After a poor off-season, the Cubs will look to bolster a talented, but inconsistent bullpen heading into the 2018 season. One emphasis you’ll see as the Cubs add to the pen is finding guys who keep walks to a minimum. For the 2017 season, the Cubs bullpen led all of baseball with an 11.2 percent walk rate. Theo Epstein mentioned during his end of season press conference that the walks were unacceptable, and I certainly don’t expect him to leave the hole alone in the offseason. The walks were a key reason that the Cubs moved on from their well-respected pitching coach Chris Bosio.
In addressing these walk issues this winter, a target who fits the bill perhaps better than any other reliever is Pat Neshek. Out of 150 relievers to throw at least 50 innings in 2017, Pat Neshek had the lowest walk percentage of them all.
Position: Right-handed pitcher, reliever
2017 Stats: 62.3 IP, 1.59 ERA, 2.51 DRA, 53.4 DRA-, 73 cFIP, 29.4% K, 2.6% BB
How He Fits: Like I mentioned above, the Cubs need guys who can keep to the walks to a minimum. No reliever in baseball did that as well as Pat Neshek in 2017. The 37-year-old with the goofy windup has had a long and interesting career, but his 2017 season might have been his best one yet. He made his 2nd All-Star Game and was traded at the deadline. Perhaps the most impressive thing was that he maintained his early season success after he was traded at the deadline to Colorado, where pitchers go to die. After the deal to Colorado, he still had an ERA of 2.45 and a DRA of 2.72.
Another reason I think Neshek fits well for the Cubs is because he’ll likely require only a short-term contract. With the huge post-2018 offseason upcoming, I really think the Cubs will look to add shorter term deals this offseason. Because he is 37, Neshek will likely only require a one year deal, and at most a two-year deal. While he likely wouldn’t be an option to close in Chicago, he could help fill in the middle to late innings along with guys like Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. Simply put, signing Neshek now allows the Cubs flexibility moving forward.
As guys age, they tend to lose velocity and thus could get hit harder. There is another area where Neshek excelled. He actually gained about a half a mile per hour on his fastball in 2017 compared to 2016, leading me to believe that despite his age, he might not be slowing down. Now he could of course break at any point, but given the short-term commitment and the ability to maintain arm strength in his age 36 season, I like the odds for him to continue his success.
Why It Won’t Work: I see a couple reasons this might not work. The first is that the Cubs might not believe that Neshek is likely to continue his 2017 success into 2018. While he was awesome last year, he did struggle a bit in 2015 and 2016 in Houston. By DRA-, he was about average in those years, sporting a 100.5 in 2015 and 102.1 in 2016. If the Cubs are worried that he might regress back to those numbers, they could simply look to another one of the plentiful arms that will be available this offseason. Given his 4.2 HR/FB ratio and 82.3 percent LOB rate in 2017, I would even say that regression is likely for the side-winding right-hander.
The second reason this might not work is that Neshek might be looking for more years and money than the Cubs are willing to offer. Even though he is 37, Neshek might look to get paid one last time following a career-best year in 2017. It is possible that he might be looking for two or even three years on the open market. With a multitude of other options available, I could see the Cubs looking elsewhere if that is the ask.
Alternatives: Luckily for the Cubs, there are options aplenty for low-walk, talented relievers this off-season. If the Cubs don’t look at Neshek, they could go after a plethora of right-handed relievers that include Matt Albers, Steve Cishek, Luke Gregerson, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow, Seung Hwan Oh, Addison Reed, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith and Anthony Swarzak. Even if the Cubs like Neshek, look for them to check in on some or all of the names on this list.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports