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Cubs bullpen still a work in progress...Can some fresh young arms help?

Cubs bullpen still a work in progress...Can some fresh young arms help?
Hector Rondon

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.

Concerns

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:

RHPs

  • Pedro Strop
  • Justin Grimm
  • Hector Rondon
  • Arodys Vizcaino
  • Neil Ramirez
  • Armando Rivero
  • Blake Parker
  • Brian Schlitter

LHPs

  • 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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    In addition to the guys you mention, Blake Parker and Marcus Hatley look good so far at Iowa, and have ML stuff.

    I honestly don't worry about our RH relief pitching going forward; we'll find the right guys, and I think we actually will have a surplus here. LHP is a weakness.

    In fact, it may get so crowded we consider moving Grimm to the rotation. He failed his first attempt with Texas, and it's tough to mess with bullpen success, but maybe worth another shot.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Oh my gosh, how did I forget about Blake Parker??? Thanks for reminding me. Hatley I considered but I'm less confident about but he definitely has the kind of power arm .

    LHP is a weakness for most teams in baseball, so we can take some solace in that -- though not much.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John, the Pirates have a good lefty in Watson, and hes more than a LOOGY. Same with the Cards left, Siegrist(or something like that). John, this team hasnt had a top-notch lefty RP since Randy Myers or Paul Assemacher. Whats the problem?

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    Sean Marshall would like a word with you.

  • Great stuff John! I was thinking a lot while reading the comments in Felzz' article about how good the FO is at finding quality starters. Then there are those teams with great bullpens that you know you're in big trouble if you are down a run and their starter makes it through seven, or even six innings. When the Pirates went to their bullpen it wasn't, "great, we finally chased their starter!" It was, "uh oh, we're in trouble."

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    Thanks. Getting into that bullpen certainly didn't help with the Pirates and that's a credit to them. Even when the Cubs bullpen performed well, they lost out in the end. I'd like to get where the Pirates are now.

  • John:

    Amazing! I guess I was posting a question about getting bullpen arms to the big leagues on another thread as you were posting this. Full service or what?

    The other part of my question was and is: Any insights on the chances of Ramirez, Vizcaino, or any others of those listed being starters in the longer run?

  • In reply to bruno14:

    Thanks Bruno!

    I think the guy with the best chance of being a starter is Justin Grimm because of his combination of 3 good pitches, good size, improving comand, and durability.

    Vizcaino has the stuff but not the stamina. One scout told me that at this point, they'd be crazy to make him a starter. But he definitely has everything you need other than stamina to be a front line guy -- we'll see how things change over time. I suspect if he does become a starter, he'll end up more like a 3rd guy because he probably won't take on a front line starters workload.

    Ramirez's shoulder issues and problems repeating his delivery make him more likely a bullpen arm to me though he has all the other tools to start.

    I don't think I'd try Hector Rondon as a starter as he seems to lose velocity after his first inning. I think he's a bullpen guy.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Id agree on Viz. Just doesnt have the build to be a 200 innings type starter. Rondon, Grimm, Viz and maybe Ramirez show the makings of a good back end relief corp RH. Rosscup has swing/miss numbers in the minors, but we need at least one more. Hows Cervanka doing so far?

  • Aside from Veras and Wright I've been impressed with the bullpen so far. I'm curious to see who they decide to send to Iowa once Arrietta returns and Villanueva is sent to the bullpen. Schlitter?

  • Thanks - It will be interesting to see this work out over time and frustrating to see Cub relievers prove that they are not answers, or at least not ready. I can't wait to start to see the same process with starters.

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    I'm excited by the early returns of Grimm and Rondon. Equally, I'm happy that Renteria isn't killing them by overuse. (How easy would it have been to put Rondon instead of Schiltter in to start the 7th?) It took a while to get comfortable with the rotation -- and as good as it has been, better things are (hopefully) coming in the next few years. Now we need to build the bullpen. It's coming along nicely, but that is, admittedly, little solace on days like yesterday.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    That's a good point on not overusing those two. I think also that argument is a good one to add a couple of veterans in the mix who have already built up the ability to handle big workloads. Maybe you don't want to have a bullpen full of young arms and risk having to overuse a few of them.

