The Chicago Cubs addressed their biggest – heck, one of the league’s biggest – midseason holes long before we actually reached the typical midseason trading period, having inked closer Craig Kimbrel to a three-year deal. He is expected to join the Cubs in two or three weeks, and then be a bearded heap of awesome from there.
That puts the Cubs in a comforting place heading into mid-June, as trade talks will pick up considerably in the post-draft portion of the calendar, and then accelerate into July. We all knew they’d still be looking over the market for another piece or two – they do it every year, including having great success adding from among the lesser-targeted types. But if the Cubs have that comfort of knowing they’ve already supplemented (to put it mildly) with Kimbrel, they need not necessarily be overly aggressive if the right deal isn’t there.
Which makes any rumors about top arms all the more interesting:
#Cubs' signing of Craig Kimbrel doesn't mean their bullpen makeover is complete.
— 670 The Score (@670TheScore) June 10, 2019
As Bruce Levine reports, “the Giants have a pair of lefty relievers in Will Smith and Tony Watson who are high on the wish list of the Cubs and other contenders in prospective trades.”
You’ll recall that Smith and Watson intermittently have been connected to the Cubs in rumors over the past six months or so, and each has only continued to perform well here in 2019. Though, while you might consider Watson a “lefty” addition, you’d think of Smith more like a “OMG IMPACT” addition:
- Tony Watson, 34 ($3.5M in 2019, $2.5M player option for 2020 ($500K buyout)): 2.55 ERA over 24.2 innings, 3.51 FIP, 20.2% K rate, 2.9% BB rate.
- Will Smith, 29 ($4.23M in 2019, free agent in 2020): 2.19 ERA over 24.2 innings, 1.97 FIP, 39.3% K rate (8th highest in baseball), 5.6% BB rate (26th lowest).
Other than their team and their lefty arms, it’s not hard to see that you’re talking about two fundamentally different pitchers there. While Watson looks like a nice piece to add to the bullpen for this and possibly next year, Smith is the kind of impact guy that could make a disproportionately enormous difference in the postseason. And while he’s only a rental, his price tag in trade is going to be significantly higher than a guy like Watson. Which is not to say either arm would clearly be the right or wrong addition for a team like the Cubs – I can see the value in either, especially relative to the price tag – but you have to understand as we head into trade season that if you want to see the Cubs discussing Smith, then you’re going to need to get comfortable hearing the very best names in the farm system thrown around.
Both guys have relatively consistent track records, too, which will help their trade value. While you might otherwise be nervous about Smith costing the price tag of a TOOOOOOOP-tier reliever, you should know that after Tommy John surgery, when he returned last year with the Giants, he was more or less just as dominant as he’s been this year. He’s probably just this good.
In all of MLB this season, here are the best left handed relievers in terms of wOBA against, minimum 20 innings:
#4 Josh Hader
#3 Aroldis Chapman
#2 Brad Hand
#1 is Will Smith of the Giants, who the Cubs are certainly targeting.
UFA in 2020, so he's a straight rental. Go get him.
Watson obviously is much more dependent on generating beneficial contact, so you might be more concerned about him leaving the pitcher-friendly confines of Oracle Park, but he’s actually been better on the road this year than at home (his splits last year, though, were what you’d expect). So, shrug. It’s not a cinch that he’s succeeding largely because of his home park, despite the small strikeout totals.
Bonus on Smith? He’s been better on the road the last two years. Again I say: he’s probably just this good.
Ultimately, there will be so many more relievers on the market come July, so I don’t want to start drilling too deeply on this kind of thing right yet, until/unless there’s a more firm connection to the Cubs. Yes, Smith is likely to be one of the best rentals available, and yes, a bullpen that has him, Kimbrel, and Pedro Strop at the back is likely to make some hay should it reach the postseason (to say nothing of guys like Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler, or the litany of quality arms behind them that could pop late (or, hey, Brandon Morrow is still a remote theoretical possibility … )). It’s OK to dream on the Cubs going after Smith. But there will be lots of interesting arms ahead for the Cubs.