If there was one area in which the Cubs were absolutely a disaster, it was the bullpen. They weren't able to squeeze one last good year out of Marmol. Free agent signee Kyuji Fujikawa didn't seize the closer job either, then got hurt for the season. The Cubs stumbled upon Kevin Gregg and he solidified the bullpen early, but has pitched above and beyond his peripherals and there are signs of regression as we've headed for the last two months of the year.
The Cubs have tried a flyer approach to the bullpen. Knowing the volatility of relief pitcher performance and the difficulty of projecting that role, the Cubs have brought in as many good arms as possible, hoping they'll find a keeper or two they could add to the pen long term. So far that hasn't been easy, but there are at least a few arms we can count on for next year.
The Favorites: These guys have the inside track toward a bullpen gig next year.
- James Russell
- Pedro Strop
- Carlos Villanueva
- Blake Parker
- Alberto Cabrera
James Russell has been the most consistent Cubs reliever since the trade of Sean Marshall. He was used a lot this season and did show some signs of fatigue, but he has bounced back of late. Carlos Villanueva is signed for another year and will compete for a spot in the rotation. If he doesn't get a spot, he'll return to the pen, where he's been more effective this season. Pedro Strop has a big arm, averaging about 96 mph on his FB. He also has a good slider that has been his put away pitch after setting up with the heat. Strop has improved his control as a Cub (3.2 walks/9 IP), without sacrificing missing bats (nearly 10Ks per 9 IP). There is a lot to like about Blake Parker. He's in his prime years, he throws hard (avg. 92 mph FB) misses bats (9.6 Ks/9IP) and he has the kind of aggressive mentality you like coming out of the pen. His control has been better at 3.42 walks per 9 IP. Alberto Cabrera was a starter in AA but has switched back to relief in AAA to keep his innings down. He's out of options in 2014 so the Cubs have to keep him or loose him. The bet is they aren't going to lose an arm that can reach 97 with a nasty slider, a solid change, and starter potential.
The holdovers: These pitchers have been effective at times, but may get displaced and upgraded by a veteran addition or two.
- Michael Bowden
- Hector Rondon
- Matt Guerrier
- Kevin Gregg*
Michael Bowden has a decent shot at sticking. He's not going to wow you with his stuff or his command but he somehow gets the job done 3.76 ERA (3.23 FIP). The key to Bowden has been keeping the ball in the park. He has not allowed a HR this year. He's also still in that prime year range, so the Cubs may just hold on to him while he is at peak value. Hector Rondon seems to be recovering his old arm strength as the season wears on, unlike last year's rule 5 pick, Lendy Castillo, who lost velo as the year went on. Rondon will get a shot but is likely headed to AAA. Matt Guerrier might be the older, more experienced version of Bowden. He has really helped stabilize the bullpen, but his age (35) is a factor. Kevin Gregg is a free agent and said he'd like to be back. If the Cubs can't replace him internally or on the market, he may be back again, but I think that's unlikely.
Interesting arms to watch:
- Chang-Yon Lim
- Arodys Vizcaino
- Zach Rosscup
- Eduardo Sanchez
- Henry Rodriguez
The 37 year old Chang-Yon Lim is shooting up through the minor league ranks on the strength of a 92-95 mph FB that he throws with a deceptive delivery and a sidearm angle. He could well be a nightmare for RH hitters even at the MLB level. Arodys Vizcaino may have the best two pitch combo on this entire list but health is an issue. We may not see him until midseason at the earliest as he'll probably start in AAA. Zach Rosscup must be added to the 40 man roster or be exposed to the Rule 5 draft, where it seems likely that a AA LHP with his ridiculous K rate (13.6 per 9 IP) will be snatched up quickly. Rosscup gets it done with a deceptive 90 mph FB, a good curve, and improved control/command. Has a realistic shot as the second lefty out of the pen but probably goes to AAA unless he wows the Cubs in the spring. Eduardo Sanchez and Henry Rodriguez throw very hard but command is the key for their success. If the Cubs can retain them both, they'll each get a shot this spring.
Some more possibilities down on the farm...
- Chris Rusin
- Brooks Raley
- Tony Zych
- Marcus Hatley
- Marcos Mateo
- Brian Schlitter
The Cubs don't have much in the way of MLB ready relief prospects. Chris Rusin is a possibility as the 2nd lefty out of the pen. He's the most experienced on this list and his versatility will be an asset as well. Rusin was a plague on LH hitters at Iowa (2 walks/24 Ks in 27.2 IP) but he was almost as effective against RHP (3.38 ERA vs RH hitters/3.25 vs. LH hitters), so he can be more than just a LOOGY. If Rusin wins a starting job, then Brooks Raley has a clearer path to that 2nd lefty spot in the bullpen, but he hasn't been particularly effective vs. LH hitters. Tony Zych has had a successful season but did not dominate and miss bats the way the team hoped. Marcus Hatley is going to be a minor league FA and the Cubs must decide what to do with the big, athletic hard-throwing (94-95 mph FB, power CB). They may need to offer him at least a shot at the big league club to keep him. Marcos Mateo is a hard-throwing RH who has hit as high as 97 when healthy with a hard, occasionally filthy, mid to upper 80s slider. He's been injury plagued, however, and like Hatley, he'll be a minor league FA. Brian Schlitter has been the closer at Iowa and has done a remarkable job with pinpoint command and good velo (9 Ks/9IP and 0.93 walks per 9 IP). He has 27 saves, a 3.35 FIP and is still just 27. He may get a look this spring as well.
- Kyuji Fujikawa
- Trey McNutt
- Rafael Dolis
Fujikawa may not return until mid-season while Trey McNutt's status is up in the air for next season at this point. Rafael Dolis is on the 60 day DL after what was originally termed a "mild forearm strain". The old "MFS" sometimes becomes a bad UCL which is then followed by the inevitable TJS. These are likely not guys they are counting on to start the season with the team but perhaps they can make an impact later.
Free agent possibilities:
It's a good year for free agent relief pitchers in that there are many hard-throwing relievers on the market, which may mean the Cubs can get a good one without overpaying. They should probably stay away from older veterans having big seasons like Grant Balfour and Javier Lopez, who could well be overprice. But there are a lot of interesting alternatives with the top one being Eduardo Mujica of the Cardinals who has shown impeccable command out of the bullpen (0.39 walks per 9 IP). He has put up a 1.97 ERA (2.89 FIP) with 30 saves -- and he's just 29 -- so he won't be cheap.
The Cubs liked LHP J.P. Howell last year and we were big fans of Koji Uehara, who's had a ridiculous year at Boston -- so it's unlikely they let him go without a fight. Pitchers Jose Veras and Oliver Perez (over 12Ks/9 IP) were in demand this offseason as well.
The Cubs could go with undervalued veterans such as Matt Belisle (3.08 FIP, 2.03 walks/9IP) or flyers such as Joba Chamberlain (who is throwing as hard as ever) or injury reclamations such as LHP Bill Bray, Jesse Crain, Ryan Madson, and Nick Massett.
There are lots of options on the market and I'd be surprised if the Cubs didn't add a veteran arm or two to go with the emerging young core of bullpen arms next year.
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