After a postseason bullpen meltdown many fans were anxious to see a complete tear down and rebuild. The opportunity certainly presented itself. Wade Davis and Brian Duensing were scheduled to become free agents. Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm were scheduled to receive potentially onerous raises in arbitration. Trade rumors swirled around Mike Montgomery after he expressed frustration regarding his usage last season.
The Cubs could have entered 2018 with as many as a half a dozen new dancers under the bleachers. Instead of focusing on the final awful few weeks, the front office took the macro view and considered the recent history and complete bodies of work of the arms under their control while also considering their future projections. They allowed former closers Davis and Rondon to walk, then proceeded to bring everyone else back. To replace those two key cogs at the back of the pen the team signed one of the most reliable arms on the free agent market in Steve Cishek, a pitcher with 121 career saves who has never posted an ERA above 3.58 in his 8-year career, and then rolled the dice that the breakout season from oft-injured Brandon Morrow was no fluke.
Regardless of the health and performance the Cubs receive from Morrow the bullpen's fortunes rest mostly on rebounds from returnees Carl Edwards, Jr., Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery. Edwards and Wilson lost the ability to throw strikes down the stretch and Montgomery appeared worn down during the playoffs after moving back and forth from the pen to the rotation throughout the season.
This is how I love to see a bullpen constructed. No long term contracts for relievers. No particularly risky high salaries. The issue that needs to be addressed moving forward is the lack of youth. Carl Edwards, Jr. is the baby of the group but he will reach his 27th birthday near the end of the season. Thankfully, young talent is on the way. Last time, we discussed the possibility of top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay (23) will break into the Majors in a bullpen role as he waits for a rotation opening, but the list of impressive young arms does not end with him. Cubs fans received their first taste of Dillon Maples (25) and his devastating slider last September. Hopefully it is the first of many as Maples may one day challenge Edwards as the heir to current closer Brandon Morrow.
While the bullpen makeover in Chicago never occurred to the extent some expected, the Cubs have completely rebuilt their depth in Iowa for 2018. We've spent plenty of time discussing the meteoric rise of Dillon Maples over the past year so I won't rehash it any more than to say: he's good... really good... when he throws strikes. His stuff doesn't require refined command and he can even survive a certain number of walks. He just needs to learn how to recover quickly when things go off kilter. I also touched on the Dario Alvarez signing in more detail earlier this offseason.
One new addition to the mix since my post regarding the Iowa bullpen is former Braves and Mariners reliever Shae Simmons. Once a quick riser through the Atlanta system considered a potential replacement for departed closer Craig Kimbrel, Simmons has seen his career derailed over the past three seasons by Tommy John surgery and various setbacks. His plus velocity has returned to pre-injury levels but he has struggled to maintain his control and consistency of his secondaries in recent seasons. If the Cubs can get him back in the groove Simmons can generate ground balls and miss bats at high levels.
Non-roster invites: Kyle Ryan, Anthony Bass, Corey Black, Justin Hancock, David Garner, Alberto Baldonado
Iowa will feature a pair of former Major Leaguers, one from the left side and one from the right. Southpaw Kyle Ryan put together an effective 2016 campaign out of the Detroit pen but for the first time in his career he struggled with control throughout last season and spent most of his time back in AAA. Jed Hoyer and Jaron Madison brought in swing man Anthony Bass this offseason, a player they are familiar with from their tenure in San Diego, where began his career. He's been up-and-down between the Majors and Minors since 2011, compiling 131 career outings (18 starts) at the MLB level.
Acquired in exchange for Matt Szczur last summer, Justin Hancock posted solid numbers in Tennessee then again in Iowa. Originally drafted by Hoyer and Madison in San Diego, then signed to a successor contract as a Minor League free agent this offseason, the front office clearly sees sleeper potential in the tall righty since they keep returning him to the fold. His K rate ticked up while his GB rate plummeted once he arrived in Chicago and the team may not be done making adjustments in an attempt to get his BB rates under control.
Corey Black was once a borderline top 10 prospect in the system as an undersized starter with above average stuff but questionable command and control. Moved to the pen during a 2016 plagued by elbow pain he then missed all of last year having it surgically repaired. When healthy he features a MLB-quality three pitch mix, with an explosive mid-90s fastball, a plus breaking ball and solid changeup. Madison talked up Black's progress during the Cubs Convention so there is hope the now-26-year old prospect can get his career back on track this season. I listed Black as a fringe prospect in my Prospect Series due to the questions regarding his health the past two years, but if he is 100% again his upside among full time relievers in the system may only be eclipsed by Maples.
