The Cubs ‘pen last year was pretty awful. They posted the 6th worst bullpen ERA in 2013 (4.04) while having the 8th lightest workload in baseball (474 IP). Carlos Marmol was uneven at best and his ineffective pitching cost him the closer’s job. When he was bad, he was spectacularly bad. Kyuji Fujikawa held the job for a minute before he went down with a crippling elbow injury. Kevin Gregg came in to save the day until he remembered that he was Kevin Gregg, robot pitcher and then he lost the job to Pedro Strop in a rather hilarious timeline of events that read like a really bad soap opera about baseball.
Bullpens are funky so I say this cautiously: I doubt the 2014 ‘pen will be as eventful as the 2013 relief crop was. That being said, I think the wise thing to do now is take a look at guys I think we should keep an eye on in 2014.
Pitching staff en total
First, let’s take a look at the pitching staff as a whole.
The Chicago Cubs pitching staff is a bit of a fluid situation at the moment. There’s a lot of speculation going around that the Cubs are indeed aggressively shopping Jeff Samardzija which would drastically change the complexion of their rotation and bullpen should it happen. As it stands the Cubs’ 1-5 break down like this:
- Travis Wood
- Edwin Jackson
- Jake Arrieta
- Chris Rusin/Alberto Cabrera (author’s note – as was pointed out I left him off. I think he starts in the rotation but still should be noted here).
Arrieta and Rusn are fairly large question marks and Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus wonders if Arrieta ($) is better served in the bullpen. Considering the rest of their 40 man roster I think the Cubs’ bullpen breaks down like this:
- Closer – Pedro Strop
- 8th – Blake Parker
- 7th – James Russell
- Swing/Spot Starter – Carlos Villanueva
- MR – Hector Rondon
- MR – Justin Grimm
- Long Man – Brooks Raley
Arodys Vizcaino will be around, but he has to come back from a serious arm surgery and shake off rust while showing that he’s healthy. I also think that Chang-Yong Lim will get a look after his rehab stint and I do think they sign Scott Baker to a team friendly deal which might kick a starter from the rotation (depending on the Samardzija situation). Kyuji Fujikawa might be around after midseason so he’ll be in the mix but we can look at his role once he looks like he’ll be closer to coming back.
There are 5 guys in that bullpen list that I want to take a close look at.
Pedro Strop had an impressive finish to the 2013 season for the Cubs. He threw 35 innings of 2.83 ERA baseball with a sub 1.00 WHIP and a K-BB ratio of 3.82. Strop struck out 29.4 percent of batters faced for Chicago which is a very enticing number for a closer.
Strop is a sinker/slider guy which only slightly deviates from the fastball/slider combo that’s all the rage in most bullpens currently. His slider is a good one. In 217 career ABs against Strop hitters are slugging .161 against his slider. Strop’s issues boil down mainly to command, which is a familiar deficiency for Cubs fans. For his career Strop posts a nice K% of 23.0 but his walk rate is an alarmingly high 12.3%. That’s not gonna get it done in the ninth inning for long.
During his stint with the Cubs Strop did slash his walk rate down to 7.7% but considering that he’s never had much control to begin with (even in the minors) I doubt it’s sustainable. Strop misses bats which is important for an end of game reliever but the walk issues are a major concern moving forward.
Kevin Brown (the blogger, not the pitcher) wrote this about Bosio’s recent comments regarding the Cubs’ closer situation. Hector Rondon‘s name is an interesting and perhaps obvious choice to be in the mix. He’s 25, was throwing 95-97 in August and September and he has a good slider. That’s like a closer start up kit right there in the modern game.
Rondon’s statistical line leaves much to be desired so this is a pure scouting decision on Bosio’s part. What I can tell you from a statistical standpoint is that Rondon generated a healthy 38% swing and miss rate on his slider in 2013. He ramped up his velocity in September and allowed one hit in nine sporadic innings of work.
I will present this next line with the caveat that we should take a pitcher’s entire body of work into account when evaluating him instead of using selective end points but…over his last 28 innings of work (when he upped his velo from 93~ to 95) he posted a 2.28 ERA and held hitters to an anemic .193/.261/.289 slash line. It’s not enough of a sample to say he’s for sure going to be a solid reliever but in conjunction with upped velocity it’s certainly something to keep in mind heading into 2014.
Parker was a 28 year old organizational starter who got the call this year and performed well enough to stick around for 40+ innings of work. His path to the major leagues goes to show you how difficult relief prospects are to project sometimes. Parker had a very good MiLB career to this point with a few reliever hiccups along the way. He’s consistently missed bats at every level he’s been at (26.9 career K%) as well.
I mentioned fastball/slider as the en vogue pitch combo for relievers, Parker breaks from that mold a bit. He uses a fastball/curve ball combo and occasionally mixes in a splitter*. It plays well, in 2013 Parker got a swing and a miss on his splitter 22% of the time which was more than he got off his other pitches.
Blake Parker is an interesting situation. When I thought about guys who found success as a reliever late the first name that popped to mind was Joe Borowski, perhaps the most aptly named Chicago athlete of all time. Borowski made it to the majors before Parker did age wise but he yo-yo’d around for years before finding it for two solid years in the bullpen. Borowski’s story ends poorly as he posted a 5 ERA in 219 innings from 2004-2008 but I don’t think that should mean Parker will implode in a few years. Depending on how the Cubs approach the offseason I think Parker would get the next crack at the closer job should Strop and/or Rondon falter early.
*I want to concentrate on that a little bit. I feel that certain pitches become popular for stretches. We saw it with the slurve in the early aughts, and now the slider is the pitch du jor for relievers. I think the splitter might be coming next as guys like Koji Uehara and maybe Masahiro Tanaka bring it to the forefront.
Let me just say this, I think James Russell has his uses and in the right situations he can be an incredibly valuable pitcher for a team in need of a LOOGY. He kills lefties to the tune of a .232/.264/.400 slash line over the course of his career. 2013 was more of the same as lefties hit .183/.221/.322 against him with a 4.33 K-BB ratio.
That said, Russell has his issues and they’re mainly right handed. Righties hit .321/.418/.615 against Russell in 2013. Over his career they hit .293/.356/.511 against him. That’s an issue for a late inning reliever. His K% also dipped down to 17% which is bordering on unacceptable for relievers.
Russell works off a slider-fastball-sinker combo that’s served him well against left handed hitters. While he can still get those guys out his struggles against opposite side hitting precludes him from having any larger role than LOOGY in my mind. Russell’s slider still misses lefty bats so perhaps a serious specialization role is in his short term future.
In the land of specialized slider monsters there are a few multi role guys who stand out in my mind’s eye. Hector Santiago is a bit of a darling of mine. I love his flexibility and hope that in 2014 he and Carlos Villanueva bring back the multi inning relief appearance in a big way.
Villanueva is a swing guy. He can start in a pinch, give you some solid middle relief and be a mop up guy if the starter implodes. Also he had a 70 grade beard working for a hot minute there.
Villanueva profiles much better from a statistical standpoint as a reliever. His FIP was almost 2 runs better as a reliever (2.61 as a reliever vs. 4.40 as a starter). He also added 7 percentage points to his K rate when he did RP for the Cubs (24.2 as a reliever, 17.7 as a starter).
He’s not a 30 start guy, and I doubt he’s a high leverage reliever but he’s serviceable enough in a pinch and given the nature of the Cubs’ current pitching staff I estimate there will be more than a few pinches for Villanueva to work in.