I started to write this as part of The Hypothetical 2014 Chicago Cubs but I think it deserved its own article since the bullpen is in such a state of flux. Bullpen arms have very little value to most analysts and fans – outside of the closer – which is a discussion for another day – but they are still a highly important piece to the contending puzzle. I haven’t cared about fixing the bullpen; mostly because I didn’t expect us to compete so the more losses the better these last two years.
Next year is different. I do expect us to be solid so the bullpen is something that needs to be addressed. But I also know bullpen arms are volatile, and performance year-to-year is unpredictable minus the handful of elite late inning arms scattered across the league. Many fans still think we should be spending money on veteran arms to sure up the bullpen for next season but I am not a big fan of spending money on the bullpen, yet I understand the thought behind it.
Looking at the Cubs’ bullpen performance this year, they rank 2nd worst only trailing the Astros in terms of fWAR and SIERA and they’re 5th worst via ERA. They’ve blown the most saves this year, have struck out the lowest number of hitters while walking the 9th most. Any way you look at it, the bullpen as a whole has been atrocious. If the Cubs even had a league average bullpen, they’d have about 10 more wins. This is definitely an area the Cubs could improve their record drastically with an overhaul.
Dumping Carlos Marmol and Shawn Camp at the end of June were major steps in the right direction but they only accounted for 6 of the 24 blown saves. These two combined were worth -1.5 fWAR, had an ERA of 6.54, and drew the most ire from Cubs fans. The bullpen has improved since, especially due to the production of Pedro Strop and Matt Guerrier, who have been excellent for the Cubs since being acquired. Unfortunately Guerrier is having surgery on his throwing elbow due to a flexor mass buildup and is now lost for the rest of the season. The bullpen’s ERA has went from 4.37 to 4.16 since the end of June but even with that noticeable progress, that doesn’t improve the team – a 4.16 bullpen ERA is still 5th worst in baseball, a 4.37 bullpen ERA is only one spot worse, not much of a difference.
Kevin Gregg, the replacement closer after Marmol was dumped has accounted for 4 of the blown saves, but his save conversion rate of 86% is actually about 10% above league average over the past decade. He’s been a stabilizing force for the bullpen, and if it wasn’t for a swoon in early July, he would’ve been traded. He’s still an option to be traded by the waiver deadline but the team that still needs bullpen help the most is the Orioles, and they’re they team that waived him earlier in the year.
The pitcher who has been most valuable in terms of fWAR, James Russell, has accounted for 7 of the team’s blown saves. His numbers are actually very good, which made me think he was misused before I even looked deeper at the numbers. Russell is an excellent LOOGY, allowing a .165/.216/.244 triple slash line against left-handed hitters in 26IP. However against righties, he’s giving up .309/.395/.567 and has actually faced 17 innings worth of right-handed hitters – that’s about 17 innings too many. In fact, his only blown save against a left-handed batter was on 7/1 against Jason Kubel. As long as Russell is used in the correct situations, he’s been dominant.
Some of these mistakes weren’t entirely on Sveum; during a season you’re going to have to use bullpen in matchups that aren’t favorable and in a couple of the cases, Russell was used to try to rest the bullpen; like the first game of the doubleheader vs Milwaukee on 6/30. Cubs up 5-2, with 1 out and 2 on in the 7th, Sveum tried to keep Russell in there to escape with a lead, but Russell gave up a game tying 3 run homer to right-handed pinch hitter Khris Davis. Another reason to defend Sveum’s use of the bullpen is the lack of talent on the bullpen roster, and we’ve heard that from our front office many times this season. For instance, rule 5 pick Hector Rondon has been the worst pitcher still on the roster. Rondon isn’t a bad pitcher, he’s just not ready for the majors; he should be sitting in AAA right now refining his command and developing his repertoire after only pitching 7 innings the past 2 seasons for the Indians, instead Sveum is stuck with him on the 25-man so he has to use him. It’s also been a revolving door with the rest of the bullpen spots. We lost Fujikawa early, we’ve claimed nearly every arm that has been sent to waivers, and we’ve used a bunch of young guys from our farm trying to piece it together for the season.
Nevertheless, I am not letting Sveum entirely off the hook, maybe this is something that improves with more experience, but the area he needs to work on the most is how to handle the bullpen. He’s late with the hook with his starting pitchers (this could easily be related to a lack of trust of a terrible bullpen though), he gives very little slack to young bullpen arms and trusts veterans to figure it out too long even when it’s clear they’re struggling. Overall, I think Sveum is an solid enough manager with some areas he’s excellent in but bullpen management is critical for a contending team, so he must improve if the Cubs are going to win under him.