  • It begs the question; how soon is too soon to start switching out parts? Not only the bullpen arms; this also goes to the position players not named Castro, Rizzo, Castillo or Ebola. After 10 games, there are about seven guys on this roster that I am satisfied I have seen enough.

    Should you wait 20 games? 40? 80?

  • In reply to Rob Letterly:

    That's always a tough question because you want to give guys a chance to play out of what just might be an early season slump.

    I'd be more willing to switch out veteran parts because we know that -- even if they come back, they probably won't give us a ton (guys like Sweeney, Schierholtz, Barney). So there's less risk in moving on. On the other hand, if they move on from Olt or Lake and they suddenly click, they could regret that -- though both can be sent to the minors so they won't necessarily lose them.

  • In reply to Rob Letterly:

    They will start switching as soon as the prospects show they are ready. They won't throw a young guy out there just because they get tired of watching Wesley Wright.

    I think the way to look at it is that barring injury all of Baez, Alcantara, Vizcaino, Rivero, Ramirez, Rosscup, and at least one of Hendricks and Jokisch will be on the team by the end of the year or on opening day next year.

    Edwards, Villanueva and Bryant also have a chance to be a part of that mix as well. Otherwise they will be a part of the next wave along with Almora, Soler, Black and Johnson that we will be askign the same questions about at this time next year. The waves are just starting to hit the shore. Now it is just a matter of determining which ones have the power to reshape the shore.

  • As a Cub fan, I think you always try and see the glimpse of hope in any situation, and that is what I am going to do right here.

    In Wednesday's game, Strop gave up 2 HR's to cut the lead down to two. What was his response?

    He struck out the next two batters to finish out the game. He could have folded, tried to overthrow, lost his composure or what ever. But he buckled down and finished the game off.

    Again, maybe I am trying to be too positive, but I did see that as a good sign.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    I don't think anyone has a problem with Strop's mental make-up. The problem with him, which John eluded to in the article, is his over-reliance on his slider. This is what happened to cause the bad Marmol and also the "Bad Strop" (in BAL).

    As you can see from the pitch charts, he's throwing in excess of 40% sliders, and while it's a devastating swing & miss pitch of his... hang it and they'll bang it. Which is what happened on one of the HR's. Statistically, the more of those you throw; the greater the chance you'll hang one...

    http://brooksbaseball.baseballprospectus.com/pfxVB/pfx.php?month=4&day=9&year=2014&game=gid_2014_04_09_pitmlb_chnmlb_1%2F&pitchSel=467008&prevGame=gid_2014_04_09_pitmlb_chnmlb_1%2F&prevDate=49&league=mlb

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    I dont necessarily fault Strop completely for the other night. Both HRS he gave up had ;lots of help from the wind, and your right, his response was exactly what youd want to see, so I include him in my bullpen keepers. Its the lefties I worry about, Everday James doesnt cut it against good hitters, and Wesley Wright looks like a deer in the headlights out there. Maybe the Cubs need to see if the can get Sean Marshall back or something, right now other teams LH hitters are whats killing us(Utley, anyone?)

  • Last year, we stuck with Carlos Marmol far too long trying (hoping) to get him to re-establish some of his prime trade value. It never happened and in the end, we were just celebrating his departure.

    I don't know where that line is for our FO with Wesley Wright & Jose Veras, who clearly aren't living up to expectations for whatever reasons. Small sample caveats obviously apply, but these are veterans who had their lack luster ST performances *protected* by their veteran statuses. Well now it's time for them to man up and produce along the line of expectations. I don't expect the fan base to have much patience with them.

