Closer talk: a look at the Cubs 2014 Bullpen

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:

  1. Shark
  2. Travis Wood
  3. Edwin Jackson
  4. Jake Arrieta
  5. 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:

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

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.

Hector Rondon

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.

Blake Parker

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.

James Russell

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.

Carlos Villanueva

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.


Seriously, that thing was gorgeous.

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.

Source material

Filed under: Analysis

Tags: bullpen, Cubs, mlb


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  • Does Alberto Cabrera need to be in the mix? I believe he is out of options and was rather strong as a starter last year. Depending on the spring performance, he could take Rusin's starting spot, but otherwise I'd expect he'd be in the bullpen.

  • In reply to springs:

    I didn't explain his omission so that's my fault obviously. I think he takes a spot if Samardzija gets traded. This is all very fluid in my mind.

  • In reply to Mauricio Rubio Jr.:

    I doubt he gets traded and he certainly will not be released, so if Shark doesn't get traded, do you assume he is in the bullpen? Is it between him and Grimm?

  • In reply to springs:

    I think it might come down to either that match up or he might push Rusin out.

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    In reply to springs:

    Cabrera is indeed out of options. I personally doubt though the Cubs will enter 2014 with Rusin or Cabrera penciled in as starters. Cabrera was successful as a starter, but AA is a long way from Wrigley; with his command issues, I could easily see his secondaries getting launched in the bigs.

    Rusin to me is a 6th/7th emergency starter type only.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    You are most likely right about Cabrera. Even if he is successful, he may not have the ability to pitch too many innings either (as evidenced by his move to the bullpen at the end of last year).

    He does have pretty good stuff though -- I think he has as much of a chance at being a consistent MLB contributor (i.e., 4th or 5th starter or good bullpen guy) as Arrieta.

  • In reply to springs:

    I don't know if Cabrera moved to the pen because he physically wasn't able to finish. He's a big, strong, athletic kid. I think it was the Cubs decision to avoid injury by not giving him to big of an innings jump.

    If it were up to Cabrera, he probably would have continued as a starter but it's understandable why the Cubs wouldn't take that risk and add those innings on/

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    A Cabrera was nearing his innings limit, since he had only recently returned to starting.

    Cabrera regularly got through the seventh last year. I think we may have something here.

  • In reply to HackWilson09:


  • In reply to springs:

    I like Cabrera, but I think you are selling Arrieta short. His potential is awesome, and he seemed to be bringing it together with the Cubs.

  • In reply to DaveP:

    You are likely right....Arrieta does have great stuff. If he can harness it, my Cabrera comparison will likely look silly in hindsight.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Keep rusin and Cabrera in the starter mix and sign Scott Baker. Then move Edwin Jackson to the closer role, with Strop and Russell as the set up men. Solid young rotation and a stopper for the next 4 years.

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    In reply to Roe Skidmore:

    Skid, I can't imagine they'll pay a guy $13mil/yr to pitch 70 innings.

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    In reply to Mike Partipilo:

    It would also seriously damage his trade value, which they have to be considering at this point.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Move him to the first thing smokin.

  • In reply to Mike Partipilo:

    !st, you would have a low cost rotation that gets you to Strop or Russelll or even to EJ in the 8th. EJ would be a 2 inning reliever as a stopper. Mariano Rivera, Bruce Sutter were paid quite well in the day in that role. Some believe that if we add the right pieces this off season, we can turn next season into a winning one, then move up from there. My hope is we are contending in 2-3 years from now, then a true high calibre stopper would be a necessity, at any cost.

  • There are a lot of question marks for this bullpen, but there are some young arms that are intriguing. If the FO signs a veteran closer, you could bump everyone down a line and it could be an impressive pen.

    Strop and Rondon are the potential back enders here, but they have been inconsistent and could go either way.

    Grimm could be a sleeper and become a 7th/8th inning guy in the future.

    Looking for a big jump in wins next year. Cleaning up the bullpen and you will see just that.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    I agree, and in Edwin Jackson, we have a great arm that has never really succeeded as a starter, perhaps he would be a stud in the bullpen. Last years eary season rotation had us in games, only to have the bullpen blow it until Gregg arrived. Imagine similar success from our starters and adding a guy like EJ as a stopper?

  • I think that the wild card in all this is Grimm. Although he struggled quite a bit when he was brought up before he was ready, he was always a fairly highly thought of prospect throughout his minor league career. He has a good fastball, and working in relief, it has gone up a couple of ticks. I doubt very much that he would succeed as a closer, but may well find himself a home as one of the power arms that come in in the 6th or 7th inning.

