In the 3rd season of the rebuild, the Cubs are still looking for the right mix in the bullpen. There may be some intriguing arms at the minor league level but the MLB bullpen is still pretty thin. Only Hector Rondon and perhaps, Justin Grimm, look like they can be relied upon.
For all the talk of an improved bullpen, the Cubs are right back where they were last April — good starting pitching, solid defense, an offense that can at least keep them close — and a bullpen that throws it all away. As a whole, they’ve put up a pedestrian 4.36 ERA and an even worse FIP of 4.83.
We can start with a collective walk rate of 5.34 walk per 9 IP.
While the Cubs have been able to put together a bullpen that can miss bats, striking out just over 8 batters per 9 IP, it won’t mean much if they continue to put men on base. Nowhere do you need a pitcher who can throw consistent strikes more than the closer role simply because they are supposedly the last line of defense. The game has evolved over the past two decades where teams designate a particular pitcher as it’s closer with the expectation that when he is put in the game, he will either close it or lose it.
All too often, the Cubs closers have lost it.
So what is the solution here? The Cubs really don’t have a lot of options in-house. They’ve called up LHP Zac Rosscup and RHP Neil Ramirez to help, but they aren’t going to be solutions — at least not right away. The Cubs are hoping Rosscup can do what they used to rely on James Russell to do with regularity, and that is get lefties out. Ramirez will try and fill that power 7th inning relief role previously held by pitchers Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm, both of whom are expected to take on higher leverage roles.
Here’s what I believe right now: Neither Jose Veras nor Pedro Strop can be relied upon as closers because we cannot count on them to throw strikes right now. While Strop had some bad luck in his last outing, it certainly didn’t help that he walked 2 batters right off the bat and threw a ton of ptiches early. It changed the complexion of the 9th inning into one that could turn on an error, a bad bounce, or a bloop hit — which, of course, is exactly what happened.
What both Veras and Strop have, however, is something you need from all closers — a genuine go-to out pitch. Pedro Strop’s slider, in particular, is a very effective out pitch. The problem is that it’s negated by an inconsistent ability to get ahead in the count. The slider is meant to be a pitch thrown when the hitter is protecting the plate because it should come in looking like a strike, then break out of the strike zone causing the hitter to make weak contact or miss altogether. Strop’s slider makes a lot of hitters look silly when he’s ahead in the count, but when he’s behind the hitter can afford to take the pitch and wait for Strop to throw his good, but much more hittable fastball.
So what are the options?
Rondon has been the most consistent relief pitcher all year and not coincidentally, has thrown more strikes overall. He’s walked just over 3 batters per 9 innings, which isn’t outstanding, but it’s the best the Cubs have right now. Rondon has one of the better fastballs on the Cubs staff, throwing his 4 seamer in the 95-96 range but he’s also developed a pretty effective cutter — which has good velocity, 90-92 mph, and an improving slider (82-84 mph). I’m not sure he’s developed a dominant pitch yet, and that’s what gives me pause as far as the closer role, but his ability to throw strikes has me leaning in his direction right now.
Grimm has struggled more with his control, walking 2 more batters than Rondon in roughly the same number of innings, but the good news for Grimm is that he’s trending in the right direction. He has dropped his walk rate to below 5 after not walking a batter in his last 3 appearances. What I like about Grimm is that he he has about the same velocity as Rondon but he also has a curveball which is a genuine swing and miss pitch. Grimm also has a starters repertoire, including a solid change, which potentially makes him effective vs. hitters from both sides of the plate. In a very small sample size this year, that has indeed been the case. In fact, Grimm has been slightly better vs. lefties. While I don’t think we should draw too much from that data, it does support what we would expect given Grimm’s more well-rounded package of pitch offerings.
No designated closer
Otherwise known as “closer by committee’. I’m not sure why the Cubs are so eager to have a go-to closer right off the bat simply because they don’t have anyone of that caliber right now. I’m not sure I wouldn’t lean toward a situation where I let match-ups dictate usage. If a team is heavily right-handed, maybe you use Rondon as your closer. If a team has a pretty balanced lineup, perhaps you use Grimm. Despite his poor start, Russell was very effective vs. lefties last year and he has been better vs. LH hitters in general for his career. He is struggling, however, so I would use him sparingly — in particular because he has been struggling to find the strike zone this year, something that is uncharacteristic for him. Zac Rosscup may be groomed into that sort of role. He has better swing and miss stuff with a fastball that ranges from about 89 to 93 mph and has topped out around 94. What it lacks in pure velocity, however, it makes up for in terms of deception. When he’s on, pitchers react to Rosscup’s fastball as if he is throwing in the mid to high 90s, He supplements that with a good slider that has two plane movement. I wouldn’t even rule out using Pedro Strop or Jose Veras if they are throwing strikes. Strop in particular has a unique quality in that his slider is the best single out pitch in the Cubs bullpen. If he’s throwing strikes, he has that Marmol-esque ability to get out of impossible jams because he will miss bats with remarkable regularity.
But here is one thing I would do — if I put in a pitcher and he’s throwing strikes, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m going to let that ride. I think the Cubs could have left Hector Rondon in to pitch the 9th on Wednesday and, despite his early troubles, the Cubs seemed to remove Pedro Strop just when it looked like he had found a rhythm and was beginning to throw strikes with consistency.
It’s not a permanent solution but perhaps you have someone emerge from this scenario much the way Kevin Gregg did last year. If a solution doesn’t emerge from this particular group, the Cubs have a couple more options on the way in Arodys Vizcaino, Kyuji Fujikawa, or perhaps a surprise candidate. But until the Cubs find a guy who can consistently miss bats and throw enough strikes to make it matter, I don’t think anyone deserves to be handed this role. Let the competition begin and let the best man
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