    IDK if Rosscup is really ready for Wrigley. he's got so little AAA experience. But if Jimmy & Wesley are both down a couple ticks, struggling with control, and serving up dingers... one/both needs to make way for a Loogy that can be effective.

  • I commented a couple of days ago that I expect the bullpen next April will be:
    Vizcaino
    Strop
    Rondon
    Rivero
    Ramirez
    A veteran lefthanded setup guy
    Rosscup

    Grimm (if he isn't converted to a starter), Parker, Pimentel, Rusin, Hatley providing depth

    The above bullpen, like the projected future lineup, leaves me confident that the Cubs will have a playoff worthy group in the near future. They just need to figure out the rotation.

  • So refreshing to see young, cheap players that are doing well or are projected to be difference makers on the big league club (as much of a difference maker a 7th inning guy can be).

    Seems like the BP changes could be a small sample of the changes the rest of the roster (mostly position players) should experience in '15 and '16. These young BP arms might be the first tangible products of that distant light at the end of the tunnel we've been waiting for...

  • I'm not disagreeing with your proposed shakeout of the bullpen. Wright hasn't shown any ability to get batters out this year. But what is your thinking regarding the future of Veras? The Cubs shelled out some good dough for El Walko, yet he is not in your projected BP. It would be a bit embarassing to the FO to see them bail on him early. I think he will be given many more chances to succeed (or walk) his way back into Cub fan's good graces. But what say ye, or the other well-informed citizenry on this Blog?

  • In reply to HefCA:

    He is on a one year contract. He has never been considered a long term piece. He was signed in the hopes he has a good first half in order to deal him at the deadline. Veras and Hammel were both signed to be flipped.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Yes, but wasn't he the so called "big signing" for the Cubs this last year? There was some talk about him being the obvious closer at the time. I still don't see a quick jettisoning of this guy for that reason. They will live and/or die with him this year, I'm afraid.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    He is actually underpaid for a closer. He was the Cubs biggest signing but he makes middle reliever/set up guy money when it comes down to it. They will give him a chance to recover so that he can hopefully bring back a decent return at the deadline, but they have little to nothing invested in him and I don't think they will go out of their way to appease him.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    OK, thanks for the info. I'm not saying anything about appeasing Veras, by the way, just that there will be a strong effort to make their investment in him look like a good one. Maybe a little bit of face-saving, too (just my speculation).

  • In reply to mjvz:

    I think that Hammel was their biggest signing last winter.

  • I agree - our lefties are very suspect. But, something is wrong with Russell. IMO, he's always been a bit lucky, as a pitcher, with the results he gotten in the past. But he has looked very poor this year in both spring training and early into the season. Call it a dead arm or whatever you want to call it but he needs to go on the DL and sent out to AZ for extended training and not come back until he gets things on track. That soft garbage he's throwing up to the plate is bad - slow and poor location. We just can't afford having him serving up any more meatballs like he did yesterday to Alvarez. He's not even a decent loogy at this point. I'd rather see Rosscup come up and fill in until Russell is ready to step back in. Right we've got both of our lefties trying to find their games at the ML level which is not good.

  • Really hoping Russel can put it together and increase his trade value - I don't see him as part of the Cubs future at this point.

  • So I take it you think Villanueva will get traded. I thought that might happen but don't know his contract status.

  • John, Tell me where I'm wrong.

    We overuse Rusell in 2012 because we chose to have 1 lefty reliever on the roster.

    Same for 2013.

    Now we add Wright who you say is down a few ticks (as is Russell), which leaves us with WHAT.

    If we could spend 50+ $Million on Jackson..,don't ya think we could spend some money on acquiring a very good lefty reliever?

    If none are available, we better get some draft picks that fit the bill don't ya think.

    Summary---Russell overused for 2 years because we only got 1 lefty reliever for bullpen--then we add a cheap-o guy (Wright)..,but Russell burned out and we're back to LESS than what we had???

