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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
The Chicago Cubs are in the thick of the NL postseason race with an 18-12 record, and under this year’s expanded playoff format, they are in a great position to be playing in October.
But the North Siders roster is not without its flaws.
The team has stumbled to a 5-9 record in its last 14 games since starting the year 13-3. A leaky bullpen that ranks 29th in the majors with a 5.79 ERA looks like the most glaring area of need as the trade deadline fast approaches.
Meanwhile, the bench has provided virtually nothing in the way of offensive production.
David Bote (78 PA, .214 BA, 91 OPS+), Nico Hoerner (71 PA, .250 BA, 77 OPS+), Albert Almora Jr. (31 PA, .185 BA, 43 OPS+) and Josh Phegley (18 PA, .063 BA, 12 OPS+) are all scuffling at the plate. Pinch-hitters are just 3-for-21.
With that in mind, our list of seven potential trade targets for the Cubs is made up of bullpen arms and versatile bench bats.
Don’t expect any flashy additions since the team is working on a tight budget. Top prospects Brailyn Marquez, Miguel Amaya and Brennen Davis are not going anywhere in these proposed deals.
These are complementary pieces that would provide welcome support in pursuit of a long playoff run.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
2020 Stats: 11 G, 4 HLD, 5.23 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 3 BB, 5 K, 10.1 IP
The 29-year-old logged a 3.72 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in a team-high 73 appearances for the Tigers last season, and a change in pitch usage has led to an intriguing uptick in his ground-ball rate this year.
- 2019: Fastball (48.8%), Changeup (26.0%), Slider (25.0%)
- 2020: Fastball (56.3%), Changeup (32.9%), Slider (10.8%)
Throwing his slider less has meant pitching to contact more. His strikeout rate has dropped from 9.7 to 4.4 per nine innings, but his ground-ball rate has skyrocketed from 47.3 to 57.9 percent.
He had a 2.89 ERA through his first 10 appearances this season before allowing three earned runs in one inning of work on Wednesday, so he has pitched better than his surface-level numbers might indicate.
Pitching in front of the Cubs’ excellent infield defense could be a recipe for further success.
Throw in the fact that he’s controllable through 2022 and making a very reasonable $1.15 million this year, and he looks like a strong short- and long-term addition to the Cubs bullpen.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
2020 Stats: 108 PA, .260/.333/.490 (117 OPS+), 11 XBH (5 HR), 17 RBI
The defending World Series champions are 11-16 with a minus-six run differential, leaving them in the NL East cellar at roughly the midway point of their season.
Yes, they stormed back from a 19-31 start a year ago, but with Anthony Rendon gone and Stephen Strasburg out for the year, this is not the same team.
It’s unlikely the Washington Nationals will blow up the roster with their window to contend still open in 2021, but they could sell off some short-term pieces in an effort to add depth to one of baseball’s thinnest farm systems.
Asdrubal Cabrera hit .323 with a 145 OPS+ in 146 plate appearances with the Nats down the stretch last season after the Texas Rangers released him. Washington then re-signed him to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
As a switch-hitter capable of playing both second base and third base, he would provide the Cubs roster with flexibility and production in a part-time role.
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Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
2020 Stats: 11 G, 5 HLD, 0.93 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 1 BB, 8 K, 9.2 IP
With 617 career appearances under his belt, good for ninth among active pitchers, Tony Watson is the definition of a seasoned veteran.
The 35-year-old has bounced back nicely this season after posting a career-high 4.17 ERA during a 2019 season that ended prematurely with a fractured left wrist.
With 30 saves and 222 holds in 10 MLB seasons, he has seen plenty of high-leverage work, and he also has a 2.25 ERA in 16 career postseason appearances.
Cubs team president Theo Epstein mentioned a left-handed reliever or a right-handed reliever with strong reverse platoon numbers as an area of need when talking with reporters last week.
With a .230 average and .602 OPS in 826 career plate appearances against left-handed hitters, Watson fits the mold, and what’s left of his one-year, $3 million salary should fit comfortably onto the payroll.
For what it’s worth, Watson has a 2.77 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 24 career appearances at Wrigley Field, and he’s plenty familiar with the Friendly Confines from his time pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
2020 Stats: 117 PA, .273/.371/.475 (130 OPS+), 12 XBH (4 HR), 14 RBI
Tommy La Stella led the majors with 24 pinch hits for the Cubs during the 2018 season, a staggering total that was 11 more than any other player that year.
Despite that performance, the Cubs traded him to the Los Angeles Angels that offseason in exchange for left-handed reliever Conor Lillis-White in what amounted to roster maintenance.
