It’s been a rather underwhelming offseason thus far for the Chicago Cubs, who’ve been among the most inactive teams in baseball this winter, particularly on the offensive front.
While that remains a pressing concern, the club has taken another critical step to improve its run prevention, adding another potent arm to an already up-and-coming bullpen.
In need of additional back-end depth, the Cubs signed right-handed reliever Hector Neris to a one-year, $9-million contract last week – a deal that became official on Thursday. It also includes a $9 million club option for 2025 that switches to a player option if he meets games played/finished and health requirements, per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman.
This recent signing, albeit short-term, is fairly significant for the Cubs. It may not move the needle all that much regarding their projected win total, but the 34-year-old Neris, who’ll turn 35 next June, should help complement closer Adbert Alzolay in high-leverage situations next season.
The former Houston Astros reliever is coming off a strong 2023 performance, where he pitched to a career-best 1.71 ERA – while outperforming his 3.33 xERA – with a pair of saves across 68.1 innings in 71 appearances, worth 0.8 fWAR. Additionally, opponents hit just .172 against him, the lowest batting average of his 10 MLB seasons.
Chicago, whose bullpen ranked tied for third in the majors in strikeout rate (26 percent) last season, lost one of its premier swing-and-miss weapons with Michael Fulmer (27.6 percent, third-highest on the team) becoming a free agent earlier this winter. But, as you can gather by Neris’ bright red Baseball Savant page, he shouldn’t have any issues replacing those punchouts.
Neris struggled to avoid walks in 2023, as did a Cubs bullpen that issued the second-highest rate (11 percent) in baseball, with his 11.4 percent clip placing in the 12th percentile. When you record as many whiffs as he does, though, allowing free passes is a trade-off most would happily accept.
These days, most elite relievers are backed by high-velocity arsenals – but not Neris. Instead, the veteran righty excels via a north-south approach, locating a mid-90s four-seamer atop the zone and a devastating splitter in the lower quadrants. He’ll also mixes in his sinker and slider against right-handed batters, providing four weapons in those matchups.
That usage allowed the 6-foot-2 hurler to thrive over the previous two seasons in Houston, registering strikeout, whiff and chase rates that finished in the 79th percentile or higher each year.
One major difference between Neris’ 2023 and ’22 showings was his ability to prevent hard contact. He faltered to a 44.7 percent hard-hit rate against, which ranked in the eighth percentile, in Year 1 with the Astros. Last season, however, he saw that figure drop to 28 percent – placing it inside the Top 2% of the majors.
Home runs will always be a focal point, given that he’s a fly-ball pitcher. But if his impressive quality-of-contact metrics – that earned him a respectable 8.6 percent HR/FB ratio last season – transfer over to 2024, the long ball shouldn’t be much of a detriment to the Cubs’ bullpen, at least to some degree.
Determining late-game matchups should also come easier for newly-minted skipper Craig Counsell, as Neris has proven effective in critical situations versus righties and lefties throughout his two seasons with the Astros and eight with the Philadelphia Phillies.
For his career, the Dominican native owns a 24.5 percent K-BB rate difference and a .204 OPP AVG against right-handed hitters. Despite walking considerably more left-handers, his effective swing-and-miss repertoire has led to a 17.6 percent K-BB% as well as a .222 OPP AVG.
With Drew Smyly the only lefty in Chicago’s bullpen, Neris becomes another righty with reliable reverse splits, joining Alzolay, Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather. At some point, they’ll also be joined by left-hander Luke Little, the organization’s No. 15 top prospect per Baseball America, who made his MLB debut in 2023.
There are still holes to fill on offense – especially in the outfield – and, perhaps, another in the bullpen if the Cubs are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2020 next season. But acquiring an arm of Neris’ caliber is a brilliant move on multiple fronts.
It addresses a serious need at the back end of the ‘pen that ensures this team shouldn’t fumble as many necessary wins at the one or two-yard line. And if the club falls out of the postseason race, they’ll possess an inexpensive commodity that’d surely bring back a valuable return via trade.
All in all, it’s a mutually beneficial signing for everyone involved.