Given how slow things have been for the Cubs outside of that two-day period in which they made a pair of big moves, we’ve resorted to looking at their division rivals’ deals. This one has the added relevance of involving a former Cub and a reliever on a short-term deal, though I’m not suggesting a reunion was or should have been on the table. In what came as a surprise to pretty much everyone, the Pirates have signed Aroldis Chapman to a one-year, $10.5 million contract.
The 36-year-old (in February) played for the Royals last year on just a $3.75 million deal, then was traded to the Rangers to help with their World Series run. Dude has a decent history on that front, though the same can’t be said for him off the field. But when you strike out over 40% of the batters you face, the past tends to remain in place.
Despite his advanced age, the hulking southpaw shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, his 99.1 mph average fastball was thrown harder last season than at any point since 2017 (100.1) and his 101.1 mph sinker topped triple digits for the ninth year in a row. That last one is even more notable because he threw it almost as hard as ever while also throwing it far more frequently.
I suppose we could debate the streak of 100+ readings since Chapman didn’t register a sinker in 2015 with the Reds and threw it less than 1% of the time in the seasons before and after. The pitch had not previously accounted for as much as 10% of his repertoire until 2023, when he threw it nearly 17% of the time. It was by far his most valuable offering in total and on a per-pitch basis, so I’d expect that usage to climb again this season.
The real kicker here is that Chapman isn’t even going to be the Pirates’ closer, as that job belongs to David Bednar. Chapman will primarily work the 8th inning and joins fellow former Cub Ryan Borucki as the primary lefties in the bullpen. As difficult as it’s been to take Pittsburgh seriously since Jake Arrieta and Kyle Schwarber ate their souls in 2015, it appears as though they are trying to make some noise.
“I’m not gonna pick a number of games or wins, but for the first time in what feels like a decade and maybe on the calendar is 6-7 years, we’re within striking distance of a good team,” Pirates owner Bob Nutting told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We’re short of that still, but the progression is clearly going in the right direction. My expectation is we take another meaningful step forward [in 2024]. With the current playoff system, another step forward means we can be in contention throughout the season. That’s a minimum expectation we should have and one we should be building on.”
While this one signing doesn’t make the Pirates contenders locking up the late innings with a pair of elite hurlers gives them a nice little edge in tight games. They were actually pretty good in that regard already, going 22-17 in one-run games last year. Their 3-9 record in extras was the worst in the division, however, and their 692 runs scored were the third-fewest in the NL.
The worst-case scenario for the Cubs is that the Pirates do take a big step forward. At the very least, they’re a tougher opponent that provides even less of a chance to beat up on during a balanced schedule that sees far fewer divisional games. There’s still time for Jed Hoyer to add a little offense and gain back some ground, but that clock is ticking louder by the day.
Ed. note: After seeing several comments about how he’s declined, I feel obligated to point out that Chapman’s 15.89 K/9 and 41.4% strikeout rate ranked second in MLB among pitchers with at least 50 IP. Only Felix Bautista (16.23, 46.4%) was better. No pitcher had a higher average sinker velo, and only five had a higher average four-seam velo. Though his walks were elevated, most of Chapman’s numbers were better than or nearly identical to his career marks.
I think the issue is that he was under the radar for most of his resurgent season after three down campaigns with the Yankees. If he’s anything close to what we saw last year, he’s easily one of the best setup men in the game. I don’t like the dude, but let’s not kid ourselves here.