Even if the Cubs have been upfront and transparent about their limitations in free agency this winter, they’re still likely to go out and grab some help for the bullpen. That was true before we learned about Brandon Morrow’s surgery and it’s certainly true after it.
Of course, we haven’t had a ton in the way of direct rumors linking the Cubs to a specific name, but we have seen some dot-connecting with past targets like Andrew Miller and Zach Britton, and, more recently, some second-tier choices like Cody Allen and David Robertson. In case you’re wondering, the Cubs probably will not pursue Jeurys Familia (domestic violence history), Craig Kimbrel (too expensive), while the jury is still out on Adam Ottavino and Joey Kelly, though both could be in the mix.
But, hey, here’s a direct rumor. According to Mark Gonzales, the Cubs have looked into Joakim Soria as a free agent target.
Cubs fans should be plenty familiar with Soria, who split his time between the ballpark south of Wrigley Field (White Sox) and Wrigley Field North (Brewers) last season. There’s a whole lot to like about Soria.
Last season, Soria, 34, finished with a 3.12 ERA and an FIP all the way down at 2.44. For the second straight season, he had a strikeout rate above 27%, a walk rate below 9%, and more than 1.7 fWAR. His groundball rate all but evaporated (above 50% in 2016-2017, but down to 35.7% last year), but thanks to his contact management, that wasn’t even a problem:
Hard%: 25.9% (9th in MLB)
Soft%: 27.8% (1st in MLB)
Hard%: 25.9% (15th in MLB, >500 IP)
Soft%: 20.4% (17th in MLB)
Rarely does a pitcher pair excellent contact management with a high strikeout rate and low walk rate. I mean, it happens, of course, but that usually means you’re quite good. If Soria improved his groundball rate last season and got a little luckier with his BABIP (.310 in 2018 vs. .285 for his career), he probably would’ve been considered one of the best relievers in baseball. Then again, by fWAR he was the 13th most valuable reliever anyway, so …
Now, it’s not all sunshine and roses. For one, Soria’s fastball took a bit of a hit last season. After averaging 93.3 MPH in 2016 and 2017, he dropped about half a click in 2018. That doesn’t seem like much, but at his age, it could be a sign of what’s to come. And considering that he really heavily leaned on his fastball last season – which was his most valuable pitch by a mile – you do wonder what would happen if that velocity started dropping a little quicker. Nonetheless, he feels like someone to check in on.
Also worth noting: he was far more effective against righties (.243 wOBA) than lefties (.302 wOBA) last season. Neither hand hit him particularly well, but we know the Cubs are specifically looking for help against left-handed hitters, and Joe Maddon loves reverse-split relievers. That’s a consideration.
At the outset of the winter, MLB Trade rumors ranked Soria as the 34th best free agent available, and projected him to land a two-year, $18M deal. That said, Jon Heyman (2/$16M) and his expert (2/$7M) see him being a bit more affordable. And to be sure, committing $9M to Soria might not be the best use of money if the Cubs are really trying to stay under that third tier of the luxury tax threshold, but I’m not sure that, in isolation, is really the goal. I think their non-spending ways have more to do with the long-term financial picture in Chicago, than anything else, so grabbing Soria at any of those three projected levels should be doable.
Moreover, the Cubs’ bullpen right now projects to feature all kinds of uncertainty. There is simply going to have to be a commitment this offseason to fortifying it, even at some cost.
*Remembers that Jesse Chavez signed with the Rangers for $4M per year over two years and starts sobbing irrationally and uncontrollably.*
Ultimately, I can see Soria as an attractive option, even at his age and those price levels, but it’s a very, very robust relief market, so there are a lot of quality options out there. Still good to keep an eye out, though.