The Chicago Cubs were expected to be involved in the reliever market this year, though we hadn’t yet heard of any specific targets. With an open closer’s job (Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and even Hector Rondon figure to get in-house looks), the Cubs can offer someone – a quality late-inning reliever who hasn’t yet had the chance to close, for example? – a chance to win the gig, and more future dollars in the process.
The first such target that comes up, according to Chris Cotillo (he of the recently-reported Ricky Nolasco signing), is former Cardinals closer Edward Mujica. Having fallen into the closer’s gig in St. Louis by default last year, you probably wouldn’t call Mujica a “proven closer,” and you certainly wouldn’t pay him any kind of premium on that basis. Assuming other teams agree, the Cubs’ available closer’s role could still have some special appeal for Mujica. Cotillo reports that the Indians, Phillies, and Orioles have also expressed interest in Mujica, who is probably going to get a deal similar to the one the Angels just gave fellow right-handed 29-year-old reliever Joe Smith (three years, $15.75 million).
For the Cubs, that kind of signing would hearken back to the days of Bob Howry (three years, $12 million), Scott Eyre (three years, $11 million), and LaTroy Hawkins (three years, $11 million), among many others, when the Cubs lavishly spent upon late-inning relievers. That’s the derisive narrative, anyway. The funny thing? The Cubs got 3.3 WAR from Howry, who clearly earned his contract. Hawkins was great in his first year with the Cubs (1.2 WAR), before being dealt halfway through his second season. The Eyre signing was the only real goat of the group, and was improvident from the get-go, based on the career year that preceded it (and not the several years of meh before that).
That’s all to say that multiyear contracts for late-inning relievers aren’t all bad. Because of the relatively low dollars involved, it’s easy for the player to “earn” the contract, and it’s easy to move the player out if the team is unsuccessful. There’s a line, as there is in any investment, but veteran relievers can be something of a stabilizing presence in a young bullpen. Sure, there’s more risk of busting out on a guy who, by definition, couldn’t hack it as a starter or a closer, but that doesn’t mean you don’t take artful shots.
As for Mujica, specifically, I have my reservations.
Over the last few years, Mujica has changed his approach, all but abandoning the hard stuff in favor of heavy reliance on a splitter/change-up thing, which tends to get a lot of groundballs. Predictably, he’s seen his strikeout rate drop from the mid-20 percent range to right around 18%. Is that just a guy being savvy and understanding his aging curve, or is it a guy who is losing his stuff and just got lucky last year?
The stats, on their face, look good: 2.78 ERA over 64.2 innings, most of which were late innings. His walk rate was a microscopic 2.0% (he’s always been a guy in the zone – career walk rate is just 3.8%). His K/BB was an absurd 9.20. There’s a lot to like.
There are certainly a lot of “luck” signals for Mujica last year, though (he was closing for the Cardinals, so what did you expect?). You could point to his .263 BABIP (20+ points below his career average), and his enormous 86.1% LOB percentage. On the other hand, a guy getting a lot of groundballs would tend to strand more runners than a guy who’s giving up deep hits to the outfield. And although Mujica’s career BABIP is near .300, that .263 mark from last year actually is closer to where he’s been over the past four seasons. Considering the dramatic change to his pitch mix, and it’s fair to wonder if the success is more legit than you might think.
In the end, Mujica’s a guy who doesn’t walk anyone (big plus for a reliever), and doesn’t strike out a ton of guys either. He gets a lot of groundballs, but gives up his share of homers.
How much is that guy worth? Well, he’s probably worth a three-year contract in the Howry/Eyre/Hawkins mold (adjusted for inflation, of course), and that’s probably what he’s going to get. This Cubs front office wouldn’t go to three years on Jason Grilli or Mike Adams or any other reliever in recent years, however, so I wonder if they might hold back that third year for Mujica, too. That means he’s probably signing somewhere else.