Looks like Jed Hoyer isn’t asleep at the wheel after all. As first reported by Jeff Passan, the Cubs have agreed to a one-year deal with righty reliever Hector Neris that has an option for a second year. Neris is guaranteed $9 million and there’s a $9 million club option for 2025 that converts to a player option at 60 appearances. With incentives, the deal can max out at $23.25 million.
This is just the Cubs’ second guaranteed signing of the offseason after adding lefty starter Shōta Imanaga just before his posting window closed earlier this month. Neris lends a ton of credibility to a bullpen that was pretty iffy leading up to Julian Merryweather and Adbert Alzolay at the back end, so Hoyer just solidified what had been a league-average unit last season. They sure could use another lefty, though, so maybe we see a trade in the next couple weeks.
The Marlins are pinching pennies and are surely open to dealing an arbitration-eligible player or two, with Tanner Scott standing out as a nice fit for the Cubs. Scott has appeared in over 60 games in each of the last three seasons and he’s coming off of a career-low 7.8% walk rate with just three homers allowed in 2023.
But back to Neris, who enters his age-35 season looking for a ninth consecutive year of double-digit K/9 marks. He has appeared in more than 70 games in each of the last three seasons between Houston and Philadelphia, prior to which he logged at least 68 appearances three other times. His fastball velocity dipped a little last year to just 93 mph, though batters had a mere .153 average against it.
His splitter induced a whopping 42.2% whiff rate as it tumbled to the bottom of the zone thanks to a spin rate of just 1,166 rpm. That’s not the lowest in the game, but it’s really darn good and it helps Neris to be relatively split-neutral. He works the four-seam up in the zone while the splitter works down, then he busts righties in on the hands with the sinker. That means he also works lefties away, which is how he’s been more effective against them over the last two seasons.
Though Neris doesn’t throw the splitter as frequently as he did with the Phillies, when it made up well over 40% of his offerings, he’s been far more consistent of late. Say all you want about their competitive methods, the Astros have been phenomenal when it comes to developing pitchers in both the minors and big leagues. Continuing that performance with the Cubs will make Neris a very valuable member of the bullpen this season and possibly next.
There are some concerns, however, the biggest of which is that velocity dip for a guy who’s several years on the wrong side of 30. Neris also walks a fair number of batters and gives up a ton of fly balls, with something like 45% of the contact he’s allowed over the last three seasons ending up in the air. That mark was nearly 52% last year, but he was able to limit damage thanks to his 97th-percentile hard-hit rate. Regression, please hold off for a while.
With the back third of games spoken for and a host of middle relievers and swingmen, the Cubs have a fair bit of depth to work with. Having a pitcher or two take a big step forward, whether that’s Daniel Palencia, Luke Little, or one of their host of minor-league signings like Carl Edwards Jr. would answer a lot of questions. This deal pretty much removes any remaining flexibility they had, so it’s going to be a real battle this spring in Mesa for one or two spots.
Now Hoyer’s job is to find some more offense to make sure the ‘pen has enough leads to protect this season.