Although the Chicago Cubs have an enviable group of relief pitching options already in-house for 2023 and a wave of prospects behind them, there is ZERO chance they don’t also bring in some veteran options in free agency. It’s just what they do. Every year. And it generally seems to go very well.
One of those recent free agent additions with whom things went very well was mustachioed lefty Andrew Chafin. Acquired on an expiring deal late in the pandemic season in 2020 (did you even remember that part? he wound up making only four appearances), Chafin hit free agency in advance of the 2021 season and wound up signing with the Cubs for one year and $2.25 million.
Not only did Chafin almost immediately become a cult hero thanks to his laid-back, fun-loving personality (and, let’s be honest, he made a lot of people think of Rod Beck), but he also DOMINATED in 2021 for the Cubs (2.06 ERA, 2.69 FIP, 50.0% groundball, 24.7% K, 8.0% BB). So good was Chafin that the Cubs were able to trade him at the deadline for a couple prospects, one of whom – Daniel Palencia – is going to be a vogue pick next spring as a breakout starting pitching prospect in the system.
Chafin was really good for the A’s after that trade, signed a two-year deal with the Tigers in free agency after that, and was once again really good in 2022 (2.83 ERA over 57.1 IP, 3.06 FIP, 51.3% groundball, 27.6% K, 7.8% BB). That’s why that two-year deal is actually already over: the second year was a player option that Chafin is going to decline.
Rather than accept $6.5 million for 2023, Chafin will take the $500,000 buyout and hit free agency once again at age 32, per the Detroit Free Press.
So, then, you know where this is going: would the Cubs try to bring Chafin back once again?
On the one hand, the impactful (or potentially impactful) near-term relief arms for the Cubs are almost exclusively right-handed. You’ve got Brandon Hughes on the left side and … no one? That’s not to say you HAVE TO have two impactful lefties in your eight-man bullpen, and a more match-up-oriented lefty can be found for relatively cheap in free agency. But I tend to think, all else equal, the Cubs would love to have a lefty like Chafin available.
The rub is going to be the price tag. Opting out of a $6 million decision means that Chafin (rightfully) expects to land a multi-year deal at an even higher price. It’s not at all hard for me to imagine him commanding a two-year deal in the $7 to $10 million range annually. He was very good in his younger days with the Diamondbacks, so it’s not as if he’s merely strung together a couple flukey good seasons the last two years. He’s among the few late-inning, split-neutral, established veteran relievers out there, and I’ve gotta believe he’s going to be well-compensated for it.
The Cubs will have the money. There’s no question there. The question instead is whether they will prefer to do what they’ve done so well for so many years: target less-obvious guys on smaller one-year deals, elevate their performance in some way, and spend the bigger dollars elsewhere.
Annually, the Cubs seem to take a half-dozen shots among minor league free agents and guys in the $2 to $5 million one-year-deal range, and several of them hit. Chafin, himself, was one. But there was also Ryan Tepera, Jeremy Jeffress, Jason Adam, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin, and David Robertson in the last few years. There have been big misses, too, but when you play in this space, it’s a numbers game. Take a lot of swings, and quickly identify the guys that are working.
Still, I’d love the Cubs to at least have the conversation. Yes, part of that is because Andrew Chafin is a fun player to follow, what with his Failed Starter shirt, aggressive outfield shagging, and search for a beater car to drive. But it’s also because I want the Cubs to be competitive in 2023, and at least PART of that seems like it’ll require some certainty – as much as you can get, anyway – in the bullpen. Maybe this is a year when it’s worth paying a little more for a setup guy?