The Cubs have had a clear cut, top 5 closer in all of baseball since the July 25, 2016 acquistion of Aroldis Chapman. The Cubs managed to pull off the same feat a little four months later in trading for Wade Davis. It is a comforting luxury to have that kind of guy to make a 9 inning game 8, but there are no established, elite closers reportedly available in trade currently. Zach Britton may be available, but he has his own concerns following his 2017 campaign. Also the Orioles are notoriously difficult to deal with. Instead the Cubs will likely have bunch of interesting but risky options to finish games in 2018 with the additions of veteran righties Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow. That is unless Bruce Levine is correct in his assertion that there isn’t a 4 or 5 year deal out there for Wade Davis right now.
All indications are that the Cubs are still monitoring Wade Davis in the suddenly fast moving free agent reliever market, and you have to imagine if Davis is forced to settle for a 3 year, or 2 year with vesting option, that the Cubs would be making an aggressive offer. However, the Cubs have reportedly added another reliever capable of pitching in high leverage spots and has experience closing in Steve Cishek.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 14, 2017
It isn’t difficult to see what the Cubs like about the veteran right-handed reliever. He is coming off of perhaps his best season as a major leaguer, and that was fueled largely by a phenomenal second half with current Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey in Tampa. Cishek’s sinker generates plenty of groundballs that provide something Maddon is often looking for in his relievers. His delivery also provides a bit of deception, and will give Maddon his much desired different look in the bullpen from the tall flame throwers that dominate the bullpen.
Steve Cishek is a quality reliever that has been consistently good. Relievers are inherently fickle, but Cishek has posted solid results in every year. Cishek did have a blip in 2015, but Zack Moser at Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville wrote about how sneaky good Cishek has been. One of the key areas from improvement in the bullpen was walk rate. Cishek has posted a BB% of 8.1% in back to back seasons. That 8.1% rate would have been the third lowest among Cubs relievers to throw 30 innings last year. Brian Duensing and Koji Uehara were the two that posted a lower rate, and neither is likely to factor in 2018.
Cishek’s addition is a solid one but he is not without his flaws. That is clear given the price tag he signed for, but there are some legitimate concerns. His velocity has been trending downward steadily. He arrived as a 25 year old who worked comfortably in the mid 90s with his four seam and sinker. Last year his average fastball fell to just a touch under 91. Cishek’s other main drawback is his pronounced platoon splits. The past two seasons left handers have posted a wOBA nearly a 100 points higher than against right handed bats. Cishek is a lethal weapon against right handed bats, but becomes very mortal agains lefties. These are minor concerns considering the fact that it costs the Cubs a mere 2 year deal for a reported amount between $12 and $14 million.
All indications are that Brandon Morrow will be given the first chance to close in 2018. The contract is one of the first tip-offs, but the results last year also show the difference between the two. Cishek has been steady. However, his platoon splits might make him better to be deployed more strategically. Brandon Morrow actually posted reverse splits last season, but was absolutely unhittable regardless of which side of the plate. Jared talked about some of the reasons for concerns entrusting Morrow with the role. Morrow’s injury history is the largest and most valid concern. The Cubs have given themselves some cover with the Cishek signing. The Cubs also have Justin Wilson with some closing experience. He struggled mightily when he arrived in Chicago, but and there is some reason to hope for a return of effectiveness for Justin Wilson.
Another concern raised about Morrow is that he has had just one season of elite performance. That is also one of the main reasons the Cubs were able to land him for the modest 2 year deal, but it is also not a particularly fair criticism. Morrow’s injury concerns have derailed a promising arm from delivering on its potential frequently. He was rushed to the Majors right after being drafted pitching a grand total of 16 innings in the minors prior to his debut. Not surprisingly he struggled with his command. He appeared to be piecing it together with the Blue Jays, but he never posted a BB% lower than 7.4%. Five of those eight seasons spent between Seattle and Toronto his BB% was over 10%.
Something changed when he switched to National League signing with San Diego attempting to revive his career. His walk rate was 5.6%, 4.4%, and 5.3%. He struggled with diminished velocity from various ailments, but a certain minor league pitching coordinator helped convince Morrow to give up starting. Mark Prior was the one to suggest that Morrow move to the bullpen, and when he reached Los Angeles the following year his velocity spiked to 98. The combination of elite stuff that he possessed as the pitcher selected ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer in the 2006 draft and elite command made him the reliever he was last year.
The Cubs bullpen is largely set for the 2018 season. The Cubs have 7 relievers under contract for the 2018 season. Justin Grimm has the most tenuous hold of the 7 relievers, but the Cubs have a variety of interesting relievers with options in Dario Alvarez, Randy Rosario, Dillon Maples and more. The Cubs also certainly wouldn’t let Justin Grimm prevent a Wade Davis reunion, but the odds are that those 7 on the roster currently will be the opening day bullpen. Also it seems very likely that Brandon Morrow will be the closer with a number of quality options setting him up in Carl Edwards Jr. and Steve Cishek. However, I am hoping that the Cubs might consider something a little more radical.
Theo Epstein took over the Boston Red Sox in 2003, and one of the first experiments was the infamous closer by committee. The Red Sox bullpen struggled out of the gate that year, and Theo Epstein abandoned it quickly with adding Keith Foulke in 2004. The Epstein led Red Sox had Foulke or Jonathan Papelbon closing for the rest of his tenure. It turns out that it was not some grand experiment as Bill James revealed in 2012. Instead the Red Sox were in a somewhat similar situation as the Cubs are now with the hope that someone would emerge as the guy. However, the lack of roles can be advantageous. Joe Maddon talked about this in 2015:
“But the nice thing, also, about not necessarily having it designated that way is that you get this more cleaner, clear opportunity to use your best pitcher in the eighth inning against the middle of the lineup. Whereas you can send somebody with lesser ability against three, four, five or two, three, four so you can save ‘the dude’ for six, seven, eight or seven, eight, nine. That’s where it gets skewed sometimes,”
The Cubs have perhaps a unique opportunity given the lack of egos involved. Brandon Morrow by all accounts is a team first guy. Steve Cishek has no expectations of being the guy, and Justin Wilson also has experience closing with no expectations at the moment either. There will be times when the eighth inning has the best opposing hitters and lefty sluggers. If Maddon is freed to use Morrow facing those hitters, and then Cishek could take the ninth against the bottom of the order. Maddon’s preference is clearly and understandably to just have a traditional closer, but the opportunity is there to take advantage of the higher risk involved in the construction of the 2018 Cubs bullpen.