Rumors true: Cubs eyeing Yankees' closers

Deadline deal could include Chapman and/or Miller

June 15th, 2016

Yes, the rumors are true. The Chicago Cubs are very interested in upgrading their bullpen for the postseason run they see in their future, and they are as well positioned as anyone to persuade the New York Yankees to part with Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman.

Or how about this? Both Miller and Chapman, in the same deal.

Yes, Miller and Chapman in the same deal. I'd guarantee you that the Cubs will at least explore that, assuming the Yankees get to the point where they are willing to make them available.

That's how motivated Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein are to follow a potentially historic regular season with the Cubs' first championship since 1908. Joe Maddon has the Cubs on pace to win 112 games, but this week's series in Washington shows just how perilous October will be for every National League team, including the winningest.

Did you see Max Scherzer on Monday night? Any team facing him twice in a best-of-five series could be in big trouble. Not that it will be a cakewalk going up against any of the top NL teams -- the Mets with their collection of arms, the Giants with Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw.

Imagine how motivated Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals would be if they got a crack at the Cubs after losing to them last October.

These are the realities that will keep Epstein and his front office working long hours through Aug. 1 as they try to give Maddon the best roster possible.

The Cubs would love to somehow wind up with a bullpen that rivals the one that helped the Royals roll to the World Series the past two years -- not that the one they currently have is a glaring weakness. That's not the case.

Closer Hector Rondon might be the most underrated pitcher in baseball, and the cast Epstein has put together behind him through trades and minor free-agent signings is efficient. But Adam Warren is the only significant addition since last October, and the bullpen seemed vulnerable when matched up with those of the Pirates, Cardinals and Mets.

There were no major bullpen breakdowns for Maddon's team last October. It did remarkably well given that he had Nos. 3 and 4 starters Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel on such short leashes. But only once in the eight games that the Cubs used the bullpen did they outscore the opposition after the starter exited.

They wound up minus-6 in run differential post-starters. The Royals, meanwhile, won the late innings with a plus-22 differential after going to their bullpen, fronted by Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson.

You better believe there are files on this subject in the Cubs' baseball operations office.

I'm sure the formulas are more complicated than this, but the simplified version goes like this:

Rondon + Chapman + Pedro Strop > Rondon + Strop + Travis Wood.

Or maybe like this:

Rondon + Chapman + Miller > Davis + Herrera + Madson (and pretty much every other bullpen in baseball history).

Epstein would trust Maddon to line up his bullpen, but you shouldn't just assume that Rondon would be reduced to a secondary role if the Cubs could grab one of the Yanks' relievers (or even both). The guess here is Maddon would use a strengthened bullpen according to matchups, with multiple relievers put in position to get the last out.

Rondon is doing All-Star level work, even if he has only 11 saves. He'd converted 22 save chances in a row going back to last August before blowing his first of this season Tuesday in Washington. Rondon has put together a 1.59 ERA since the start of 2015. He is everything you want in a closer -- as reliable as he is nasty.

Rondon is probably not going to join the crowd of Cubs at Petco Park for the All-Star Game because he's tied for 27th in save chances. He's been a victim of all the Cubs' easy wins, including many when they've pounded the opposing bullpen late in the game. The Cubs have extended leads in the seventh inning or later eight times to eliminate save chances, including five times when they've scored in their last at-bat.

"I am not concerned about fact he has not worked enough, because I know those games are going to start popping up,'' Maddon said. "We're going to have to start utilizing him more often.''

Wood, the converted starter who has become a valuable bullpen piece, has watched Rondon blossom since he was added as a Rule 5 Draft pick from the Indians after the 2012 season, when he was recovering from Tommy John surgery.

"Ronnie's unbelievable,'' Wood said. "Seeing him now from where he was when we first got him, he's made tremendous strides and gotten a ton better. He's one of the top closers in the game.''

You'd say the same about Chapman and Miller. The Yankees felt adding them to a bullpen that already had Dellin Betances would give them a chance to compete in the American League East.

That may yet prove true, as they've hung around .500 while battling injuries. The Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles look more formidable, but there's no way the Yanks are going to concede until they face a big deficit in the Wild Card standings.

Because Miller is signed through 2018, he will be tougher to acquire than Chapman. The Yankees rented Chapman for the 2016 season at a relatively low cost after the Dodgers backed out of a deal when his domestic-violence case was reported.

Epstein signed Miller for the Red Sox after the 2010 season, when Miller was foundering. He'd love a reunion both for what Miller could do this October and how he'd set up the Cubs' bullpen for the next two seasons. Chapman is the definition of a shutdown reliever. He brings baggage that some teams might want to avoid but has served his suspension.

The Cubs are sitting on a wealth of potential trade pieces, especially if they reluctantly agree to include Javier Baez or Jorge Soler in a deal, and have to consider that if they don't land Chapman or Miller (or maybe both), then the Nationals, Giants or another contender will.

Dusty Baker and Chapman worked well together in Cincinnati. Do you think the Cubs want to see him come into a game after Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg?