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Cubs Opinion Preview Spring Training 2018

Cubs Spring Training Preview: Bullpen

Certainly the most volatile group of any team, the Cubs of 2017 employed a bullpen that was as inconsistent and head-scratching as there was in baseball, will the re-tooled 2018 version provide more stability?

I can’t believe we are *this* close to February 14, a day I care about not because of a fabricated holiday, but because it’s when pitchers and catchers report! It’s been an interesting and troubling off-season, with a pitch clock debate proving highly symptomatic of growing tensions between players and owners. The economic landscape of the sport deserves appropriate critique and discussion, certainly, and here’s to hoping this gets sorted out in a manner that appropriately appeases the players without the need for a strike.

We have already covered the Infield, Outfield, and Starting Rotation, and now we turn to the Bullpen. Certainly the most volatile group of any team, the Cubs of 2017 employed a bullpen that was as inconsistent and head-scratching as there was in baseball. Even with an elite closer in Wade Davis, the bullpen walked hitters at an alarming rate, and trust outside of Davis (and to a lesser extent, Brian Duensing) was nonexistent.

2018’s iteration of the bullpen is revamped, complete with a new pitching coach. Most of the bullpen slots are already figured out, but there’s definitely some wiggle room for a spring training performance to catapult someone onto the 25-man roster. For the purposes of this article I am assuming that 1) Mike Montgomery will be a starter, 2) they will carry eight relievers on the Opening Day roster. I could be wrong (of course I likely am!) but until the Cubs sign another starter, and because of the versatility of the position players on the roster, these are assumptions I’m going to pretend to be accurate.

Like before, all statistics and projections are via Fangraphs, unless otherwise noted.

Closer

Brandon Morrow

2017 Stats: 6-0, 2 SV, 2.06 ERA, 1.55 FIP, 43.2 IP
2018 Steamer: 4-3, 30 SV, 3.55 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 65 IP

The front office made a curious but creative decision to sign Morrow. Acknowledging that Davis was going to cost too much to re-sign, and seemingly not interested in the other closing options on the market, they opted to bring in a veteran who discovered a resurgent career with health and a full time role as a reliever.

The lack of actual closing experience may be a red flag, but that Morrow showed elite capability as Kenley Jensen’s set-up man, and unbelievable moxie and durability in the playoffs (until he just plain ran out of gas) should mitigate those concerns. Couple that with Theo Epstein candidly speaking about Morrow as a guy they will utilize as a traditional closer, and this feels less like a desperate attempt to replace an elite closer and more like a calculated risk in a guy they truly believe in. While not always a bullpen stalwart, Morrow’s 2017 season was fantastic. His 10.31 K/9 (a 29.4% rate) suggests adequate strikeout ability for a closer, while the 1.85 BB/9 (5.1% rate) is a sterling number that would be fantastic to see replicated in Chicago.

While it’s probably foolish to think that he’ll emulate last year’s breakout, his Steamer seems to favor regression in a (relatively) severe fashion. I expect Morrow to maintain an ERA in the mid-two’s while earning more than 40 saves this year.

Righties

Carl Edwards

2017 Stats: 5-4, 0 SV, 2.98 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 66.1 IP
2018 Steamer: 3-2, 0 SV, 3.37 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 55 IP

I sincerely can’t think of another reliever I’ve ever cheered for like I do for Carl Edwards. There’s something about him that’s plain appealing: a lively fastball that belies his tiny frame, a baby face that you simply feel the need to cheer for, and a hope that perhaps one day he’ll find consistency. His 35.9 percent K rate was terrific last year, but being butted against a ghastly 14.5 percent BB rate mitigated his effectiveness. If he clicks mentally, and discovers whatever it is he needs in order to be consistent, he’ll launch himself into elite status for relievers. Because that’s an impossible thing to predict, however, the safe bet is that he still struggles with consistency – though incremental improvements in his walk rate as the season continues isn’t an impossibility.

I expect Carl to relive some of those dreadful outings he had last year, but for the most part, he’ll prove to be a dominant force in the latter innings. As with Morrow, I expect Edwards to be better than his projections – though I say that with utterly no confidence. But if he puts it all together? He could be something special.

Steve Cishek

2017 Stats: 3-2, 1 SV, 2.01 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 44.2 IP
2018 Steamer: 3-3, 2 SV, 3.90 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 65 IP

Another savvy pickup, Cishek is a veteran that checks a lot of boxes for the Cubs: He has valuable experience as a closer, throws strikes at league-average or better (save for a few seasons), induces ground balls way above average (56% last year), and gives a unique look with a sidearm delivery. Expect him to be one of Maddon’s more pliable relievers – used in a variety of situations pending on match-ups and needs. He’ll probably have a few save opportunities when Morrow needs rest, could be an early entrant into a game if a ground ball is needed in the fifth, and might even establish himself as a bit of a set-up man in the eighth.

