be seen what approach they take with their pieces worth a prospect return in trade. Alvarez isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2018, so they have plenty of time to try and let him build value. If the Cubs decide they want a LOOGY rather than a split-neutral reliever, Alvarez could be right at the top of the list.

Brad Hand – San Diego Padres
3.10 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 3.10 DRA

The good news is the Padres are terrible, and will almost certainly trade anything that nets a tangible return (see: Shields, James). The bad news is, Hand isn’t very good, at least in the way he’s been used thus far in his career. He’s striking guys out at a huge 11.5/9 rate this season, but that is likely unsustainable as his career mark is just 6.4/9. He’s faced almost the exact same amount of lefties and righties in his career, which is probably doing him a disservice, as he’s been outstanding against lefties, and terrible against righties. If the Cubs do trade for Hand, you can expect he’ll be used in LOOGY situations almost exclusively, rather than in the standard middle-relief way the Padres are using him.

Andrew Miller – New York Yankees
1.25 ERA, 1.31 FIP, 1.70 DRA

Miller has been irrefutably the best reliever in the game this season. He is at or near the top of the majors in K/9, K/BB, ERA, FIP and DRA. His .522 OPS allowed against righties is impressive, that is until you realize he’s allowed just a .267 OPS against lefties. Miller has had a strange career path, as he was a terrible starter for several years before transforming into the dominant reliever we enjoy watching today. He signed a four year, $36 million dollar contract before the 2015 season, meaning he has roughly $23 million still owed to him. This fact alone may scare some lower revenue teams off, but it’s actually strong value for an acquiring team, considering just how dominant Miller has been. If the Yankees decide to make him available, the prospects requested in return will hurt. From the Cubs’ standpoint, I can actually see this being a pretty solid fit. The money owed Miller won’t really faze management, and adding him to the bullpen for two years beyond this year is a huge boon. Fans won’t love seeing some of the names needed to actually entice the Yankees to trade him, but this could be the perfect opportunity to effectively use some of the farm system’s impressive depth.

Aroldis Chapman – New York Yankess
2.61 ERA, 0.79 FIP, 2.94 DRA

The Yankees faced some criticism when they traded for Chapman this offseason, as allegations of domestic abuse clouded his situation on and off the field. Since returning to the mound following his suspension, he’s been as dominant as ever, striking out 12.7 batters per nine innings, en route to a 0.79 FIP. The Yankees are similar to the Tigers, in that they will be slower to trade veterans for prospects, even if it clearly makes sense from a long term perspective. However, Chapman will be a free agent after this season, so he’s still more likely to be traded than not. He will be the definition of a rental, as he won’t be able to be given a qualified offer because of the midseason trade. I’ll be surprised if the Cubs trade for Chapman, as they have taken great pains to create a clubhouse culture that exemplifies strong character, and Chapman does not appear to possess this trait. The downside of this is that he’s a difference-making type of player, and he’s likely to end up on a playoff team that could potentially face the Cubs.

Danny Duffy – Kansas City Royals
3.44 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 3.06 DRA

It may be a bit of a stretch to include Duffy on this list, as the Royals are in the thick of contention in the AL Central, but hear me out. Next year will represent Duffy’s last year of arbitration, and he’s going to be expensive. It wouldn’t be shocking to me to see the Royals flip their lefty for younger, cheaper players while they can. If they decide to test the waters, they should be reasonably pleased with the incoming offers. Duffy has been utterly untouchable against lefties this year, with 16 strikeouts and just one walk, while allowing an OPS of  .478. He’s not just a LOOGY either, as he has experience starting and could double as a sixth starter, in a similar fashion to Travis Wood. It may be a long shot, but pay attention to the rumors coming out of Kansas City, as you might hear Duffy’s name floated.

This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive of the options the Cubs could have in the trade market, but it gives us an idea of what’s out there. If the Cubs are going to make a deal, my preference is for them to aim at the higher end of this market, grabbing a guy that is more than just a LOOGY, and preferably has multiple years of control. This makes Doolittle, Wilson and Miller particularly attractive to varying degrees, which of course means the ask in return will be higher. I’d love to hear from you in the comments whether you think the Cubs will trade for a reliever, and also who you would prefer as a target.

Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.

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5 comments on “Should The Cubs Trade For A Lefty Reliever?”


Spectacular article. Thanks for the great research.


Doolittle also has experience closing, which is always helpful.


Great read. I’d love to see the Cubs trade for Miller, the price might be high but flags fly forever.

Jared Wyllys

I’d be fine with the Miller asking price, because he’s the one piece I think they really need to add at this point.

Bob Paine

Miller would come with a steep price tag but he would also give the Cubs long term protection with Wood likely to price himself off the team after this season.

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