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Cubs Need a LOOGY (and Will Smith)

Cubs' lefty relievers have been among the worst in baseball against same-handed batters. Austin Bloomberg writes why the Cubs need more than just Will Smith to fix the problem.

If there’s one constant during Major League Baseball’s trade deadline it’s that contenders of all stripes seek out left-handed relievers. That reality might be exaggerated even more this summer, with a now hard trade deadline of July 31 heightening the urgency of every contender over the next few weeks.

For the Cubs there are certainly concerns beyond the ‘pen, but finding a consistent (if not dominant) lefty option at the back-end of ball games isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity if they are to win the NL Central and make an honest playoff run. With the second half of the season set to begin Friday the trade deadline looms over the horizon. There are a handful of lefties that are (or will become) available; figuring out which players the Cubs covet, and which they could realistically attain, is another story altogether.

The Necessity for a Lefty

There’s little doubt the Cubs would be shopping for a lefty at the deadline regardless of how the first half unfolded. That shopping has now taken on a sense of urgency, as Cubs lefty relievers posted a 4.82 ERA (4.61 FIP) in 80.1 innings during the first half. A deeper dive into analytics doesn’t yield kinder results, with a strike out percentage (19.8), walk rate (10.4) and WHIP (1.62) all among the worst in baseball.

Sadly, it gets even worse for the team’s southpaws against same-handed batters. A .401 wOBA, .341 batting average against, and well below average walk (10.1) and strikeout (18.7) percentages have led to an abysmal 5.72 ERA. These numbers aren’t bad, they’re horrific, even accounting for a touch of bad luck (.400 BABIP).

The struggles of Mike Montgomery have had an abnormal impact on the relief corps. His versatility was an absolute strength dating back to the team’s World Series run, and his sudden collapse — 5.67 ERA along with career worsts in GB percentage (43.0) and HR/FB rate (28.6) — has limited the effectiveness of an already thin bullpen.

Certainly the stability created with a healthy Pedro Strop, the ever consistent Steve Cishek, and a readied Craig Kimbrel will have a trickle-down effect that will fortify the beleaguered unit. But the train wreck that’s been left-handed relief remains unsolved, and must be addressed before the calendar flips to August.

Relying on Montgomery at this point is (sadly) impossible, and there’s no telling how long Kyle Ryan can remain effective considering his track record is practically unwritten. Even if Monty shows some positive regression and Ryan maintains his first half numbers, a more dominant lefty arm remains a need. Reinforcements from within hardly exist, as neither Randy Rosario or Xavier Cedeno have proven much, and Justin Steele, the last remaining lefty on the 40 man roster, is struggling in Double A.

The Top Target

Will Smith is the most obvious (and biggest) name, a pure rental with an affordable contract the Cubs could absorb with regard to the Luxury Tax. Smith mixes a low-to-mid 90’s fastball with a devastating slider, and he’s been dominant against lefties and righties alike. (There’s an excellent, in-depth piece about Smith over at Fangraphs.)

Per Jordan Bastian, the Cubs aren’t inclined to part with their top three prospects (Nico Hoerner, Adbert Alzolay, Miguel Amaya) to get Smith, a road block for a player expected to be of the most demanded trade candidates. That stance is both pragmatic and understandable; it also leaves touted Brailyn Marquez vulnerable, a player the Cubs would also be wise to keep.

San Fran’s asking price is currently unknown, and although it’ll be significant Smith would fortify the ‘pen immensely. His otherworldly 1.98 ERA, sterling 6 percent walk rate and incredible 39 percent strikeout rate would create arguably the best late inning trio in baseball. The front office is right to be wary of his cost, however, and if another contender with a deeper prospect pool seriously pursues him, the Cubs will either have to part ways with one of their perceived untouchable prospects or lose out on Smith altogether.

Supposing Smith is shipped elsewhere, there are other — albeit lesser — options the Cubs can pursue. Sticking for a moment with the Giants (an obvious deadline seller), lefty Tony Watson is also available. Although he wouldn’t require a significant package, and is both cheap and under control through 2020, his profile doesn’t fit the Cubs’ needs. His 3.38 ERA is solid, but that comes with an alarming FIP (4.47) and reverse splits: lefties are slugging .514 against him, righties just .386.

Because Ryan has been effective-but-not-elite against lefties, the Cubs need a LOOGY type arm if they in fact miss out on Smith or someone of his caliber. Watson clearly does not fit the bill.

Secondary Trade Options

It goes without saying that Smith should rightfully be the top trade target as no other dominant lefties appear available. While speculation looms over Brad Hand, Cleveland is unlikely to trade him if they continue their resurgence and make a playoff push. This puts the Cubs in a position where they should pursue Smith to their absolute limit (meaning they should stay true to keeping their preferred prospects) before settling on a Plan B.

Losing out on Smith would sting, however the ‘pen could be fortified with a durable and consistent LOOGY. With the strength of the late innings as it currently stands (along with a potential reinforcement in Carl Edwards Jr. and perhaps Adbert Alzolay) a quality arm that gets lefties out would stabilize the effectiveness of the unit overall.

Given the team’s (self enforced) payroll limitations and the wide cast of teams that remain in the playoff hunt or on-the-fence about selling, the list of secondary names the Cubs could pursue will remain fluid throughout the rest of July. Below are some of the names they should kick the tires on, with or without Smith. (All stats against left-handed hitters.)

Name Team IP ERA K % BB % BAA Salary
Andrew Chafin D-Backs 19.1 1.40 32.9 7.6 .225 $1.945 million
Paul Fry Orioles 16.1 0.55 19.4 12.9 .118 $559 thousand
Tim Mayza Blue Jays 14.2 1.23 23.1 12.3 .196 $568 thousand
Jake Diekman Royals 11.2 3.09 20.4 16.7 .186 $2.75 million
Daniel Stumpf Tigers 11 1.64 27.7 8.5 .225 $566 thousand
Jarlin Garcia Marlins 9.2 0.00 15.8 17.9 .171 $555 thousand

These names are all speculative, though each carry an appeal to a Cubs team in desperate need of left-handed relief. It’s unclear if Arizona will become sellers, and further unclear if teams that are sellers would part with (relatively) young relief arms that come with years of team control.

Given the state of the Cubs farm system, payroll inflexibility, and certain need, however, these are names worth looking into. Creativity will be Theo and Jed’s best friend over the next few weeks, but one thing is for certain: they can’t afford to whiff at this year’s deadline.

Follow Austin Bloomberg on Twitter for more Cubs news and opinion.

(All stats courtesy of Fangraphs unless otherwise noted. All contract info courtesy of Spotrac.)

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Austin is the Lead Cubs Writer for The Loop Sports. He's a lifelong baseball junkie (due to his father) and as a former college pitcher has a particular affinity for the art of pitching. Austin loves to commute in Chicago on his bicycle, and enjoys camping and canoeing as often as possible. He attained his master's degree in Social Justice and Community Development from Loyola University Chicago in 2014.

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