Again, I’m confused by his projections, as the 3.90 ERA suggested is more than a full run higher than his career numbers. I expect Cishek to be solid (if not spectacular) in 2018, providing Maddon with a consistent and trustworthy arm out of the ‘pen. His versatility will add value not seen in his statistics, and will make the bullpen on the whole better.

Pedro Strop

2017 Stats: 5-4, 0 SV, 2.83 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 60.1 IP
2018 Steamer: 3-2, 0 SV, 3.33 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 45 IP

Strop was covered extensively by our very own Christopher O’Neil here, so I won’t go too much into detail. What I will say is that despite being maligned by Cubs fans, Strop has consistently produced while fulfilling a number of roles. He may walk too many batters (10.4% last year, 11% in his career) but the fact remains he has a lively fastball and a dominant slider that should allow him to continue his streak of sub-three ERA seasons. What a pickup he has been (along with Jake Arrieta) back in 2013.

Justin Grimm

2017 Stats: 1-2, 1 SV, 5.53 ERA, 5.36 FIP
2018 Steamer: 2-2, 0 SV, 3.94 ERA, 4.03 FIP

When the Cubs didn’t tender Hector Rondon a contract, I understood why. A bit puzzling, however, was that they tendered Grimm in spite of his inconsistencies, and somehow Grimm becomes the first player that Theo has ever taken to an arbitration hearing (this includes his time in Boston). The discrepancy is quite small by arbitration standards, so it’s interesting that this is the first case.

While Grimm clearly has talent, he’s never found consistency with his mid-90’s fastball and filthy breaking ball. Walks, inability to locate pitches, etc. have left the team and fans scratching their heads. Grimm is also out of options, and thus needs a solid spring training in order to make the team out of camp. I’m placing him here now anyway, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up being cut.

Lefties

Justin Wilson

2017 Stats: 4-4, 13 SV, 3.41 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 58 IP
2018 Steamer: 3-2, 2 SV, 3.20 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 55 IP

It’s a bit insane to look back at Wilson’s 2017. Traded to the Cubs at the deadline (along with Alex Avila), the Cubs thought they were picking up a high-leverage lefty that would buttress the bullpen as the team prepared for October. Wilson’s experience as a closer, coupled with his 2.68 ERA and 35 percent K rate in Detroit felt like a great get – especially since he came with a bit of team control. Instead, he was disastrous in Chicago, registering a 5.09 ERA while walking 19 batters in just over 17 IP.

It’s impossible to know what happened to Wilson, who was left off the NLCS roster given his downfall. But there is optimism that he could turn it around this year. The tools are there, he has a bit of a successful track record, and the Cubs seems intent to give him an opportunity to succeed. Should Wilson return to form this could very well be one of the better ‘pens in the National League.

Brian Duensing

2017 Stats: 1-1, 0 SV, 2.71 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 62.1 IP
2018 Steamer: 2-2, 0 SV, 3.86 ERA, 4.05 FIP, 35 IP

Easily the best story of the bullpen last year, Duensing parlayed a minor league contract into a highly successful season with the Cubs. He’s not going to overpower anyone, but he walks few guys (just 7% BB rate last year) and induced ground balls and limited hard contact above league average last year.

It was reported that Duensing took less money to return to the Cubs, a sign that he both loves it here and believes this team can win. That’s an exciting thing for a Cubs team that sorely needed a trusty left-handed reliever, especially given Wilson’s questions and the potential for Montgomery to be the No. 5 starter. Look for Brian to continue what he did last year – nothing fancy, just a consistent and effective effort out of the ‘pen.

Candidates for the final spot

Dario Alvarez
Dillon Maples
Rob Zastryzny
Luke Farrell
Randy Rosario

While there are pros and cons to all of these names, I think the final spot comes down to the first two names listed: Alvarez and Maples. Alvarez, signed this off-season, had success with Texas last year in a limited capacity, and would give the Cubs another lefty option. Maples, on the other hand, shot up through the farm last year after years of concerns and inconsistency. Getting a call-up last September, Maples showed what one might expect from him: absolutely filthy stuff without any control. His 40 percent K rate in just 5.1 IP is eye popping, as is the ugly 10.13 ERA he generated in his debut.

All told, I expect Maples to get the nod for the final bullpen slot. That requires, of course, a quality effort in Arizona, one that shows he is starting to understand how to harness his immense talent. If he figures it out he could be an incredible weapon for the Cubs in 2018.

Conclusion

I expect this year’s version of the bullpen to be better than 2017. Losing Davis hurts, but the front office restructured the group in a manner that took appropriate risks while adding guys who have shown the ability to throw strikes. With new Pitching Coach Jim Hickey at the helm, it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of this bullpen unit.

I’m feeling good feels this morning, and I have a lot of optimism for this group. Can’t wait for next Wednesday!

 

 

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Austin is the Lead Cubs Writer for The Loop Sports. He's a lifelong baseball junkie (due to his father) and as a former college pitcher has a particular affinity for the art of pitching. Austin loves to commute in Chicago on his bicycle, and enjoys camping and canoeing as often as possible. He attained his master's degree in Social Justice and Community Development from Loyola University Chicago in 2014.

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