Sometimes, the Chicago Cubs sign veteran players to minor league deals for extreme depth in the minors. Sometimes, they do it with the intention of getting those players right up to the show.
And still, other times, these players are signed to minor league deals as a project to see if they can recapture some of their early career success. Today, the latter has happened.
According to Mark Gonzalez, the Chicago Cubs have signed left-handed-reliever (and former starter) Brian Matusz to a minor league deal, he’ll likely (and eventually) head to AAA Iowa, where the Cubs can see if they can fix whatever’s been wrong and recapture some of that early career magic.
Matusz, 29, was drafted fourth overall by the Orioles in 2008. He eventually made his big league debut in 2009 as a starting pitcher, but was moved into the bullpen half-way through the 2012 season, which is where he’s remained ever since. He has had a bit of a strange journey past few months, though.
Coming off a solid year as a reliever in 2015 (we’ll get to that in a second), Matusz and the Orioles agreed to a one-year deal worth $3.9 million, to avoid arbitration (his final year). But, if you recall, Matusz (his salary) and a competitive balance draft pick were traded to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for a couple of minor league pitchers. The Braves immediately DFA’d Matusz, who then became a free agent.
As a starter, Matusz has a career 5.51 ERA (4.82 FIP) across 354.2 innings pitched and batters are hitting .285/.353/.479 (.361 wOBA) off him. However, as a reliever, Matusz has a career 3.47 ERA (3.70 FIP), and opposing batters are hitting just .227/.305/.372 (.295 wOBA) off him in 171.0 innings pitched. During that stretch, he’s struck out 179 batters (24.8%), while walking 63 (8.7%).
But, it’s his splits that are even more encouraging, and likely what the Cubs found most interesting. Against lefties in his career, Matusz has allowed just a .276 wOBA in over 180 innings pitched. Last year, as a reliever versus lefties, that drops all the way down to .248. And it gets even better. In 2015, Matusz struck out 34.9% of lefties faced, while walking them just 3.7% of the time. His impressive 2.92 FIP vs. lefties in 2015 was outpaced by his 2.66 xFIP. As an available Major League LOOGY, it would seem, Matusz was about as good as it gets. Plus there’s always that residual upside to dream on, given the pedigree of his younger years
But I’m not so sure he’s immediately destined for the Major Leagues.
The Cubs, as you know, have a full bullpen right now, and Clayton Richard still exists. Despite a slow start – in terms of results – to the season (6.00 ERA), Richard does have some peripherals suggesting he’s been a good deal better (3.62 FIP), had a great deal of success last year with the team, and also comes with the ability to start/go multiple innings in a pinch. And hey, he’s allowed just three hits, one walk and no earned runs in his last three appearances, so maybe he’s turning things around.
But it’s difficult to imagine that Matusz wasn’t brought in – at least in some small part – as insurance for Richard. Even still, Matusz will likely head to AAA Iowa for now, to get back into the swing of things. From there, the Cubs can see what he has left in the tank and he can serve as depth for the Major League bullpen. It’s a no risk move for the Cubs, and Matusz has some really nice upside. I like it.