The bullpen was a huge force in helping the Cubs win the World Series, but after quite a few departures, how will it look in 2017?
Baseball is a constantly evolving game, and as it evolves, so does the way that players are used. The bullpen especially, has seen many changes in recent years, most notably the heavily increasing reliance on relief pitchers in the postseason.
Many of you Cubs fans probably remember both the incredibly high price tag on top closer Aroldis Chapman (the Cubs had to give up their top prospect Gleyber Torres, and more in exchange for three months of having Chapman wearing Cubbie blue) and Chapman’s postseason heroics. In Game five of the World Series, a must-win game, Chapman secured an eight-out save to preserve a one run lead while allowing only one base hit.
Chapman has since left the north side, resigning with the New York Yankees. Chapman’s was just one of a string of departures; longtime Cubs’ Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Joe Smith are no longer with the team as well. That paired with Mike Montgomery‘s new role as the fifth starting pitcher in place of the lost Jason Hammel made for a severely crippled bullpen after the 2016 season ended.
This volatility, however, is nothing new to the front office. In fact, only a core group of three has been on the major league team for longer than a year and a half.
Hector Rondon was acquired in the Rule 5 Draft from the Cleveland Indians in the 2012-13 offseason, and Pedro Strop was acquired during the following season in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles (in which the Cubs gave Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to the Orioles for some guy named Jake Arrieta and Strop. Yes, that is exactly as lopsided as it sounds). Justin Grimm was also sent to the north side during 2013 season through a trade with the Texas Rangers, and those three have been anchoring the pen ever since.
Rondon was the closer heading into 2016, but he struggled throughout the season and eventually strained his triceps, leading to the Cubs willingness to take a massive risk and pay a massive price for Chapman. The 28-year-old Rondon used to be a fantastic ninth inning guy, finishing 2015 with a 1.67 ERA and 30 saves.
However, pretty much every statistic flopped for him last season and he completed 2016 with a 3.53 ERA, all while allowing double the amount of home runs and seven more earned runs than in 2015 in almost 20 less innings of work. Should Rondon return to his original form, he could bring huge late inning help to a bullpen that looks depleted as of now.
Pedro Strop has always been lively. He may be best known for his trademark tilt of his hat to the left, a tradition that has always angered some, but something that testifies to Strop’s fun personality. During the ups and downs of a season, Strop has never been the most consistent, but in terms of his overall season performance, his consistency has been remarkable. In his four years with the Cubs, his four different ERA’s are separated by all of 0.70, with his 2016 ERA settling in at 2.85. Strop was also injured late last season, which played a part in him seeing a much decreased workload. There is no reason to expect anything less out of Strop in 2017.
Joe Maddon has called Justin Grimm “the mid-innings closer.” While he used to be the mid-reliever every Cub fan could count on, Grimm also took a big step back in 2016. He pitched to a superb 1.99 ERA with only 11 earned runs allowed in 2015, but those numbers spiked to a 4.10 ERA in 2016 that entailed 13 MORE earned runs in only three more innings pitched than two years ago. Similarly to Rondon, if Grimm can return to his prime form, the Cubs bullpen could be dominant, but only time will tell if that will be the case.
This brings us to another segment of Cubs relievers, the newbies. Carl Edwards Jr was brought to the Cubs in the same trade as Grimm, but was only a prospect at the time and just made it to the big league roster at the end of 2015. While he showed some inconsistency at the time, the 2016 season was fantastic for the String Bean Slinger (which is, by the way, probably the best nickname ever given to a baseball player ever; he’s 6’3″ and only weighs 170, and yet he doesn’t even appear to weigh half that).
While Edwards ended 2016 with an unflattering 3.75 ERA and other fairly average statistics, he showed flashes of brilliance. Edwards was never known for his fastball, only his junk pitches, but he dazzled fans and opponents alike with both. His dominance and unbelievable calmness was on full display when he was called to finish Game 7 of the World Series. He was barely 25 years old and yet remained perfectly composed trying to close out Game 7 of the freaking World Series.
The sky’s the limit for Edwards in 2017. While his arm may not have the strength to be a full time starter in the MLB, he might see a very consistent and important role in the bullpen as the season wears on.