  • In reply to rakmessiah:

    Rak, I don't think it's a priority of the FO to add a lefty BP arm at this stage of the rebuild and I would tend to agree with this action. We're not ready to compete so it would be a waste given that BP arms are continuously in motion (from yr to yr BP arms come and go). However, for the first time we actually have some BP lefties getting close to the majors that should be able to help us out at the ML level - guys like Rosscup, Rusin (Like many, I don't see him as a starter), Jokisch, etc.

  • John, I'm feeling that Villanueva will be traded if Arrieta performs as expected. Is that why he wasn't included in the list?

  • In reply to CubsBuck22:

    I think he just moves to the pen for now but they could trade him eventually, by the deadline perhaps depending on how things go.

  • In reply to CubsBuck22:

    If the season falters and Wright,Veras & Villanueva do well then I think all 3 will be moved if possible.

    We have: Ramirez,Vizcaino,Fujikawa,Parker,Rosscup & Rivero waiting in the wings. I think 3 of those guys should be an upgrade.

  • Only passing mention is made of Carlos Villanueva; he's not mentioned in your envisioned mid-season bullpen, John.

    With Jake Arrieta rehabbing nicely, Carlos seems the odd man out. He's done reasonably well in the past (inc. 16 holds for the Brewers in '07) and, shaky early relief appearances notwithstanding, did well in last week's start.

  • On Veras, I'm pretty sure I've got it figured out, and it goes for Gregg last year as well. He's there in a non-competitive season simply to be serviceable and to ensure Strop (or whoever their planned closer might be) is still a 2MM man in two years rather than getting a ton of saves in non-competitive seasons and being a 10MM man in two years. Doesn't seem like much, but 8MM can buy you an important piece on a competitive team, say, a left handed set up man.

    Wasn't Schlitter reported to be a mid 90's guy? I haven't seen him go over 93.

  • In reply to nmu’catsbball:

    Yeah, I was going to write something on Schlitter to that effect. He was 94-96 in Iowa but haven't seen it here so far this season. He hasn't missed bats either.

  • A lot has been said about giving up the homers, but how about the walks? Last year, control was a big bullpen problem and it is again this year. Hey, Ricky Ticky: if a RP walks a batter, yank him out of the game. That's pretty radical, but if the bullpen stops giving up free passes that would be radical too in a positive way. Giving up walks is not a winning way. And my comment on Snider's homer off of Schlitter is that it was a good pitch. Low in the zone.

  • In reply to NilesNorth:

    Low in the zone and wind aided. I couldn't believe that wound up a HR.

  • What in the world is this Ricky Ticky stuff? Has he done anything so far to be treated with such disrespect?

  • In reply to DaveP:

    Sorry Davp. No disrespect intended. I just feel the bullpen is never going to amount to much until they eliminate these walks. I don't know any manager who would take a stand where walks are not tolerated to the point they will pull a pitcher when he issues a walk. But I would!

  • John, I believe the Cubs should replace Bosio with Al Swearengen. Now if THAT doesn't get the bullpen's attention, nothing will...

  • In reply to YouCannotBeSerious:

    LOL! Maybe you are on to something.

  • Over the last year and a half or so, I've really come to like Rosscup as a throw-in from the Garza deal. Kid got the best of both worlds in Chicago: Hendry's scouting eye with Theo/Jed/Jason's development successes. That's a couple million the Cubs could wind up saving if Rosscup turns into a useful MLB arm instead of having to buy one in free agency. Little successes like that are often overlooked, but still rather critical.

  • Wow....Very impressed with Jose Veras in the opener with St Louis. I hope Theo can sign Veras to a contract extention and a long term deal. Amazing stuff.

  • let's ignore all the great moves theo has made.

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    Mateo has also looked quite good this year. Imagine this power bullpen:
    Marcos Mateo
    Hector Rondon
    Justin Grimm
    Pedro Strop
    Zach Rosscup
    Arodys Vizcaino
    Kyuji Fujikawa

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