The Cubs have been in contact with the Orioles about closer Zach Britton, Bruce Levine of 670 The Score reports. Padres closer Brad Hand is also on the Cubs’ “wish list” for potential bullpen upgrades.
At first glance, the relief corps doesn’t stand out as a glaring need for Chicago, as the Cubs’ relievers have posted generally strong numbers overall (aside from ranking 29th amongst bullpens in BB/9). Brandon Morrow has quieted the critics by pitching very well as the Cubs’ closer, and he has also been generally healthy, spending only a 10-day minimum stint on the DL in June due to back spasms.
Still, even the most loaded of teams will still scan the market for an extra bullpen arm, and the Cubs have a particular need for ninth-inning depth given Morrow’s lengthy injury history. It’s worth noting that Chicago has yet to use Morrow on three consecutive days (though he has pitched three times in four days on multiple occasions), and only one of his 35 outings has been longer than an inning.
Morrow is signed through 2019 with a club option for the 2020 season, so adding Hand (signed through 2020 with a club option for 2021) would give the Cubs with a long-term back-of-the-bullpen tandem that would rival any in the game. Britton is only signed through the remainder of this season, and thus would come at a lower price tag in trade talks, though there is enough interest in his services that the Orioles can ask for a healthy prospect return.
Chicago is one of eight contending teams who have checked in on Britton, according to Levine. We already know the identity of some of these other teams, as past reports have linked the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Astros, and Phillies to Britton’s market. Hand has also drawn attention from other teams, with the Yankees also known to have interest in the left-hander.
Britton didn’t make his 2018 debut until June 12 due to offseason Achilles tendon surgery, though given his track record, he only had to show that he was both healthy and reasonably effective to earn himself a spot as one of the deadline’s most sought-after trade pieces. Through 14 2/3 innings, Britton has a 3.68 ERA, 7.98 K/9, and 62.2% grounder rate, with a hefty 25% homer rate and a 5.52 BB/9 standing out as red flags. He has thrown scoreless outings in 13 of his 15 appearances this season, with all of his six earned runs allowed coming over two rough outings (and 1 1/3 innings) against the Braves and Mariners.
It’s hard to really pass judgement based on such a small sample size, though Britton has at least looked solid, if obviously not at the level of his past dominance from 2014-16. His average fastball velocity of 94.3 mph is down from the last two years (when he cracked the 96mph threshold), though Britton has been increasingly throwing harder in recent outings, as one might expect as he shakes off the rust.
Hand, meanwhile, has been outstanding in his second year as the Padres’ closer. The lefty owns a 3.05 ERA, 13.2 K/9, and 4.33 K/BB rate over 44 1/3 innings, numbers that just earned him his second consecutive All-Star selection. Hand’s 13.8% swinging-strike rate and 93.8mph average fastball are both career highs.