A live arm allows the undersized David Garner to overpower hitters with a mid-90s fastball and slider but a lack of command and control has so far held him back from fulfilling his promise. The Cubs continued to address their lack of upper level left handed depth by bringing in former Mets farmhand Alberto Baldonado as a six year Minor League free agent. The massive Baldonado (6.4/247) received his first taste of AAA last season as a 24-year old after dominating at AA in the opening month. He posted an ERA above 6.00, but it came while toiling for a notorious hitters paradise in Las Vegas. His numbers did improve somewhat during the second half and his success against lefties far outpaced his struggles against righties. Expect better results this season in a better environment and a more limited role.
Depth options: Jose Rosario, Brad Markey, Daury Torrez, Stephen Perakslis and James Pugliese
Nagging injury and a resulting loss of control ruined the season of Jose Rosario, who began the year on the 40-man roster but found himself going unclaimed on waivers despite being just a season removed from throwing mid-to-upper 90s gas with a power curve. Health and control issues have short circuited his career previously so we may be nearing the end of the road in the organization for Rosario but if he can recapture his 2016 form he could catapult himself back into consideration quickly.
Brad Markey and Daury Torrez rely on good control of their solid stuff, but may lack the necessary out pitch to succeed at the Major League level. Both Stephen Perakslis and James Pugliese have proven themselves as valuable upper level swing men but find themselves in a similar predicament of lacking a go-to pitch to help them against elite competition.
The lone reliever without AAA experience to receive a NRI to spring training Craig Brooks will undoubtedly be in the mix for a job in Iowa. But given the high volume of veterans in competition at that level, as well as the distinct possibility Dillon Maples handles the closer role there, I feel that Brooks should return to the closer role in Tennessee to begin the year. Competition could come from Jake Stinnett and potentially Dakota Mekkes. Mekkes likely opens 2018 at Myrtle Beach but any stay there is likely short lived. We may see a chain promotion where once Chicago summons Maples, Brooks replaces him in Iowa, with Mekkes getting the call up to Tennessee.
The Smokies could also receive some of the overflow from Iowa if the Cubs choose to hold on to the majority of the veterans competing there. The extra arms such as Jose Rosario, Daury Torrez, Brad Markey, Alberto Baldonado, Stephen Perakslis and James Pugliese could return to AA even though they no longer have anything left to prove in the Southern League. The club could also release one or more from that group if they consider their development plateaued.
The relievers most likely to become mainstays in the Smokies pen include righties James Norwood and Ryan McNeil as well as lefty Tommy Thorpe who could end up as the lone southpaw. If he fails to make the Orioles roster after being a Rule 5 pick this winter, Pedro Araujo will factor in as well.
Depth options: Tommy Nance, Mario Meza, Jordan Minch
Utilizing his big frame to generate good downward plane on his mid-90s fastball while flashing a good breaking ball, Tommy Nance impressed in 2016 after signing out of independent ball. He’ll be 27 this season though and coming off an injury that caused him to miss all of 2017. It is difficult to assess where he will stand in the pecking order. Even coming off injury, pitching in A-ball seems counterproductive, so he’ll likely need to earn a job in Tennessee to continue his career with the club. The Cubs signed Mexican League veteran Mario Meza in 2017, only to loan him back to that league for the season. He returns to Cubs camp this spring, but at 27 has yet to pitch a single inning stateside in his career.
Southpaw Jordan Minch has spent the past two seasons with Myrtle Beach but has never developed the necessary control to compliment his above average arm strength. He may get a look in Tennessee early on given the lack of other available lefties for the Smokies.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans
The strength of the Pelicans 1st half division title was a deep pitching staff, highlighted by multiple prospects in the starting rotation, but it was a group of relatively unheralded relievers that nailed down a huge number of close wins as the offense rarely posted crooked numbers. Dillon Maples became the big story, but just as important were Brooks, Norwood and Araujo. Dakota Mekkes joined the team as Maples and Brooks exited which helped maintain some stability but the pen was never as consistent in the second half as it was in the first. Now, with Mekkes likely to be the first call up from Pelicans there are huge shoes to fill throughout the bullpen. Thankfully, one returnee figures to play a bigger role on the squad and there is a number of intriguing arms from the lower levels ready to break in.
Scott Effross began 2017 with a share of the closer role in Myrtle Beach, but after a rough start he was supplanted by several more effective arms. After midseason stints in mop up and even spot starting roles, he returned to a key role at the end of the Pelicans pen down the stretch. He could enter 2017 with a share of the closer’s role once again, along with Mekkes and former Eugene closer Luis Aquino.
Aquino turns 25 this season and needs his development pushed aggressively to determine if he is an actual late-bloomer or if he simply dominated younger competition thanks to experience. I expect he will skip at least South Bend, but could actually skip Myrtle Beach too. However, I believe he will begin with the Pelicans while the club decides his ultimate fate. The Cubs could release him if he struggles early or promote him to the Smokies bullpen if he gets off to a strong start. He possesses a good breaking ball and gets good plane on his fastball but his command and velocity are fringy so a test against more age-appropriate hitters is necessary to determine if he has any future usefulness given his advanced age.
