Matt Barnes Could Be Answer as Cubs Look to Improve High-Leverage Bullpen Depth on Budget

The Cubs have finished most of the work in an offseason that many experts and fans believe has yielded significant improvements across the roster. Of course, many still believe the team’s $300 million in spending is nothing more than an expensive smokescreen meant to placate ticket buyers so the business side’s bottom line looks better. However you look at it, everyone can agree that Jed Hoyer’s squad could still use a little help at the back end of the bullpen.

It’d be even better if they could add a lefty since Brandon Hughes is the only southpaw at this point. The Cubs have been linked to old friend Andrew Chafin and the well-traveled Matt Moore, the latter of whom had his fastball up to 94 mph last season after being at 93 or below since 2012. Then there’s Zack Britton, who has been connected to the Cubs in the past and is now throwing for teams in an attempt to rebuild his value following two injury-riddled seasons in New York.

Patrick Mooney also named Brad Hand and Caleb Smith as possibilities for a team looking to add “a late-inning reliever with some closing experience,” though the former suffered a partial UCL tear in the last game of the season and has opted for rehab rather than surgery. Even if he avoids a procedure, the risk is significant. Hand has been among the better lefty relievers in the game for the last several years and has earned at least one save in every season since 2016, but his strikeout and walk rates have moved sharply in the wrong directions over the past two seasons.

The Cubs are currently sitting about $12 million below the $233 million luxury tax threshold and Tom Ricketts has talked about possibly getting up to that mark, so they have more than enough for even a moderately expensive reliever. Then again, Ricketts also mentioned adding talent at the trade deadline should performance dictate it. That means saving room in the budget, which significantly decreases Hoyer’s desire and ability to spend in the present.

“I think when you look at the cost at some of the players we were able to do that on, it was — I don’t wanna say low-risk — but low stakes as far as what we were paying those guys and I do think the buy-low reliever market, so to speak, has been a lot higher than in the past,” Hoyer explained during Cubs Convention. “I think that it’s made that job difficult, but all that said, really we have to be able to develop our own relievers in-house and I love the offseason where I don’t have to sign anybody to be candid with you.

“I think that means we have a ton of arms and go with what we have internally. It’s a place you love to have efficiency.”

That sure sounds like he’s waving the white flag as far as any significant signings for the bullpen, though I don’t think it necessarily means the Cubs are done. The longer the market drags out, the easier it may be to snag one of those aforementioned relievers on a cheap deal. Then you consider how the Cubs have been able to pass so many players through waivers, the most recent examples of which were Manny Rodríguez and Anthony Kay.

Along with minor league signing Ryan Borucki, Kay provides the Cubs with a little more lefty depth at Triple-A that could be deployed in Chicago. Both should have an opportunity to earn a spot out of spring training, but it’s a long season and there will be plenty of shifting in the Opening Day roster over the course of the summer.

One other possibility for a front office looking to maximize its remaining dollars is former Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes, who was just DFA’d to make room for Adam Duvall. Barnes is almost certain to clear waivers due to his $8.375 million salary, after which another team can pick him up for the league minimum. Though he’s not a lefty, the 32-year-old has been relatively split-neutral and he’s got a lot of high-leverage experience.

Barnes also boasts a 95 mph fastball that would boost the Cubs’ average velo, something the organization has been trying to do for years. He ran into the same issue as Hand last year in that his strikeouts were way down — possibly due to issues with his curveball — while his walks remained elevated, but perhaps the pitch lab and a new role would help with that.

The Cubs have always done a great job with reclamation relievers and Barnes could be kind of like a David Robertson redux if he’s given the opportunity to close games. Assuming several teams would like to add him at the league minimum, having that 9th inning up for grabs could give the Cubs the advantage when it comes to wooing him.

While I don’t like the idea of adding Barnes solely because he’s cheap, the low cost makes his potential value that much higher. If you look back at what Hoyer stated above, this is exactly the kind of deal they’re looking for as they wait for some younger relievers to force their way up through the system.

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