Looking at next year, after looking at this free agent market, there’s not much there either for relief pitchers. I like 3 names, Jason Frasor, Jesse Crain and Joe Smith – all 3 guys have contender experience in the AL, with an excellent track record, so all 3 should be highly sought after by contenders. I don’t think the Cubs will spend a big amount on a top tier free agent reliever so it looks like internal options may be our only choice.
Internally, barring any unforeseen trades, Villanueva looks to be the swing man, Russell as a LOOGY and Strop as the late innings righty are locks. I would assume Fujikawa is the closer if/when he is healthy. Those 4 should be very good in their respective roles, but after that is where it will be interesting. I don’t expect the Cubs to tender an offer to Gregg. The team will also lose Guerrier who is in the last year of his deal, and with his injury I don’t think the Cubs will be interested in bringing him back. We’ve had a lot of auditions this year and we’ll have more these last 6 plus weeks. Many younger arms with potential like Putnam, Bowden, Dolis, Rusin, Raley, Rodriguez and Parker will be in the mix for next season and if they don’t make it, some will have to be outrighted off the 40-man completely since we’ve hit a point where we have too many prospects that need to be protected and we’ve also got quite a few guys out of options, so expect to see the Cubs make long-term decisions on a lot of players in the near future.
One important name for instance is Jake Arrieta who will have to be on the 25-man one way or another. I expect him to get a rotation spot, but if he struggles the rest of this year (he’s being called up today), he may end up a late inning reliever next season. A side note on Arrieta, the Cubs gained an extra year of control and avoided super two status by waiting to call him up until August.
As I mentioned last week, I have Arodys Vizcaino penciled into the BP, and after listening to Jason McLeod yesterday on the Keith Law’s podcast, I feel a little more confident expecting Vizcaino to be ready. The short take, Vizcaino was throwing especially well in Spring Training before his setback, and the Cubs expect him to throw multiple innings each outing in the Arizona Fall league to rebuild arm strength and get back into the routine of pitching to be ready to pitch for next season.
That leaves 2 spots. I like Bowden but he’s really struggled lately and could be on the chopping block, again. Raley and Rusin both still have options and are lefties so unless something happens with Russell, I expect them to be at AAA. Rusin pitching well enough to stay in the rotation mix and is probably our best internal option if there is an injury so I’d be shocked if he’s not starting at AAA next year. Dolis has the stuff, but I think he’s the first guy outrighted off the 40-man due to his health. Putnam is probably outrighted as well since he’s returning from an elbow injury. Blake Parker has pitched extremely well and is deserving of a spot right now but that can change by next Spring and he also has options left. Rodriguez could also be outrighted if he continues to struggle.
Down on the farm, we have a couple intriguing options including Alberto Cabrera, Justin Grimm (recently acquired in the Matt Garza deal), Barret Loux (replacement for Jake Brigham, as part of the Geovany Soto deal), Kyle Hendricks (part of the Ryan Dempster trade) and Tony Zych (2011 4th round draft pick). Most of these guys are being groomed as starters but I’m a believer in the theory that it’s smarter to let a rookie pitcher start their career in the bullpen to get them acclimated to the majors and to also keep their innings down as long as it’s not an instance where the role keeps changing back and forth. If the Cubs don’t want to take that route, Zych is a definite BP arm, that is close to being ready for the majors. He has a 2.52 ERA in 50IP with 36 strikeouts to only 20 walks but with the 40-man issues the Cubs are facing, adding another player who doesn’t need to be there just complicates matters more. And then there’s service time/player control to consider and this option works best as a midseason call up, not to start a season.
So out of all the internal options right now, I’d lean towards Bowden and Parker getting those spots. Other than getting back Fujikawa, that’s basically the same bullpen minus the 3 worst pitchers this year while also losing Guerrier and Gregg, who were 2 of the best albeit in limited time and with major questions marks going into next year. On paper it’s not a terrible BP, and like I said earlier, an average BP would have been worth roughly 10 more wins this year. But I thought this year’s BP was going to be solid and look how far off I was then.
Who do you guys want in the BP? Is removing the 3 worst performing pitchers plus hoping for some progression from young arms going to be enough of an improvement? Is adding Fujikawa and Vizcaino, two very high upside arms to the BP going to replace the production lost from Gregg and Guerrier? Is free agency our best course of action? As always drop your thoughts and questions below.