This offseason may be slow when it comes to big name free agents flying off the board, but changes to the makeup of the bullpens in Chicago and Iowa have been rapid.
After a postseason bullpen meltdown littered with walks and punctuated by home runs, the front office made a public proclamation they would look to improve the situation by acquiring players more capable of throwing strikes. Though I never heard them make the same type of announcement in regards to home runs allowed, it is clear by the type of arms they have acquired via waivers and the free agent market this season that it is just as high a priority. Based on the moves made late in the season to let go of key components of the 2017 Iowa bullpen, it is also apparent to me that the front office identified the issue prior to start of the playoffs, and had already begun the process of overhauling their depth heading into 2018.
There are a few key elements when identifying potential relievers:
1) Missing bats (K%)
2) Limiting walks (BB%)
3) Limiting fly balls (FB%)
Make the other team string together multiple hits during an inning. Don’t give them extra base runners and most important of all don’t give up the big fly. Ideally, relievers are advanced in all three areas, but most can still excel if they are strong in two of the three.
Walk rates between 8-10% are difficult to overcome, but once they start climbing into double digits your stuff better be truly elite. Justin Wilson (20.4%), Carl Edwards (14.5%), Wade Davis (11.6%), Pedro Strop (10.4%) and Mike Montgomery (10.2%) are the type of pitchers that can erase their mistakes and get away with putting extra runners on base. But even they can struggle when their walk rates climb too high, Wilson and Edwards being the prime examples.
So the core of the 2017 Chicago pen was occupied by a handful of guys that miss bats and the strike zone with regularity. As the season progressed the Cubs ran into the issue that the available help in Iowa was more of the same, only less proven and just as volatile. When you peruse the tables below it will be apparent why the need to diversify is apparent, and as we will see later, the organization has made an effort to rectify the situation this offseason.
First, lets take a look at the relievers the Cubs let go, both late last year and then in the offseason. As the season wound down the team moved on from the core of the Iowa Cubs bullpen. Felix Pena, Matt Carasiti, Jack Leathersich, Pierce Johnson and David Rollins were traded, sold to Japan, lost on waivers, or allowed to walk in free agency.
As for the departures from the big club, the guys let go all posted solid numbers in the categories being discussed, so at first glance it would seem to indicate the numbers being utilized do not paint an accurate picture, but a combination of escalating costs and peripheral numbers trending in the wrong direction made each poor investments moving forward. The key now is replacing them with younger, less expensive and more reliable options.
The lone exception might be Brian Duensing, who was the most consistent reliever the Cubs deployed last season, and it should be no surprise that the lefty was solid-average in all three categories. The option to bring Duensing back remains but the question must be asked if the soon-to-be 35 year old can replicate that performance moving forward.
Koji Uehara was a pleasant surprise early in the season, but the 42 year old ran out of steam in the second half. I don’t think anyone is clamoring for his return at age 43 despite his good command and solid whiff rates.
The big blow, of course, is the loss of closer Wade Davis. Reliable, consistent, often dominant, Davis was many things. But he is also an aging veteran whose numbers have been trending in the wrong direction. They were still acceptable last season, but as a long term investment, he is risky because if his peripherals continue drifting as they have he will soon reach a tipping point.
The Cubs also relinquished their final year of team control over former closer Hector Rondon when they declined to offer him a contract for 2017. He posted similar numbers to Duensing in the three key categories, and given the going contracts for relievers, on the surface his estimated arbitration salary was reasonable. But a closer look reveals a troubling trend, easily recognizable by fans following the Cubs the last few years: Rondon has become increasingly homer prone.
While in general HR rates are linked closely to FB rates, in the case of Rondon, a two-pitch reliever who has struggled with consistency of both pitches in recent years, his HR/FB rate has steadily (and dramatically) increased from 4.1% in 2014 to a still acceptable 7.7% in 2015 before jumping to 18.2% in 2016 then an unbelievable 19.6% last season. That total was the 8th highest among qualified relievers in 2017. His teammate Justin Grimm recorded the 4th highest.
Which brings us to a good point for addressing the decision to retain the services of Justin Grimm. It was a move I was against, despite his modest arbitration salary. Grimm continued to miss bats last season, although his K rate declined for the second consecutive season, but he also showed no improvement with his spotty control while his flyball rate inched up as he gave up more fly balls than league average for the first time in his career.
