Josh Hader

With Josh Hader off the board, a look at remaining options to improve Cubs' bullpen

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It's been a remarkably slow offseason on the free agent market, with Pitcher's and Catcher's Report less than a month away and the Chicago Cubs having just one free agent signing on the books.

While that may indicate the completion of a dormant offseason in other years, a slow-moving market heading into 2024 leaves several big contributors of all positions still available as free agents.

The crawling market appeared to pick up a little on Friday, as Josh Hader, the market's top reliever, inked a five-year deal worth $95 million with the Houston Astros.

While the Cubs currently have a decently full cast of big league bullpen pieces headlined by Adbert Alzolay, Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather, the decreased effectiveness of the unit in September makes it one of the more glaring holes on the team.

Though Hader wasn't closely connected to the Cubs beyond his history with manager Craig Counsell, the signing shifts other clubs' focus onto the remaining relievers on the market.

With both Hader and fellow hard-thrower Jordan Hicks off the market, dependable right-hander Robert Stephenson is widely seen as the best option left on the free agency market.

Entering his age-31 season, Stephenson split last year between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays, scuffling to an ERA over 5 in 14 games with the Pirates before settling in to Tampa Bay's bullpen after a June trade.

Stephenson greatly strengthened his free agent case by pitching to a 2.35 ERA over 42 games with the Rays, amassing 60 strikeouts and just eight walks in 38.1 innings.

While undoubtedly impressive, Stephenson's career 4.64 ERA and 1.337 WHIP show that he's far from the tier of a dominant reliever.

Though the Cubs are loaded with depth full of MLB experience, with José Cuas, Michael Rucker, Luke Little and Keegan Thompson all in the picture, adding at least one more bona fide reliever would give the team much needed stability.

The need is further emphasized by Javier Assad, Drew Smyly, Hayden Wesneski and Jordan Wicks entering the season without a defined spot in the bullpen or rotation, offering both competition and uncertainty.

While it's hard to see a reunion between the Cubs and 2016 World Series closer Aroldis Chapman, arms like Michael Lorenzen and Matt Moore both offer veteran bullpen contribution at a likely affordable price.

Lorenzen's no-hitter was one of the few bright spots of his second half of the season spent with the Philadelphia Phillies in a hybrid role, though he had compiled an All-Star campaign with the Detroit Tigers in the first half of 2023.

With history in the NL Central and the ability to swing between the rotation and bullpen, Lorenzen is a versatile option for the North Siders.

As for Moore, the 34-year-old southpaw is coming off his second season of stellar performance out of the bullpen after being converted to a reliever following years of struggling as a starter.

The former top prospect appeared with the Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Guardians and Miami Marlins in 2023, posting a 2.56 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 52.2 innings.

With time left and plenty of money to spend, there's no reason the Cubs can't enter 2024 with a bullpen that is substantially improved.

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