They added a respected right-handed arm to the bullpen to make up for the loss of Jesse Chavez, perhaps their most valuable reliever down the stretch, and they waited long enough to get someone who fit into their modest offseason spending plan.
Brach, who reportedly agreed to a one-year, $3 million deal with a 2020 option, has a career 3.03 ERA and experience closing games, giving manager Joe Maddon another late-game option early in the season while closer Brandon Morrow rehabs.
Morrow underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow in November and won’t begin throwing until the first week of February, which likely will sideline him for the start of the season.
Pedro Strop is the heir apparent to the closer role until Morrow returns after taking over in the second half when Morrow was put on the disabled list with a bone bruise, never to return. Strop suffered a hamstring injury while making a rare batting appearance during a makeup game in Washington in mid-September, forcing Maddon to mix and match the rest of the way.
Strop said at the Cubs Convention no one has said anything to him about closing to start the 2019 season.
“It’s too early for that,” he said. “I don’t know (about Morrow’s status). I heard something about it. Hopefully he’s ready when the season starts because when he’s ready, our bullpen is a lot better. I hope he’s ready in time, and I’m just looking forward to helping, like I always do.
“The best thing about our bullpen was I kind of showed I can close games, but we’ve also got (Steve) Cishek and (Brandon) Kintzler, who’ve done it before, and I’m sure they’ll be able to help. We’ll see what happens.”
The Cubs picked up Strop’s $6.25 million option after the season, while Kintzler picked up his one-year, $5 million option that was part of a deal he signed with the Nationals. Brach is the only addition.
Cubs President Theo Epstein said in early December that Morrow’s injury “underscores the need for depth and late-game options early in the year,” but the Cubs passed on pricier options, including Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Joe Kelly, Jeurys Familia, Joakim Soria and Adam Ottavino. The best closer on the market, Craig Kimbrel, remains unsigned but appears to be well out of the Cubs’ price range.
The Cubs believe they got a bargain in Brach, who joins Daniel Descalso as the only significant offseason pickups. The Cubs’ estimated payroll is around $213 million, the highest in club history and above the $206 million threshold for the luxury tax.
“I was honest when asked about adding a monumental contract to our books this offseason,” Epstein said at the convention. “I said it continues to be extremely unlikely given the totality of the circumstances. I’m not running from that, not trying to hide the ball.”
The Cubs’ eight-man bullpen for 2019 consists of six right-handers (Brach, Strop, Morrow, Kintzler, Cishek and Carl Edwards Jr.) and two left-handers (Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing). Tyler Chatwood, the demoted starter with two years and $25.5 million left on his deal, also is in the mix and figures to at least start the season in the bullpen with Morrow out.
New pitching coach Tommy Hottovy will have his hands full this spring with Chatwood, Yu Darvish and Edwards, who had a poor second half, among his reclamation projects.
“It’s not like he’s new,” Strop said. “He’s been with us and I’m happy for him to get this job. We’re looking to help him on any circumstance. He’s good, man. He has a lot of info. It’s crazy. We were together in spring training in 2014, and now he’s my pitching coach.”
The Cubs bullpen led the National League with a 3.35 ERA in 2018, trailing only the Astros (3.03) in the majors. But it also finished second in the NL in walks allowed (273) and posted a 3.98 ERA over the final month as the Cubs let the Brewers catch them in the NL Central race.
Spring training opens Feb. 12 with the first workout the following day. With most of the same group back from 2018, the Cubs are no longer willing to give their young players the benefit of the doubt.
“Now is the time for them to produce,” Epstein said. “Guys have had their adjustment periods in the big leagues and have a couple seasons under their belt. Most of the team is moving into their mid-20s, not their early 20s anymore. And it’s definitely time to produce and decisions are going to be made on playing time and on optioning guys and roles with the team going forward based on production, as it should be.”