With an expanded role in LA, he hit .300/.353/.495 with 16 home runs and 44 RBI in 78 games during the first half to earn an All-Star nod. Unfortunately, a right tibia fracture limited him to two games during the second half and brought his breakout season to an abrupt halt.
The 31-year-old has picked up right where he left off with a clean bill of health this season, posting a 130 OPS+ while tallying more walks (15) than strikeouts (7).
He’s a free agent after the season playing on an Angels team with the worst record in the American League, so he’s an obvious trade candidate. On the Cubs’ side, his status as a rental and his reasonable salary should both fit within the club’s plans.
With Jason Kipnis currently propped up by an unsustainably high .379 BABIP while serving as the starting second baseman, La Stella would provide a contingency plan if Kipnis’ production dips and excellent depth across the infield.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
2020 Stats: 6 G, 1 GS, 2.40 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 3 BB, 12 K, 15.0 IP
At his prospect peak, Daniel Norris was No. 18 on the Baseball america top 100 prospect list prior to the 2015 season. That summer, the Toronto Blue Jays traded him to Detroit in the blockbuster deal that sent David Price the other way.
Injuries and a Thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2015 have kept him from reaching his full potential, but he showed flashes in 2019 when he posted a 4.49 ERA with 125 strikeouts in a career-high 144.1 innings.
In his 2020 debut, he allowed four hits, two walks and two earned runs in 1.2 innings while throwing 54 pitches, and Detroit promptly moved him to the bullpen.
Over four relief appearances, all of which have spanned more than three outs, he has a 1.59 ERA and 0.62 WHIP with 11 strikeouts and just one walk in 11.1 innings.
“It is different, but it’s not as much of a problem as I thought it might be,” Norris told reporters after a recent outing. “You just kind of get the ball and start ripping. I get loose pretty quick and ready to go whenever.”
He’s a year removed from free agency, and with Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal already called up to the majors and fellow prospect Matt Manning likely not far behind, the Tigers appear ready to turn the page.
In theory, the 27-year-old could fill a role similar to what Mike Montgomery provided during his time with the Cubs.
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Ray Carlin/Associated Press
2020 Stats: 8 G, 3 HLD, 1.04 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 4 BB, 12 K, 8.2 IP
Prior to the 2020 season, Joely Rodriguez had last pitched in the majors in 2017 when he was knocked around to the tune of a 6.33 ERA and 1.93 WHIP in 26 appearances with the Philadelphia Phillies.
After bouncing around to the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles Triple-A affiliates, he made the move overseas and signed with the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese League midway through the 2018 season.
He returned to the Dragons in 2019 and emerged as one of their best relievers, posting a 1.64 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 60.1 innings while making a team-high 64 appearances.
That put him back on the MLB radar, and he inked a two-year, $5.5 million contract that includes a $3 million club option for 2022 with the Rangers last offseason.
A sinker-slider pitcher when he first reached the majors, he has scrapped the slider in favor of a changeup. He’s throwing that pitch 29.0 percent of the time this season, and he has yet to allow a hit with it while recording five of his 12 strikeouts.
In other words, he has reinvented himself, and the early returns are extremely promising.
It remains to be seen whether the Rangers will be willing to part with him ahead of the deadline. His two remaining years of team-friendly control and his excellent performance since the start of 2019 highlight him a dark-horse target who could make a real difference in the Chicago bullpen.
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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
2020 Stats: 14 G, 7/7 SV, 3.29 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 7 BB, 21 K, 13.2 IP
Trevor Rosenthal saved a St. Louis Cardinals franchise-record 48 games in 2015, earning an All-Star selection while posting a 2.10 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 10.9 K/9.
He failed to match that level of success in subsequent seasons while dealing with injuries and ineffectiveness, and he missed the entire 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Washington Nationals took a chance that he’d return to form in 2019, signing him to a one-year, $7 million contract, but they released him in June after he posted an unsightly 22.74 ERA in 12 appearances.
He didn’t fare much better after the Detroit Tigers plucked from the scrapheap, and he finished the year with a 13.50 ERA and more walks (26) than strikeouts (17) in 15.1 innings.
Not surprisingly, he had to settle for a minor league deal last offseason, but he pitched his way onto the Kansas City roster with a strong spring and is once again pitching like a front-line closer.
The 30-year-old will be a free agent again this coming offseason, so he’s an obvious trade chip, and his pro-rated $2 million salary makes him an ideal rental target for contenders.
Rowan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress have done a respectable job in the late innings since Craig Kimbrel was ousted from the role, and adding Rosenthal to the mix would further solidify the late-game situation on the North Side.