One of the main reasons for the Cubs big struggles to start last season was the performance of the bullpen. The Cubs revamped that part of the roster but apart from the excellent performances by Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon, it's been more of the same early in the season.
To be fair, the Cubs bullpen has worked under some difficult circumstances early in the season. They have had a lot of work early on due to extra innings games and whereas the wind normally blows in early in the season at Wrigley, it's been blowing out for the most part.
That has helped contribute to the bullpen giving up 6 HRs in the first 9 games: 2 by Pedro Strop and one each by Carlos Villanueva, James Russell, Wesley Wright, and Brian Schlitter.
That portion, with the exception of Strop, is a temporary one to bridge the gap until the Cubs can put the finishing touches on some bullpen arms in the minors.
So, when are we going to start seeing those arms? Maybe sooner than we think.
I'm a little worried about Wesley Wright's early drop in velocity. He normally averages in the low 90s but this year he's been a couple ticks lower at 88 mph. That may not seem like a big difference, but the last time Wright's velocity dropped like this was 2010 and he didn't fare well at either AAA or the MLB level (5.72 ERA). Hopefully it's just early season cold weather, but it bears watching.
The difficulty with Jose Veras has been very bad control. He's never been a guy with good control but this year he has been especially wild in the early going. Whether that's a blip on the radar or a sign that Veras is either hurt or regressing remains to be seen. His velocity is down by one MPH from last year and 2 mph from his career average, but considering he's getting past the prime age and the cold weather, that may not mean anything at this point. But a small drop in velocity with a big loss in command is a potentially lethal combo -- so Veras is going to have to throw strikes to be an asset.
Pedro Strop has taken a different approach this season and has thrown a lot less fastballs (from 61% to 51%) and has become much more dependent on his slider (up from 33% to 48%), which he throws almost half the time now. It's not something I like to see as we saw the same pattern with Carlos Marmol as his career went on. Both pitchers were more effective when they got ahead in the count and then used the slider to put away hitters.
Reasons for optimism
Obviously Grim and Rondon are reasons for hope. Rondon is throwing much harder early in the season than he did last year at this time, an indication that he may finally have rebuilt his arm strength after losing a couple years due to injury. Grimm is also throwing hard and mixing in a very good curveball, which he is commanding better this year as a reliever than he did as a starter last year. They have been the closest thing the Cubs have to shut down relievers in the early going.
The Cubs have also given many signs which make me think that this bullpen is one in transition. They did not put Kyuji Fujikawa on the 60 day DL (at least yet). They sent Neil Ramirez to the Iowa bullpen rather than start him -- while we like to say you can always switch a starter to the bullpen quickly, Ramirez's start in the bullpen makes me think the Cubs are more interested in getting him to the majors quickly rather than further developing his secondaries at this point in his career. Shoulder issues last year may also play a role in the Cubs giving Ramirez a role that will limit his workload. LHP Zac Rosscup is off to a good start and is showing the kind of control the Cubs need to see -- though it's been in an incredibly short sample size. Rosscup needs to show he can do it over an extended period of time before he gets the call.
In AA, Armando Rivero is throwing 97 mph with a solid slider and improving command. At 26 years old, the Cuban IFA signee is not on a normal development plan and could see time this season, though he is not yet on the Cubs 40 man roster.
But the potential impact of all of those relievers pales in comparison to that of Arodys Vizcaino, who is blowing away hitters in the FSL in the early season with his 98 mph FB, mid 80s change-up, and knee buckling low 80s curveball. Yes, the competition is young and inexperienced, but stuff is stuff and Vizcaino's stuff may be the best in the Cubs system.
By sometime this season, I can envision a bullpen that includes some combo of the following:
- Pedro Strop
- Justin Grimm
- Hector Rondon
- Arodys Vizcaino
- Neil Ramirez
- Armando Rivero
- Blake Parker
- Brian Schlitter
- Zac Rosscup
- James Russell
- Chris Rusin
- Eric Jokisch
It depends, too, on how the season goes. The Cubs may want to keep a couple of veterans in the bullpen but if the Cubs are out of contention and have another purge at the deadline, I'd love to see how a bullpen like this performs. It's power arm after power arm --- every RH can hit 95 mph or higher and Rosscup has hit as high as 94, though he normally works in the low 90s. Rosscup, however, can miss bats as his deceptive delivery adds to his solid velocity for a LHP.
We've seen early on how Grimm, Rondon, and at times, Pedro Strop, can miss bats and kill rallies. I'm hoping this is just a small snippet of what's to come. Although we've seen much of the same so far this year, collectively the Cubs have the arms to put together a lights out bullpen. We jut may have to wait a bit longer before it comes to fruition.
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