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Report: Hector Neris signs one-year, $9 million deal with Cubs

The best reliever left on the market is headed to the North Side as the Cubs have finally kicked their winter into gear.

Hector Neris of the Houston Astros celebrates after tagging out Corey Seager of the Texas Rangers to close out the top of the seventh inning in Game Six of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 22, 2023 in Houston, Texas. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

It took a while — certainly longer than their fan base would’ve liked — for the Chicago Cubs to get their offseason rolling, but Jed Hoyer and Co. are finally starting to pick up some steam. A couple of weeks after swooping in to land Japanese lefty Shota Imanaga, Chicago has added a much-needed impact arm to the back end of their bullpen in former Astros setup man Hector Neris. Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the deal is for one year and $9 million, with an option for 2025 — a team option to start, but converting to a player option if the 34-year-old Neris appears in at least 60 games.

That benchmark shouldn’t be a problem for the righty, at least if recent history is any guide. Neris has made at least 68 appearances in each of the last four full seasons (not including the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign), establishing himself as among the most durable relievers in the game. He’s also been one of the better ones, and he’s coming off a career year in 2023: Neris produced a sparkling 1.71 ERA in 71 games as Ryan Pressly’s setup man in Houston, striking out 77 batters over 68.1 innings.

When we outlined the Cubs’ next steps in the wake of the Imanaga signing, first on the list was securing a reunion with Cody Bellinger — who remains unsigned, and should remain priority No. 1. But item No. 2? Finding a way to upgrade a bullpen that wasn’t bad last year (Chicago ranked 13th in reliever ERA) but felt like it was punching a bit above its weight. The Cubs have some intriguing pieces, including Adbert Alzolay, Mark Leiter and Julian Merryweather. But each member of that trio felt a bit stretched in his current role, and the depth behind them was sorely lacking. Neris may not be an elite option like, say, Josh Hader, but he’s a proven producer of quality, high-leverage innings. With Hader off to Houston, Neris was the top remaining reliever in our free-agent rankings, and he’ll give Craig Counsell the ability to avoid putting too much stress on any one member of his late-game formula.

There are a couple of red flags here for the Cubs. The flip side of Neris’ extreme durability in recent years is that he has a lot of tread on his tires as he nears his 35th birthday, and it’s possible that all that wear has started to take its toll. Neris’ topline production was obviously excellen with the Astros, but it came with some red flags under the hood: His average fastball dipped from 94.3 mph in 2022 to 93.0 mph, and the whiff rate on his trademark splitter dipped from an otherworldly 52.4% to a merely very good 42.2%. Of course, the results speak for themselves, and even a Neris beginning his decline still profiles as a pretty good pitcher. But it’s possible that Chicago is getting him a year too late.

Still, at this price, it’s hard to argue with the Cubs for taking the plunge. They needed to make a significant addition, and Neris was the best available option — there’s a reason that other contenders, including the Yankees, Blue Jays and others, had been kicking the tires on the righty in recent days. There’s risk in signing just about every reliever, but Neris should at least provide above-average innings for Chicago in 2024, and for a team that has eyes on returning to the postseason, his big-game experience will be a plus.