Analyzing, Grading the Chicago Cubs' Most Controversial Offseason Move
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Was signing a free-agent pitcher to a five-year contract worth $15.5 million per season really the best move for a club undergoing a rebuilding project like the Cubs? Would Sanchez in the starting rotation prevent a last-place finish for the Cubs in the NL Central next season?
If the belief is that a baseball team can never have enough pitching, then at least Cubs general manager Theo Epstein was ready to take a chance on a part of the roster that could give his team an advantage over the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers.
That applies to the bullpen as well, which is why the Cubs were willing to offer a two-year, $9.5 million deal to Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, as first reported by Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal. But at 32 years old, are the Cubs paying for the pitcher that Fujikawa was with the Hanshin Tigers, rather than what he can be as a first-time major leaguer?
As you might expect, Fujikawa has had tremendous success as a reliever in Japan. Over his past six seasons with Hanshin, he compiled 202 saves and a 1.36 ERA. Most impressive is his strikeout rate, averaging 12.4 K/nine innings.
Fujikawa also has a walk rate of 2.3 BB/nine innings. That has to be extremely appealing to a team that's had to deal with Carlos Marmol for the past seven years. This year, Marmol averaged 7.5 BB/nine innings. For his career, Marmol has averaged 6.0 BB/nine innings, a ridiculous amount for a reliever.
The Cubs made it clear that Marmol was expendable earlier in the offseason when they had a deal in place to trade him to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for Dan Haren. Marmol had agreed to go to the Angels, but the Cubs eventually pumped the brakes on the trade due to concerns about Haren's back and hip, as reported by CSN Chicago's David Kaplan.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer, Marmol has been assured that the closer role is his going into spring training.
That seems difficult to believe, considering that the Cubs have already tried to trade Marmol. Manager Dale Sveum also had to replace Marmol as closer at one point this season because of his effectiveness.
Yet, the Cubs presumably aren't paying Fujikawa nearly $5 million a year to be a setup man or middle reliever. It's also believed that Fujikawa chose the Cubs over the Angels because of the opportunity to be a closer.
The question with Japanese players—regardless of their success—is whether or not they can handle MLB competition.
Based on his statistics, Fujikawa certainly appears to have the strikeout stuff capable of shutting down major league hitters. According to FanGraphs' Eno Sarris, he averages 92 to 93 mph with his fastball, mixes in a split-finger pitch and changes speeds well. Fujikawa should also benefit from MLB batters being unfamiliar with him—especially early in the season.
Should his ability to handle a major league workload be a concern, however? Fujikawa has averaged less than 50 innings over the past two seasons. Compare that to the top MLB closer who pitches 65 to 70 innings per year.
Jason Motte tied for the major league lead with 42 saves and pitched 72 innings. Craig Kimbrel threw 62.2 innings while also compiling 42 saves. Jonathan Papelbon threw 70 innings. Aroldis Chapman pitched 71.2 frames.
The Cubs will need Fujikawa to pitch more than he did in Japan during his last two seasons to be a capable MLB closer. Unless, the plan is for him to split time with Marmol and go with something of a closer-by-committee approach. If the Cubs can't trade Marmol before the season, that could very well be the approach Sveum takes.
The snarky view might be that Fujikawa won't have that many leads to protect while pitching for a Cubs team expected to finish in last place. So maybe he won't be called upon as much as a closer like Motte or Kimbrel.
But even closers for bad teams pitch more than 50 innings in a season. Rafael Betancourt threw 57.2 innings for the Colorado Rockies while racking up 31 saves. Heath Bell pitched 63.2 innings for the Miami Marlins during the worst season of his career.
Those last two examples also point to another issue with signing Fujikawa. Is it smart to pay any closer $5 million these days? The Cubs obviously decided having a dependable anchor in the bullpen was worth the expense. Too many leads were blown, and too many games were thrown out of reach by Marmol's control issues this year.
Fujikawa's deal could also be a bargain compared to Jonathan Broxton signing a three-year, $21 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds. The Philadelphia Phillies just signed Mike Adams to a two-year contract worth $6 million per season, as reported by ESPN's Jayson Stark, and he won't even be their closer.
For a team in desperate need of a closer and at least a year or two of rebuilding ahead, signing Fujikawa is probably worth the risk.
Yet, the uncertainty of him pitching in the majors is enough to call this move into question for now. Would it have been better to take a chance on a proven reliever like Ryan Madson or Joakim Soria, even coming off Tommy John surgery? What about Brian Wilson?
Interest in Fujikawa from other teams such as the Angels and Diamondbacks does seem reassuring. However, with so little known on a first-time major leaguer at this point, it's difficult to say whether or not this was a good decision for the Cubs.
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