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    There are question marks in the 2014 pen, but it is hard not to be optimistic vs. the 2013 pen due to the lack of Marmol & Camp in the mix for the coming year. Addition by subtraction....

  • I can see Strop, Rondon, and Grimm being in that closer mix. I would also like to see the Cubs bring in a veteran safety net like Gregg was last year.

    I'd check on Andrew Bailey as one guy and Jim Johnson's salary jump might make him a solution if they're looking for a short term fix and a guy to flip. if they want to go younger, more long term, I'd ask the Orioles about Tommy Hunter.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I like the idea with Bailey.

  • In reply to KGallo:

    He might be the best bargain in the bunch. Johnson makes a lot of money and I think Hunter would be costly to obtain since he's in his prime years. In fact, he may be the guy to replace Johnson if the O's let him go.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    It would fit with their recent theme of picking up bargain arms coming back from injury as well. I'm a big bailey fan.

  • In reply to Mauricio Rubio Jr.:

    I agree with adding someone like Bailey at a bargain Price. But no one mentions what to do with EJ if he continues to struggle as a starter, as he has throughout his career. The only solution is to eat his salary and trade him, who would want him as a starter based on his past success?. Then we have to spend more in some way(FA, trades) to add a pitcher to fill the hole, why not flip him to the stopper role and keep him if he falters?

  • I want to add that I agree about the concerns on the sustainability of Strop's control, which is why I suggest a veteran safety net. I believe Strop deserves the first shot, but I think the Cubs need to be prepared.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I'm kind of surprised how many (including on here) just assumed that the Strop at the end of 2013 is what we would always have.... My how quickly they forget how Marmol finished 2012. Let's face it, if Strop & Arrieta was the model of consistency, the O's wouldn't have sent them to us for a s/t rental of FELDMAN!

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    It could have something to with the fact that over the last 3 seasons he's posted 123.1 innings of a sub 3 era. He's only had one bad half season. The rest of his body of work has been consistently good. The Orioles got fleeced in that deal.

  • In reply to matt:

    I'm not disagreeing with you Matt. What I'm saying is the O's gave up on them because of their inconsistencies. Sometimes a change of scenery is warranted. But for us to automatically expect (hope is good, but we need a plan B) for them to automatically become something they've never been previously is somewhat foolish...

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    Yeah i'm not saying otherwise. Just pointing out that it's not unreasonable to expect Strop to become the closer at some point. They definitely should bring in a veteran presence with closing experience.

  • I'd like to see more honor to the long relief guy. Very important to have a couple guys that can cruise through 3-4 innings when the starter falters early. Sveum had an awful mentality with this. If a guy is throwing good, let him roll.

  • Bullpen is I better shape now then it was a year ago and will only get better in the next year. I like the Zych kid. How about a safety net like Brian Wilson?

  • What about Josh Bard, and my favorite long shot to make the pen, Armando Rivera?

  • I like Cabrera as a 5th starter. He has the stuff and size that make an upside rotation prospect and is out of options. Alberto hasn't figured out yet that belongs so he will struggle at times, but not much success as a reliever and too gifted to lose.

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    I think the Cubs will sign one more starter (assuming no Samardzija trade) to fill out the 5th spot. It seems too risky going into the year counting on Rusin or Cabrera to plug that hole. Maybe ease Cabrera into the role later on if he shows he can handle the bullpen. Lim, Vizcaino, Fujikawa, and Rivero make for some nice depth.

  • In reply to Jason Pellettiere:

    I see Cabrera as a starter period. It's a waste of time to make him a reliever because he has never gotten hitters out with any consistency. The Cubs shouldn't sign somebody else's mediocrity cast off. This is our last year to see what we have in house. I say give Schlitter a spot as well. He doesn't seem to be on anybody's radar, but he throws the ball over the plate and gets outs.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I like Cabrera as a starter. I think they give him a shot, if for no other reason than it's now or never for him because he's out of options.

  • Rivero will be a mainstay in the bullpen by the end of the year. Whether he starts off with the big club in April is questionable.

  • In reply to DaveP:

    I think he starts in AA or AAA. Still not rostered so they can afford to let him get more innings. Struggled a bit in the AFL.

  • So if the Cubs trade Shark then their starting five could end up being:
    1. Wood
    2. Jackson
    3. Baker
    4. Arrieta
    5. Rusin

    That is not an inspiring rotation.

  • In reply to baseballet:

    I think that is possible for the 1st half but it may look better the second half.

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    In reply to baseballet:

    Eh, they might trade EJax, too.

  • In reply to baseballet:

    Ejax number 2. Kill me now!

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Wood number 1 didn't kill you already?

