The Chicago Cubs’ bullpen in 2018 was surprisingly solid, posting an above league average WAR (4.0) for the season while posting the second best ERA (3.35) across the game (and best in the National League). Chicago’s ‘pen kept this team afloat despite an undeniably shaky offense in the second half. Without such a performance, the Cubs may have missed the playoffs altogether — something unthinkable as we entered the 2018 season.
Yet questions about the bullpen remain in spades as we approach the off-season. What turned out to be a sturdy relief corps in 2018 was belied by the use of 35 pitchers for the season, including five position players, a shuttle between Triple-A and the big league squad to fill out the ‘pen like late-season veteran acquisitions such as Jesse Chavez, Jorge De La Rosa, and Jaime Garcia. There were nice surprises such as Randy Rosario, incredible disappointments (Brian Duensing), and significant injuries, most notably Brandon Morrow, who failed to throw one pitch in the season’s second half.
With several upcoming free agents in the currently constructed relief corps, we know there’ll be some new faces in 2019. We also know there is a consistent cog that should have a chance to be the anchor of the 2019 bullpen. Turn your hats to the left everyone, it’s time to give Pedro Strop his due.
A Consistency you Can Believe in
Strop’s highest ERA since 2014 was 2.91, his highest FIP 3.43. He was a model of consistency heading into the 2018 season, and this past season only cemented that reality. In 2018 he posted a nifty 0.99 WHIP, struck out hitters at a solid 23.8 percent clip, and held opponents to a paltry .178 batting average while surrendering walks near league average (8.8 percent). Since the 2014 season started, he’s thrown a minimum of 47.1 innings, averaging roughly 59 innings per season the past five years. He’s durable (save for an inexcusable injury suffered as a base runner) and has shown the pedigree necessary to pitch in high-leverage situations.
More importantly, he owned the closer’s role with Morrow out of commission. Pedro’s second half numbers are astounding: 1.77 ERA, .139 BAA, 0.84 WHIP. He amassed these numbers while pitching almost exclusively in high-leverage situations, finishing the season with 13 saves and, for perhaps the first time in his tenure with the Cubs, maintaining the belief and confidence in his manager, his team, and the fan base.
Strop’s reward should be an expressed and tangible confidence from Joe Maddon, the role of closer firmly affixed to his name.
The Brandon Morrow Question
Anointing Strop as closer has little to do with a lack of confidence in Morrow. He had a terrific first half, looking every bit a successful gamble for the front office as he tallied 22 saves with a 1.47 ERA. This, of course, was a follow-up to his resurrection in Dodger blue in 2017, where he posted a brilliant 2.06 ERA in 43.2 innings, with a strikeout rate of 29.4 and a paltry 5.3 percent walk rate.
The Dodgers abused Morrow’s return to prominence, riding him hard in the playoffs — including using him in every game of last year’s World Series. Indeed, Theo Epstein recently spoke of the decision to sign Morrow, a calculated gamble on an injury prone player that could be had much cheaper than the big-name closers available in free agency.
I still view the signing of Morrow as a good one. He was terrific when healthy, and the two-year, $21 million deal is quite palatable when comparing Colorado’s signing of Wade Davis (three-years, $52 million). That said, his role should transition back to set-up man status in 2019.
The Cubs will undoubtedly be cautious with his usage next year, and utilizing him in carefully constructed scenarios (starting the eighth inning for example, or entering games late with runners on base) would allow a consistency to develop that could keep his arm healthy and fresh. Theo was publicly a bit critical of Maddon’s use of Morrow last season, when he pitched in three straight games (and four out of five) not long before he was shut down for the season. With the closer’s role fluid and ever-changing, handing the keys back to Morrow and expecting his health to remain sturdy is too much of a risk to take.
Unlike Morrow, Strop has proven the ability to remain healthy while pitching multiple innings, throwing in consecutive games, and getting warmed up in a hurry while remaining effective.
The Brandon Morrow question isn’t one about effectiveness, but how to preserve his health. Carving a prescribed role doesn’t just make sense to maintain his health, it’d also allow Maddon to maximize the potential of his bullpen. With Strop closing, Morrow setting up, Cishek as the do-it-all reliever, and the likely return of Chavez, the Cubs have a strong back-of-rotation presence. Throw in the infinitely-talented-but-dangerously-inconsistent Carl Edwards Jr., the versatile Mike Montgomery with Drew Smyly making his debut with the Cubs in 2019, and you have a ‘pen that should once again prove one of the best in baseball.
There are a lot of questions to be answered about the bullpen between now and Spring Training. In my mind, however, the role of closer has already been decided.
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