The reason for hope in regards to Grimm is precisely because of the horrific HR/FB rate he posted. Yes, it was the 4th worst in the majors, but it was also double his previous career high. He has hovered around league average in that category throughout his career so 2017 is more likely a fluke than a new normal for him. So with a little better luck Grimm could well justify the decision to bring him back, and if he doesn’t the money owed to him is not so great that the team can’t just place him on waivers and move on.
Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek exhibited better than average K and BB rates while limiting fly balls in 2017. It is clear to see why the two were attractive options for a team that lacks well-rounded relievers of their ilk. The key to both will be whether they can repeat their 2017 performance. Cishek’s numbers were in line with much of his career so the risk with him is low, but the opposite is true with Morrow. Not only has the right hander always been an injury risk, but his 2.06 ERA last season is less likely to be reproduced. Morrow did not surrender a home run last year. A 0.0% HR/FB rate, regardless of the changes he made to his repertoire, is simply not going happen again. If Grimm suffered an extreme case of bad luck last year, Morrow benefited from extreme good fortune.
Obviously the number of proven, departing pitchers outnumbers the incoming players. But a handful of 40-man roster returnees riding the Iowa shuttle last season will be competing to step up and grasp full time roles come spring: Eddie Butler (out of options), Alec Mills, Rob Zastryzny, and Dillon Maples.
Butler and Mills offer good control and the ability to work multiple innings and spot start if necessary. They won’t punch many guys out but they rarely hurt themselves and generally keep the ball in the park. Zastryzny is of a similar mold, only from the left side, but offers a bit more pure stuff while showing improved control in 2017.
There really is no MLB player comp for Dillon Maples. It is truly unique for a player to generate ground balls AND whiffs at the rates he does. Usually it is an either/or outcome. Yes, his lack of control is a huge issue, but there is a reason the team choose to retain his services while letting go the rest of the Iowa bullpen that also offered high strikeouts and lots of walks. His stuff is just on another level, more in line with the elite offerings of Edwards, and Maples is more likely to work his way around any free passes he issues.
In addition to the in-house options available the club also went out and picked up five relievers entering their age 26-29 seasons. Plenty of previously struggling pitchers found MLB bullpen roles at that point. But most importantly, when you compare the numbers this group put up in the minors last season in comparison to the outgoing group from Iowa, the contrast is stark (ignore the MLB stats as they came in small sample sizes). Fewer strikeouts, but better control and fewer fly balls.
Lefties Randy Rosario, acquired off waivers from Minnesota, and Kyle Ryan did not excel at throwing strikes last season but both posted exceptionally low fly ball rates in both the minors and majors. For Ryan his walk rate may scream that he is more of the same that was let go, but the lack of control last season was atypical in his career, as he posted average or better walk rates in all previous seasons. There is potential for a rebound for him and perhaps a return to his 2016 form when he posted solid numbers in 56 games for the Tigers.
An under the radar acquisition this offseason may well be former San Diego hurler Cory Mazzoni. His two cups of coffee at the Major League level have been nothing short of disastrous (17.28 ERA over 14 appearances in 2015 and 2017), but the former 2nd round pick did amass a 48-3 K/BB ratio in 30.1 Minor League innings last season (0.59 ERA).
Ryan Weber, along with veteran Anthony Bass, were signed to Minor League deals and each fit as potential starters or relievers in Iowa. The front office also retained the services of a pair of their own Minor League free agents, Pedro Araujo and Daury Torrez, both of whom are strike throwers that also manage to miss some bats. Unfortunately, Araujo was selected in the Rule 5 draft, but if he fails to make the Baltimore bullpen, a distinct possibility given he has just one game of experience above High-A, he should fit in nicely as well.
Dario Alvarez doesn’t fit the criteria but his slider is a proven plus pitch at the MLB level which allows him to miss bats at a rate higher than most free agents with a Minor League option available. If he can harness a touch more control, Alvarez can be more than just depth, he could be a late inning find. He is an upside play, plain and simple, and one worth the risk.
The Cubs will still rely on C.J. Edwards and Pedro Strop to get the team out of jams with big strikeouts. Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery offer similar ability from the left side if they are able to bounce back from their late season struggles. Grimm, Alvarez and Maples also provide volatile swing-and-miss stuff the team can call upon. But the rest of the staff, including Morrow and Cishek, along with most of the options being assembled at Iowa offer the Cubs a more diverse set of options that can help Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey navigate their way out of jams with methods other than the strikeout. It certainly is not a foolproof plan, but given the failures last season a new course seems prudent, and I look forward to watching how it plays out.
If their is one popular idiom proven correct out on the baseball field most often though, it is the notion of best laid plans in regards to bullpens.