On Thursday, the Chicago Cubs addressed their needs in the bullpen, signing veteran Brad Brach to a one-year, $3 million deal with a club option for 2020 that pushes the deal north of $4 million for one year.
Brach deal with #Cubs is at least $4.35M for one year, sources tell The Athletic. Both player and club have options for 2020. Deal could grow to two years, $9.5M if Cubs exercise their option. Two-year guarantee would be less if team declines and Brach exercises his option.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 24, 2019
Perhaps the largest question mark surrounding the Cubs going into 2019 lies within their bullpen. Closer Brandon Morrow is all but a lock to open the season on the disabled list, leaving a thin group of trusted relievers in the pen.
With Morrow on the shelf, Pedro Strop is likely to pick-up much of the closing duties, but even he has been hit by the injury bug of late. Steve Cishek is fresh off a 2018 in which he posted a 2.18 ERA across 70.1 innings spanning 80 appearances (career high).
Aside from Strop and Cishek, Mike Montgomery perhaps represents the most trusted reliever in the Cubs’ bullpen, a group that includes Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing and Brandon Kintzler. Each of those names have warts, mostly with their troubles in the free pass department, as 2018 saw both Duensing and Kintzler struggle mightily.
That is why adding to the bullpen was a top priority this off-season for the front office, and why fans have been anxious as the Cubs have been silent in the reliever market for much of the winter. All that changed on Thursday with the signing of Brad Brach.
Brach, 32, is an eight-year veteran, having split time between the San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles, and most recently, Atlanta Braves. Used primarily as a set-up man in Baltimore, Brach enjoyed much success in the four seasons spanning 2014-2017.
His 2.74 ERA across 288.2 innings produced a well above league average 153 ERA-plus while his 305 strikeouts (9.5 K/9 rate) earned Brach the reputation as a strikeout pitcher.
While Brach’s 2018 season did not get off to a particularly good start (4.85 ERA in 39 innings) a mid-season trade to the Braves revived his year. In Atlanta, Brach posted a 1.52 ERA in 23.2 innings, turning himself from a 14 percent worse that league average pitcher into an All-Star-caliber reliever.
Despite that, Brach’s strikeout rate has taken a tumble of late. In his All-Star season of 2016, Brach posted a 29.6 percent strikeout rate, a career best, topping that off with a meager eight percent walk rate. Since then, however, Brach’s rate statistics have taken off in opposite (and not good) directions. Across just two years, Brach has watched his strikeout rate fall to a career worst 20.8 percent in 2018 and his walk rate rise to an elevated 9.7 percent.
Those trends may not be good news for a bullpen that has seen its struggles with the free pass over the last handful of years, while at the same time lacking a true and consistent strikeout pitcher.
Judging by Brach’s numbers, he is no longer a high strikeout pitcher like he was even two years ago. With that being said, Brach has shifted into more of a ground ball pitcher as his strikeout talents have waned.
Brach’s career ground ball rate sits at just 40.8 percent, a product of his four first seasons at the major league level. Since 2014, Brach has posted a ground ball rate of at least 40 percent in every season, topping out at 46 percent in 2018. Conversely, Brach’s fly ball rate has been cut into, a number that fell from 39 percent in 2017 to 30.3 percent last season.
With his strikeout pitch missing over the last handful of years, Brach has been able to keep balls on the ground, giving his defense the best chance possible to turn them into outs.
The pairing of Brach and Kintzler should ensure many ground balls off opponents’ bats in 2019, assuming both pitchers live up to their career norms, that is. In addition, Brach gives the Cubs flexibility with who saves games. The right-hander has logged 33 career saves, 30 of which have came in the last two seasons.
With Morrow out for the first portion of the season, Brach steps into a huge role in the back-end of the bullpen, so it’s important that he has that experience to draw upon.
Brach guarantee with #Cubs will be more than $3M, source tells The Athletic. Includes buyout on club option for 2020.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 24, 2019
It’s a line we have heard all off-season. One about how the Cubs’ budget does not permit a big-name signing. With the Brach deal, we continue to see that as his $3 million for 2019 is about as club friendly as it gets. Also, both Brach and the Cubs have an option for 2020. Depending on which side exercises that option depends on the overall value of the deal.
Overall, this signing adds much needed depth to the Cubs’ bullpen and should make the first month of 2019 without Morrow pretty smooth.
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