The Chicago Cubs have been bad for several seasons now. The Cubs have not had a winning season since 2009 and the Cubs bullpen has been below average in preventing runs during that entire stretch. The Cubs have been near the bottom of the league in save percentage since 2010. Clearly the Cubs woes are bigger than just the bullpen, but this is one area that is the quickest and easiest to turn around.
I’ve been wrong about the Cubs bullpen the past couple of years. Mostly due to believing that Carlos Marmol could recover any shade of the elite reliever that he once was. MRubio did a wonderful job earlier this season explaining what happened to Marmol, but either the end result was continued bottom of the barrel production out of the bullpen.
I’m not making the same mistake this year. The Cubs do need to go out and add to fix the bullpen. As I detailed last week the Cubs are in a bit of a roster crunch right now with 9 pitchers already locked into spots. That leaves 3 spots available in the now traditional 12 man pitching staff. Figure the Cubs add at least one starting pitcher and that leaves only two spots to add relievers over the 9 guys listed in the article. The Cubs also have the ability to add about 35 million dollars in payroll according to John Arguello at Cubs Den. With the multitude of areas needing addressing that doesn’t leave a lot of money to invest into relievers, but there is a way that the Cubs can see drastic improvements with low dollars committed.
The struggles at the closer spot the past three seasons has been very visible and makes it tempting to sign one of the proven closer options out there on the market. The Cubs have been connected to Joaquin Benoit, but beyond that Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour, and Jose Veras are all available on the free agent market. These guys would all represent clear upgrades over the production that the Cubs have gotten in the closer spot, but would also command more dollars than they are probably worth. Dave Cameron has already identified Joe Nathan as one of the five biggest land mines of the free agent class.
The Cubs choice should be clear and that is to hand the ball to Pedro Strop. Strop has been an excellent reliever for 2 1/2 years out of the past 3 years. He is not without concerns being very reliant on a good slider and control issues. Those Marmol like qualities probably scare most Cubs fans out of this notion, but Strop is most likely to provide the best value in the ninth inning for the Cubs in 2014.
Left Handed Relief
James Russell has been the most dependable Cubs pitcher the past two seasons in the bullpen. This fact has led many to overstate his abilities. He is a very effective reliever, but his use in high leverage situations is questionable. Add in the fact that James Russell has been the most used pitcher in baseball the past two seasons combined, and the picture becomes very clear what the biggest need for the Cubs bullpen is.
Scanning the list of the left handed relievers available, I must admit that the first name that jumped out was Scott Downs. Fond memories of the young lefty starter Scott Downs that was traded for Rondell White still remain in my head, and the fact that he pitcher for both Canadian franchises in his career make him a guy that I liked rooting for. However, there is a better option available to the Cubs and that is Giants reliever Javier Lopez. Lopez has been a stellar pitcher the past several seasons and has been a heavy groundball pitcher with a career 57.5%. The reason the Cubs might be able to snag the 36 year old lefty for cheap is because his delivery makes him a LOOGY and that his fastball averages 87 MPH.
Right Handed Relief and the Eighth Inning
The emergence of Blake Parker was one of the few pleasant surprises last season. His traditional numbers were all well above average. His stuff doesn’t wow you though and he would be a very nice guy pitching in the sixth and seventh inning along with James Russell. That leaves the Cubs the issue of how to get the ball to Pedro Strop in the ninth. I have a creative, low cost solution that could address this problem in Pat Neshek.
Neshek is a perfect compliment to Javier Lopez and they could form a two headed monster in the eighth inning. Neshek pitches with a funky delivery and fastball sits in the high 80s just like Lopez. Neshek is essentially a ROOGY. Neshek had a nice season in traditional statistics, but his advanced numbers paint a pitcher bound for regression. This is probably part of the reason why Oakland was unwilling to tender him a contract, estimated to be around 1.2 million. However, Neshek was very effective against righties in 2013 with batters posting a .215/.282/.362 line. Paired with Lopez’s line against lefties of .152/.208/.222 line and you might have the best setup man in baseball for a fraction of what the elite relievers on the market will cost.
The Multi-inning Reliever
The Cubs should head into the 2014 season with four locks for the starting rotation. Those include Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and whatever starter they add. That leaves one spot for the battle between Jake Arrieta, Carlos Villanueva, Alberto Cabrera, Chris Rusin, and however else migth emerge as option for that fifth spot. At the end of the day I think Jake Arrieta wins that spot given the roster situation and his upside. Chris Rusin ends up back in Iowa due to his minor league options and a full staff of guys that can’t be sent down freely. That leaves Carlos Villanueva and Alberto Cabrera as the last two relievers in the bullpen, and gives the Cubs another unique opportunity.
Both of Villanueva and Cabrera have the repertoire and stamina of a starting pitcher but will be forced into the pen given the roster situation. The Cubs could use each of them as a reliever to grab 2 innings in an outing. The fact that each could pitch effectively multiple innings should lessen the strain of carrying two veteran situational relievers as the setup man.
Daniel Bard, Hector Rondon, and Rule 5
Daniel Bard was added to the roster late last season. While he didn’t pitch in a game with the Cubs he is someone that Chris Bosio worked extensively with. Bard is scheduled to pitch in Winter league ball and presents the Cubs an interesting situation. He is arbitration eligible and not eligible to be sent back down to the minors freely. The Cubs should tender him a contract because his contract is non-guaranteed. The Cubs have the ability for him to compete with Pat Neshek and Blake Parker as a late inning right handed reliever. If he re-emerges, the Cubs could have a dynamic traditional 1-2 punch at the end of the ball game. If he doesn’t, the Cubs could cut him with a minimal financial investment.
Hector Rondon pitched well last season despite what the numbers say. More importantly his velocity returned to previous levels as he got stronger. The reason Hector Rondon doesn’t break camp with the big league club in my scenario is due to him having minor league options. Pitchers will get hurt, and Chris Rusin and Hector Rondon are very nice insurance policies to have for 2014. Each of them will see time in the big leagues next season even if they start the year on a very compelling Iowa roster.
Lastly the Cubs could add a reliever through the rule 5 draft as they have each year under Theo Epstein. I have an early candidate to keep an eye on, and that is 28 year old Bo Schultz. Schultz has been pitching in the Arizona Fall League and as a starter has been sitting at 94-95 mph on his fastball. His age and spotted track record in the minors prior to this season might leave him unprotected and available when the Cubs select fourth this year. Schultz would add another power arm to try to force his way on the roster and provide some more low cost competition to try to construct the best 2014 pitching staff. Schultz is also familar with Wrigley Field having played on the opposing side of a minor league showcase at Wrigley. He wrote about for the Chicago Tribune a few years ago.