MILWAUKEE – What do you get the team that has everything?
The Cubs showed on Tuesday one of the ways they plan to strengthen a team with the best record in the majors, by signing a rehabbing former All-Star closer to a low-risk deal for second-half bullpen depth.
“I’m super pumped,” said Joe Nathan, a six-time All-Star, who at 41 is 13 months into his second Tommy John surgery rehabilitation. He was immediately placed on the 60-day disabled list.
“I was hoping everything would unfold this way,” he said by phone. “The ballclub is obviously where they are, and is such a fun club. They’re looking for somebody to come in the second half. That will give me ample time; I think I could be ready before, but to have the extra time never hurts.”
Nathan’s signing to a big-league contract for the prorated league minimum (plus performance bonuses) underscores the kind of strategy team president Theo Epstein suggested last week when he talked about ignoring the Cubs’ five-week start and preparing for inevitable adversity and needs.
“It’s always a good strategy,” said manager Joe Maddon, who said a few days earlier that if he could choose something to add to the roster it would be pitching. “You can never have enough pitching depth.
“I think it’s a great move, and hopefully he’s going to be well.”
Left unsaid was the fact the Cubs’ biggest position-area weakness is, like most other teams, specifically the bullpen.
A group that looked good the first month of the season, with few stressful innings, was up and down during the 10-game homestand, producing a 5.59 ERA (29 innings) under a heavier workload and more high-leverage conditions.
The Cubs’ pen ranked 13th in the majors in reliever ERA (3.66) heading into Tuesday’s opener of a three-game series in Milwaukee, and four of the Cubs’ eight relievers have ERAs of 4.66 or higher. Only closer Hector Rondon (1.35) and Adam Warren (1.84) are under 3.60.
Nathan, who has pitched in six postseasons, already has thrown four bullpen sessions on his rehab progression, with another scheduled for Wednesday. He heads to Mesa, Ariz., Friday to continue his work with Cubs staff.
“The body feels great all the way around,” said Nathan, whose conditioning regimen is still remembered by young teammates who were routinely outrun in spring training drills by a 38-year-old Nathan as recently as 2013 with the Texas Rangers.
If the next two months of his rehab stay on the pace of his first 13, Nathan could be a low-risk, low-cost impact acquisition in the second half for a team with World Series aspirations.
“Huge,” said reliever Justin Grimm, who was one of those young teammates in Texas. “He thrives in the big moment.”
And as Grimm pointed out, the Cubs’ pen doesn’t have that elder-statesman, veteran presence that helped stabilize last year’s young, sometimes patchwork group.
“I just want to be a piece of the puzzle for the Cubs,” said Nathan, who put the Cubs at the top of his wish list among several interested teams early in the process. “If it’s coming in to pitch the seventh inning, great. If it’s coming in, in the eighth, great. If they need me in the ninth inning for a game, I’ll do that. I’m on board with whatever they need. I know how good this club is.”
The Cubs were one of the first to reach out to Nathan, he said, then watched him play catch early in his rehab work, before returning for one of his recent mound sessions.
Once he realized the Cubs were serious, he started texting with Cubs starter John Lackey, a friend from All-Star games and a big-league exhibition trip to Japan.
“I just told him we’re having a lot of fun; ‘you’re going to like it,’ ” Lackey said.
Nathan, who ranks eighth all-time with 377 saves, said one more shot at a World Series ring and a fierce love for the game drove his willingness to go through the grueling process for the second time in his career, in his 40s.
It’s some of the “tedious” moments during the long process that test that desire most he said.
“That’s when you say, `Is this what I really want to do? Is it worth it?’ “ he said. “I knew it was always worth it. They’re going to have to rip the jersey off me to get me out of this game.
“But I get this is a long shot. The work’s not done. I’m just starting now. I still need to get back to the big leagues to make this work, to get back to that level to be able to help this team.”