Just like so many one-hit wonders who disappeared after one chart-topper in the United States, the latest Cubs signing made it big in Japan. Tony Barnette - like Scatman John, Mr. Big, The Ventures, and Anvil before him - didn't have much success in his professional career stateside, so he turned to "Land of the Rising Sun" to stay in the game. However, the pitcher turned out to be more like a Cheap Trick, as he was able to parlay that unexpected success in Japan into a lucrative career upon returning to his homeland.
Barnette was selected in the tenth round of the 2006 draft by the Diamondbacks and was able to reach as high as AAA before stalling out. After posting an egregious 5.79 ERA in 29 Pacific Coast League starts that season, he was released by the Snakes and - like so many a tweener before him - the Nippon Professional Baseball League made him an offer he couldn't refuse (in that, they offered him enough money to live comfortably on, unlike MiLB). Thus, Tony spent the next six years patrolling the mound at Meiji Jengu Stadium for the Yakult Swallows and doing quite well for himself.
After one further stinker of a season in the starting rotation, Yakult switched Barnette to the bullpen, a role in which he absolutely flourished. Becoming one of the premier closers in the league, he saved 97 games there after ascending to that role and pitched to a 1.29 ERA in his final season. Suddenly, American scouts were paying attention to the righty once again. Ultimately, the Texas Rangers decided to import Tony back into the USA and onto their Major League roster.
Here's a couple of Barnette BBM's from his time in Japan, courtesy of Japanese Baseball Cards (love this blog!)
Since his return, across three seasons in the Lone Star State bullpen, Barnette has been mostly effective as a non-closing, middle reliever: 11-4 with a 3.50 ERA, 3.56 FIP in 144 IP. He throws strikes too - 132 to 43 K/BB ratio during his MLB career - something that the Cubs bullpen has struggled with in years previous. Thus, seeing as the club has been in need of rebuilding bullpen depth due to the losses of Jesse Chavez and Justin Wilson in free agency and Brandon Morrow to injury, one can see why the Cubs pounced on this Japanese import.
However, injuries issues have hindered his time on the mound. For instance, Tony's 2018 season came to an abrupt halt in June after his shoulder began to bark and finger problems limited his effectiveness in a dismal 2017 campaign. Combine those concerns with the fact that the pitcher is already 35 years old and it comes as no surprise as to why the budget-conscious Cubs were able to secure his services for a bargain - $750K salary for the 2019 season and, should things go well, a club option valued at $3MM for 2020.
So, Barnette represents a great "low risk, high reward" gamble. If he performs poorly, he could easily be jettisoned with minimal financial blow. If he looks like he did in 2016 and 2018 (pre-injury) his contract could represent an absolute steal.
This has largely been the big market, large budgeted franchise's strategy for building bullpens since Theo Epstein came to town, aside from the Morrow signing and Aroldis Chapman trade. Relievers are fickle, oftentimes having wild swings from lights-out to doormat on a year to year basis. With that in mind, it's not particularly surprising that Theo and Co. have stayed out of the Craig Kimbrel and David Robertson markets and instead restocked their bullpen with a bevy of lower-tier candidates. Brad Brach and Barnette represent the MLB signings, while George Kontos, Rowan Wick, Junichi Tazawa, Rob Schaill, Mike Zagurski, and others with Big League experience have been invited to Spring Training. It's pretty much the current front office's MO when it comes to building a pen.
However, the Cubs budget has been (seemingly artificially) strained this offseason, with Daniel Descalso, Brach, and Barnette serving as the only notable additions. After a monnumental collapse of the offense in 2018 and years of a rumored run at Bryce Harper in free agency that have been walked back by money concerns, the Chicago faithful have been up in arms this winter. It seems as though Tony is aware of this situation, and even took to Twitter to apologize for not being Bryce:
The weather is ripe for spring here in AZ and my family and I are thrilled to get this year started with the @Cubs.— Tony Barnette (@HeyBarn) February 1, 2019
(Reads first comment) also....I’d like apologize my name doesn’t rhym with....tarper https://t.co/yBlByA5vPM
Looks like this guy has a healthy sense of humor; I like him already! He's also got a really cool first name too.
I'm happy to add Tony Barnette to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection and, lucky for me, I just so happen to have a copy of his 2016 Topps Rookie Card. I found this bad boy stashed in the Texas section of my trade box; guess I don't do too much dealing with Rangers fans.
If the Cardinals can have Mile Mikolas, maybe we too can catch lightning in a bottle with our own Japanese success story. Welcome to Chicago and to the CATRC, Tony Barnette. Here's hoping your career continues on a trajectory similar to Cheap Trick and your time in the Windy City doesn't end up more like Spinal Tap!