  • In reply to baseballet:

    Not inspiring - but workmanlike - especially IF somebody can figure out how to get Jackson to FOCUS for an entire game.

  • Personally i think that Villanueva beard had 80 potential.

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    You say Strop's walk rate is 12.3% which is not going to be good enough in the 9th inning - yet his WHIP is 1.00. Don't you feel, just like OBP trumps BA, doesn't WHIP trump walk rate? 12.3% is one walk per 8 at bats - for a closer, one walk every two appearances. If walks+hits is 1 per 9 innings, I don't really care that he's letting a guy get on base every other appearance. I can be convinced otherwise, in fact I'd welcome the counter argument.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    His career WHIP is 1.365, it was only sub one during his stint with the Cubs, I apologize if I didn't make that part clear.

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    In reply to Mauricio Rubio Jr.:

    thanks, got it. And I missspoke, I meant his WHIP of of 1.0 is per inning pitched, not per 9

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    If the entire idea was for Cabrera to be a reliever then why did the Cubs send him all the way down to AA to make him a starter?

    I think they do think he can be a workhorse-type 3-4. And after the year he had(don't care if it was in AA or not) he should still at least be in the mix for that 5th spot.

    I think Grimm should go down to AAA and start every 5th day. We need at least one power arm starter as depth. If you look at the depth for starters after the first 5 its all finesse guys. And Grimm does still have some projection left. I think there's enough good arms in the BP that he doesn't have to be thrown in there. Let him start.

    I really like Lim. A side-arm fastball at 94mph must be tough to hit. Rondon should be there. Parker and Russell are locks. Villanueva for sure. Add a veteran for balance and you're good to go.

  • Closers in particular and relievers in general, have a short shelf life. There is the occasional exception but for the most part, these guys get hot for a year or two and then either they get hurt or the league figures them out. Take a closer, even in his own division, a hitter is likely to only face him 3 or 4 times in a year. That gives the pitcher the big advantage at first but then the league catches up to him (see Marmol, C). My opinion is ride a guy while he's hot and as soon as he starts to cool off, move him and bring in somebody else. Remember there's a reason these guys are relievers, i.e., they aren't good enough to be starters.

    Most relievers are 2 pitch pitchers, which gives a guess hitter a 50% chance of being right, even at worst.

    What teams need, although it goes against the current trend, is starters who go deeper in games. In my opinion, the sooner you make the call to the pen, the bigger your chance of blowing/losing a game.

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    In reply to GAHillbilly:

    The cardinals did exactly what you describe. They rode Mujica as long as they could and when he showed signs of faltering, they handed the job to 23 yr old Rosenthal, leaving a guy who saved 29 games off the post season roster.

  • As a stopgap and for balance, I would like to see the Cubs pick up another lefty for the pen, preferably a veteran with something left in the tank.

  • Rosscup & Cabrera are both out of options....keep them, trade them, DL them or lose them.

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    Cabrera is out of options but I believe Rosscup should still have 3. They do need to make a decision on Cabrera one way or the other. He won't survive waivers because of his stuff and his success at AA. He either has to make the team or they have to deal him.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    As you say that, he makes an intriguing addition to any Samardzija deal with the right team. He can provide bullpen assistance this year and partially offset any front line starters the team has to give up to acquire Samardzija.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I really liked what I saw out of Rosscup. Plus, he's what's left from the Garza for Archer/Fuld deal.

  • if a samardzija trade goes down, and at this point i think it will, then im hoping the cubs get a ML ready starter back in that trade so that they aren't trying to fill two spots in the rotation. I also would love to see kyle hendricks get a shot at the 5th starter spot, the kid just knows how to pitch.

    I'm not very optimistic for the 2014 chicago cubs record wise and i hope that if they are indeed bad, that the bullpen arms don't get overworked. I think that it is very important and something many managers don't do well.

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    I'm intrigued by the prospect of Strop as the 8th inning guy with Jake Arrieta closing. But with the control they've shown, that could quickly turn into Carlos Marmol, Part Deux.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Yeah man, no matter what you always end up wrong when talking about non-Mariano Rivera relievers.

    So much variance in such small samples.

  • According to Chris Cotillo, Cubs are interested in Edward Mujica.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    That sounds like a bad dream in the making.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    YES PLEASE! A closer (potentially) who doesn't walk batters? When was the last time THAT happened in this organization?

  • I could see maybe expanding the Shark to TOR deal with another piece or two from our end and get a guy like Sergio Santos along with the prospects.

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    I would love that pick up. Mujica has to have a chip on his shoulder and an axe to grind with how he was treated St. Louis.....

  • If the Cubs get him, he is more likely to have a chip IN his shoulder.

  • Just a Closer Talk With Thee

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