Those three will receive additional competition from a trio that finished the year sharing the closer in South Bend. Jhon Romero posted an incredible 0.86 ERA and nearly a 5-to-1 K-to-BB ratio across three levels in 2017. Former position player Mark Malave was another reliever summoned from Eugene in the second half that ate up important innings for South Bend down the stretch. The one mainstay at the back of the South Bend pen all year was lefty Wyatt Short (16 SV). Standing just 5’8”, Short does not have your typical profile for a ground ball specialist, but he induces them more than half the time, and misses some bats to boot.
Former Cal State Fullerton closer and 2016 6th rounder Chad Hockin was effective in a setup and multi-inning role for South Bend but his results have yet to match his stuff in his first year and a half as a pro. His fastball reaches the mid-90s and compliments with a hard slider but his command is behind his control. Still, there is potential upside if he can keep the ball in the ballpark more effectively.
A pair of lefties will also compete for time. Marc Huberman received two different looks in Myrtle Beach last season, with ugly results both times, but he did put in a strong season for South Bend in between. Command and control are the keys for him. He hides the ball well, but his stuff is not overpowering, so he has to do a better job of keeping the free passes to a minimum while also keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate. A sleeper to keep an eye on is Yapson Gomez. He mixes a low-90s fastball with a slider and change that has allowed the organization to deploy him as multi-inning reliever with both Eugene and South Bend last year. He will eventually settle in to a more traditional lefty specialist role but the fact that they got him so many innings last year points to their faith in him moving forward.
Depth options: Kyle Miller, Casey Bloomquist, Tyler Peyton, David Berg, Elvis Diaz
Long man Kyle Miller was effective in short stints and in spot starts. He is likely to fill a similar role in 2017. Casey Bloomquist filled a similar role, but with far less success, so he is a candidate to get released. Tyler Peyton filled this role in South Bend last season and could look to supplant both at Myrtle Beach in 2018.
Submariner David Berg dominated collegiate hitters, then low level competition after being chosen in the 6th round of the 2015 draft, but his low-80s velocity did not translate against AA and AAA the past two seasons. He finished last year back in Myrtle Beach, posting a 6.28 ERA at the level. He is another reliever the team could move on from in 2018. Twenty-three year old Elvis Diaz comes off a successful stint in Eugene, but with the crazy amount of competition in South Bend from the recent draft, the club will likely need to test him at Myrtle Beach sooner rather than later.
South Bend Cubs
We covered how stocked the South Bend rotation is heading into the season in the previous installment of this series. One way the logjam could be unblocked is if some of the starters that profile best as relievers in the future begin making that transition in 2018, at least in a piggyback role. Leading candidates include 2016 draftee Bailey Clark along with 2017 selections Keegan Thompson and Erich Uelmen. All have potential as relievers with swing-and-miss stuff. Clark has touched the mid-to-upper-90s in short stints with an inconsistent but effective slider. Thompson features one of the best curveballs in the system, while Uelmen combines an intriguing two-seamer/slider combo with a high effort, deceptive delivery that seems best suited for the pen. He reminds me a bit of a young Steve Cishek.
The Cubs investment in collegiate arms during the 2017 draft was not limited to starters. They also selected a large number of relievers that will figure into the mix at South Bend this season. Two of the more intriguing in my eye are righty Ben Hecht and lefty Ricky Tyler Thomas. Both have a potential plus out-pitch that they can rely on as professionals. Hecht flashes a wipe out slider and Thomas features a changeup that baffled numerous NWL hitters. Brian Glowicki and Jake Steffens both received save opportunities with Eugene and should feature prominently for South Bend this season. Peyton Remy, Rollie Lacy and Mitch Stophel are a trio of sleepers from the class to keep an eye on.
South Bend will also receive help from the international signing front. Manuel Rodriguez is one of the under-the-radar prospects the Cubs picked up out of Mexico in recent seasons. He isn’t super projectable, but his stuff and command are solid. In a similar boat is Alonso Garcia, another Mexican righty, who began last season in the Eugene rotation before being loaned back to his Mexican club for the remainder of the season once the 2017 draft class arrived. He will turn 20 this season and the club may choose to let him return to a starting role for the Emeralds this season, but he could also compete for a piggyback gig in South Bend. Another potential swing man for the club is Enrique De Los Rios who is coming off a solid season for Eugene but like Garcia the club may choose to hold him back to let him start full time for the Emeralds this season.
Depth options: Yan De La Cruz, Miguel Estevez, Luiz Escanio
These DSL veterans are currently in camp pitching with Tennessee group, which is age appropriate for them, but given their lack of experience stateside it is likely they are nothing more than injury replacements for the full season clubs early in the year.