The biggest problem with Chapman’s departure was that it left the Cubs without a closer. They tried the free agent market to no avail, but completed a trade with the Kansas City Royals, sending outfielder Jorge Soler to Kansas City in exchange for all-star closer Wade Davis. Davis is a free agent at the end of 2017, so his time with the Cubs may not be very long, but he is going to be the everyday closer during his stay.
In his 2015 season, in which he won the World Series, Davis ended with a 0.94 (!!!!) ERA and finished sixth in Cy Young voting, very high for a closer. Last year, though he wasn’t quite as dominant, was still very good for Davis, as he finished with a 1.87 ERA. The concern here is with Davis’ injuries; he was placed on the Disabled List twice during the 2016 season with forearm strains. If the Cubs want a top-tier bullpen, Davis needs to stay healthy, but as it hasn’t been a concern for the majority of his career, they should be fine.
Those five (Rondon, Strop, Grimm, Edwards, and Davis) constitute the solid portion of the bullpen heading into 2017. The final two or three spots are up for grabs. 41-year-old journeyman Koji Uehara is the biggest name vying for a spot, as he was dominant from 2013-2015 with the Boston Red Sox. That being said, a regression to a 3.45 ERA in 2016 combined with his old age is definitely cause for concern. It’s safe to expect him to start the season on the major league roster, but his actual performance can’t be predicted. His age and recent struggles are frightening, but Cubs’ pitching coach Chris Bosio has been known to make most any pitcher great.
There’s also a giant question mark sitting in the Cubs 40-man roster right now whose name is Caleb Smith. Yes, I know you haven’t ever heard of him before. The Brewers took Smith from the Yankees in the 2016 Rule 5 Draft, and the Cubs promptly traded for him.
The problem is that the Rule 5 Draft rules stipulate that any player taken must spend the entire next season on a major league roster. If that doesn’t happen, he is offered back to his original team for a small fee. There’s a big issue with Smith, though; the 25-year-old spent the entire 2016 season with the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate, a full two levels below the major-league level.
He finished there with an unimpressive 3.96 ERA. Clearly, the Cubs front office sees something in Smith, but it’s pretty hard to see someone like this spending too much time at the big league level, especially on a team with so much talent like the Cubs. That being said, because of his need to be at the big league level, look for the lefty to at least have a good chance at being on the roster on Opening Day.
Then there’s the whole slew of minor league deals the Cubs have made to ensure pitching depth. While most signings aren’t news-worthy, their recent deal with Brian Duensing is. The 33-year-old veteran has been in the majors very consistently since 2009, and has been surprisingly solid during that time. He pitched to an average 4.05 ERA in 2016 and could very well be a massive bargain for the Cubs in 2017. Even if he doesn’t start the season in the north side, he could quite possibly be seen later down the road as depth.
Lastly, the Cubs have five different pitchers on their 40-man-roster that will most likely serve as extra bullpen depth at some point in the 2017 season. Felix Peña and Jake Buchanan both wore Cubbie blue during the dog days of the 2016 season as depth pieces, and will continue to serve the same role in 2017. Dylan Floro, just claimed off waivers from the Rays two days ago, pitched 15 innings for Tampa Bay last year as well. David Rollins served as a pen arm in Seattle for two years until the Cubs claimed him. Rollins has made headlines recently for being claimed on waivers five separate times in about a month. Prospect Rob Zastryzny very well may also be seen in the Cubs’ bullpen at some point, but will be starting 2017 in the minor leagues to be stretched out into a starting pitcher.
Despite a whole lot of competition that will be happening in March, here’s how I think the Cubs’ pen will shake out, come Opening Day.
Brian Duensing Long Reliever
Justin Grimm Mid Reliever
Koji Uehara Mid Reliever
Pedro Strop Mid Reliever
Carl Edwards Mid Reliever
Hector Rondon Set-Up Man
Wade Davis Closer
Only time will tell if the Cubs’ bullpen will be dominant enough to succeed, but one thing we now know is that if they want any chance at doing well in the postseason, it’s going to have to be.