MESA, Ariz. — Turns out the Cubs spent even less on players during the winter than originally thought.
And the story behind reworking reliever Brad Brach’s contract after the pitcher failed his physical because of mono might offer insight into the state of their bullpen and maybe even just how close team president Theo Epstein has had to watch payroll dollars this winter.
Brach agreed to a contract that paid $3 million in base salary this year plus a mutual option for 2020 that included a $1.35 million buyout, which made the minimum value of the deal $4.35 million.
But after blood tests as part of Brach’s physical detected the Epstein-Barr virus, or mononucleosis, the Cubs renegotiated the deal down to a $1.65 million base for 2019, also reducing the club and player ends of the option, as well as the buyout (now $100,000).
As far as Brach is concerned, what the test result showed was an Epstein-Discount virus.
“Yeah, I know, right?” he said.
“Obviously, it pissed me off, but there was nothing I could do,” said Brach, whose previous physicals were clean and who called it bad timing when he contracted the virus over the winter. He says he feels fine now.
It’s an unusual case. But the $1.35 million in 2019 guaranteed salary the Cubs reclaimed from Brach’s original deal is not an amount they have typically sweated for players they like, such as Brach. It’s less than they’ve spent on fliers for some coming off Tommy John surgery who never pitched for them.
Roster bonuses for one day on the 25-man active roster ($350,000), 120 days ($500,000) and 150 days ($500,000) allow Brach to recoup his original 2019 guarantee while protecting the Cubs.
Whether the new structure created more flexibility, the Cubs — who were in the market for one more reliever on a bargain — added left-hander Xavier Cedeno right about the same time on a contract that could pay him up to $1.2 million.
Brach, who had five other similar offers when he accepted the Cubs’ original offer, was stuck. He talked with his agent and decided that he likely wouldn’t fare any better somewhere else after failing the Cubs’ physical.
“I’m still happy to be here,” he said, “but it’s just kind of unfortunate. Theo told me, ‘I’m sorry that this is the way the relationship is starting out.’ But I understand where they’re coming from. Sometimes the viral infection can linger into the season. It just sucks.”
Sources confirmed the renegotiated deal, which first was reported by The Athletic, and provided more details, including reductions in the team option from $6.5 million to $5 million and the player option from $2.65 million to $1.35 million, as well as the 2019 roster bonuses.
The financial restrictions illustrated by the Brach episode coincide with bullpen concerns that might yet come back to bite the Cubs because the front office didn’t have the flexibility to make stronger moves.
Brach’s mono is dormant now, but it’s hard to predict if and when that could change. Cedeno has been bothered by a sore left wrist since he joined the team.
Closer Brandon Morrow (elbow) already is expected to miss the first month of the season as he continues rehab.
Steve Cishek seems fine early in camp, but he’s coming off 80 appearances in 2018 — a career high by 11 — as he heads into his 10th season. Carl Edwards Jr. has walked nearly five batters per nine innings in his career. And even reliable, consistent Pedro Strop is coming off a season-ending hamstring injury.
“If we had signed one big name, all of a sudden this bullpen would have been viewed entirely differently,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I like the fact that Brandon’s saying, ‘I’m feeling good.’ So now you keep it together, you learn your bullpen between now and when he gets back, and then you have a pretty good shot to have a really outstanding bullpen.”
Until then, even their $4.35 million addition turns out to be a $1.75 million addition.
“I feel great now, and I can’t worry about it now,” Brach said. “It’s water under the bridge. I’m confident I’m going to help the team this year a lot.”