Cubs fortify bullpen with 1-year deal for Neris

February 1st, 2024

CHICAGO – The Cubs found a bullpen formula in the middle months of last season that developed into a real strength for the ballclub. By September, as the innings and pressure piled up, Chicago’s relief corps was in clear need of reinforcements.

On Thursday, the Cubs officially added veteran reliever Héctor Neris via a one-year deal with a team option for 2025, bringing in one of baseball’s most durable and reliable relievers from the past few seasons. Neris brings experience and late-inning prowess to a North Side bullpen that will now be handled by new Cubs manager Craig Counsell.

“The bullpen is an area of priority,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention earlier this month. “It's a hard area. You can look at some teams that have built through multi-year deals and have struggled, and you look at some teams that have built through smart, targeted transactions that have had a lot of success.

“So, there's a lot of ways to skin the bullpen cat. But, we do need to focus on it. It was an Achilles heel last year, for sure.”

Hoyer is generally opposed to longer deals for relievers, but he noted at Cubs Con that the team had made multi-year offers for free-agent relief help this winter. In Neris’ case, his contract is worth $9 million for 2024 and includes the $9 million option for ‘25.

Per sources, Neris’ option for ‘25 can turn into a player option if he logs 60 appearances or has 45 games finished this year, and also does not finish the season on the injured list. The deal also includes incentives for appearances and games finished that bring the contract’s potential max value to $23.25 million.

To clear a spot on the 40-man roster, the Cubs designated righty Michael Rucker for assignment.

Neris has notched at least 70 games in each of the past three seasons, working at least 65 innings in each of those campaigns. Dating back to the 2019 season, he leads all Major League relievers in outings (307), while ranking third in relief innings (297 1/3) and strikeouts (370).

The 34-year-old Neris spent the past two years with the Astros – helping win the World Series in ‘22 – but declined his part of an $8.5 million mutual option to reach free agency this offseason. He enters a Cubs bullpen that will have ample opportunities for the righty to log high-leverage innings.

Last year, Adbert Alzolay earned the closer’s role mid-season and locked down that role until an injury setback in September. Righties Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. also stepped up as late-inning arms. The additions of Neris and righty Yency Almonte (via trade with the Dodgers) pad Counsell’s options.

Last season, Neris did see a drop in velocity across the board, but the right-hander still managed a career-best 1.71 ERA in 71 games for Houston. He ended the tour with 77 strikeouts against 31 walks in 68 1/3 innings, while posting a 28.2% strikeout rate and 11.4% walk rate).

Relying mostly on a four-seam fastball (93 mph on average) and splitter (43.2% whiff rate), Neris ranked in the top 3% in hard-hit percentage (28.0), top 5% in expected average (.196), top 6% in wOBA (.259) and top 8% in average exit velocity (86.5 mph) in 2023, per Statcast.

Over the course of his career, Neris has posted a 3.24 ERA in 546 games and has recorded 89 saves. He set the Phillies’ record for career relief strikeouts (520) in his eight years in Philadelphia. With the Astros, Neris yielded one run in eight playoff outings in the World Series run in ‘22, logging a 4.40 ERA in 15 postseason games overall.