It may not end up producing a fire in Chicago, but there’s a helluva lot of smoke coming from the Cubs’ interest in Zach Britton. Smoldering since at least last July, there have been several reports over the last month or so indicating that the Cubs and Orioles have discussed the award-winning closer.
According to The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney (subscription required), the Cubs “remain deeply involved in the discussions” for Britton and would like to add the lefty as a complement to closer Brandon Morrow. Despite their expressed belief that Morrow’s biceps inflammation is fleeting, he’s already made two trips to the DL as isn’t known as the most durable pitcher in the world.
Not to mention Morrow is the Cubs’ first closer in the past season and a half who will definitely be back with the team for a return engagement. As such, Joe Maddon can’t just wear him out until his arm falls off. Britton, however, would be that short-term, high-leverage option who could either set up for or alternate with Morrow in the late innings.
Britton’s got his own injury issues and struggled to stay healthy through the early part of last season before going down with a ruptured Achilles shortly after a deadline deal with the Astros fell through. He’s looked good since coming back on June 12, though, and his sinker velocity appears to be just as good as ever. And while some control issues have been evident, that could largely be a function of rust.
Despite the Cubs’ obvious interest and Britton’s fit with the bullpen, there are several extenuating circumstances at play here. As I said earlier, they had been after Britton in a big way back last summer as well, but changed tack and traded for Justin Wilson when negotiations with the Orioles proved too tenuous. Much of that was due to Baltimore’s leadership, which now has less influence from its aging and ailing owner, Peter Angelos.
There’s also the possibility that GM Dan Duquette still has a chip on his shoulder from being replaced by Theo Epstein years ago in Boston, which could lead him to drive a harder bargain with the Cubs. Taken by itself, that might seem like cutting off the O’s nose to spite their face, but they’ve got no shortage of suitors for Britton, some whom may be more willing and able to win a bidding war.
And as Epstein said Sunday, the Cubs “have to be more targeted, more selective, and a little more opportunistic.” That was the case with their trade for the well-traveled Jesse Chavez, a nearly 35-year-old reliever with lots of starting experience. In giving up only South Bend starter Ricky Tyler Thomas, the Cubs were able to bolster their pen at zero immediate cost to their organizational depth. They’re probably not done, either.
“You’re always looking to upgrade this time of year when you have a competitive team,” Epstein told reporters Sunday. “No matter how well your ‘pen has pitched, there’s always a desire to look around and see if you can tweak it and improve it.”
He went on to say that some of those improvements can be made even after the non-waiver deadline, which would usually involved lower-profile additions and simple depth moves.
As one of the most sought-after trade targets in baseball, Britton will surely command much more than just a low-A starter or a player to be named later. How much more will determine whether the Cubs are able to land him. With the Yankees, Astros (again), Red Sox, Brewers, Braves, and Phillies all reportedly interested, you have to figure the Orioles are going to ask for a lot.
But we know what happened the last time the Cubs traded for an elite closer at the deadline, so perhaps they find a way to make this work.