Already this season, the Cubs have tried to reclaim the arms of formerly successful pitchers like Joe Nathan, Brian Matusz, and Joe Smith.
The first two didn’t quite work out, while the jury remains out on the latter – though the early returns are not so good.
But that’s no reason not to persevere. After all, for every 2016 Brian Matusz, there’s a 2015 Trevor Cahill. Sometimes these moves work out, sometimes they don’t, but the only way to be sure is to keep trying … and that’s exactly what the Cubs are going to do.
Having already added righty Josh Collmenter on a minor league deal recently, the Cubs are also adding a lefty.
According to a report on Twitter from Chris Cotillo, the Chicago Cubs have added left-handed pitcher Joe Thatcher on a Minor League deal, after he requested (and was granted) a release from the Cleveland Indians (with whom he’d signed in June, after coming over from the Dodgers). Thatcher will reportedly head to Triple-A Iowa, where he’ll serve as depth for the big league Cubs and hope to make an impact down the stretch before the playoffs.
Thatcher, 34, was an undrafted free agent when he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers out of the Frontier League back in 2005, but ultimately made his Major League debut with the San Diego Padres in 2007. From there, he bounced back and forth between Triple-A and San Diego, never quite finding his place on the Major League roster (although he had some spurts of brilliance sprinkled in; we’ll get to that in a minute). He stayed with the Padres until 2013, before bouncing all around the Majors (Diamondbacks, Angels, Astros, Indians, Dodgers, and Indians again) the last few years. Now with the Cubs, Thatcher will hope to rediscover some of his early career magic – especially against lefties – and make a difference in Chicago.
But about those spurts of brilliance – Thatcher may have had a journeyman’s career, but there is still plenty to like. In 2009, he posted a 29.3% strikeout rate over 45.0 innings, leading to a 2.80 ERA/2.70 FIP. He followed that up with an even more impressive performance in 2010, featuring a 32.9% strikeout rate and just a 5.1% walk rate, good for a 1.29 ERA/1.56 FIP. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury shortened his 2011 season and killed the momentum he had created. He did bounce back in 2012, though, posting another excellent strikeout rate (27.7%) over 31.2 IP, but so began his journey throughout the Majors and slight decline in production (3.49 ERA, 21.1% K-rate from 2013-2014).
It wasn’t until last season with the Astros that Thatcher rediscovered some of his old ways.
Through 22.2 innings with Houston, Thatcher once again found his ability to strike batters out (26.0%), although it came at the expense of his previously solid control (12.0% walk rate). He did finish the season with a 3.18 ERA/3.00 FIP, though, and even better success against lefties. Which, perhaps it took me too long to get to.
Thatcher is, first and foremost, a left-handed specialist, or at least, he should be.
Although he’s faced precisely the same number of left-handed and right-handed batters in his career, he’s found a great deal more success against the lefties. For example, through 133.0 career innings, lefties are hitting just .224/.298/.348 (.286 wOBA) against Thatcher with 176 strikeouts (31.4%) to just 45 walks (8.0%). Righties, on the other hand (lol), are striking out just 16.8% of the time and walking a bit more (8.2%) too. Thus, his peripherals against lefties (2.78 FIP, 3.04 xFIP) far exceed his numbers against righties (3.62 FIP, 4.23 xFIP). If used more consistently (and solely) against lefties, Thatcher may have some considerable time left in his career.
That said, Chicago might be a difficult destination. With Aroldis Chapman, Mike Montgomery, and Travis Wood already stationed as three lefties in the pen, Thatcher’s fit in Chicago is not entirely obvious. Even after granting the fact that none of the Cubs’ current trio are necessarily left-handed specialists in the traditional sense, four lefties in a 7 (or even 8-man) pen is quite a lot.
But that’s sort of the point of depth additions: the rainy day scenario. Thatcher will head to Triple-A Iowa and continue to serve as depth, should injury strike an already-depleted Cubs bullpen. At this point in the season, the front office’s job is to protect against the worst, and that’s what they’re doing.