In our final installment of the season in review series we take a look at the Cubs best asset from last season; relief pitching. Going into the year, the front office wasn’t quite sure what they had in their bullpen. All they knew was they had a lot of young arms with some they had just acquired through trades and others already in the system that they wanted to see what they had in them. In what was supposed to be more of a rebuilding year, pitchers like Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm provided a solid top four that was able to weather injuries and inconsistencies from the rest of the bullpen. The Cubs bullpen, as a whole, pitched to a 23-26 record, 513 strikeouts in 536.1 innings with 3.61 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. Let’s take a look at the bullpen that’s sure to have high expectations to improve and stay consistent in the coming season.
Hector Rondon, a former Rule 5 pick, surprised everyone when he took over the closing gig from Pedro Strop, who struggled early. He never looked back, saving 29 of 33 games and held it for the rest of the season with the exception of a stretch in May when he went down with injury. His numbers this year were quite the improvement over the previous year as his ERA went from 4.77 to 2.42, WHIP went from 1.40 to 1.05, innings pitched went from 54.2 to 63.1 and strikeouts from 44 to 63. While Rondon is not a flame-throwing closer in the mold of some elite guys like Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman he showed flashes of being that strikeout reliever with a 9.0 K per 9 IP and more than proved he should be the closer again next season. Some reports have suggested the Cubs might go after a free agent closer like David Robertson, but it’s likely the Cubs are content with Rondon being challenged for the closer role by his teammates.
The biggest challenge might come from Neil Ramirez who held the closer role while Rondon was injured, saving three games in his absence. His overall numbers of a 3-3 record, 50 games pitched, 53 strikeouts in 43.2 IP with a 1.44 ERA and 1.05 WHIP were by far the best numbers among Cubs relievers. He mostly occupied the eighth inning role, but saw his share of time in the eighth on occasion. With the front office confirming that Ramirez will stay in the bullpen, he likely will vie for the eighth inning role with Strop next year.
Speaking of Pedro Strop, he probably has been the Cubs most reliable reliever since being acquired two years ago and last year was no different. An early season loss of the closer made little difference to Strop, who finished with a 2-4 record, 65 games pitched, 71 strikeouts in 61 innings with a 2.21 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. From June on, Strop pitched to a 1.52 ERA giving up just eight earned runs in 47.1 IP and likely has a leg up on Ramirez for the eighth inning role.
Justin Grimm also had a solid season for the Cubs and led the team’s relievers with 69 innings and 73 games pitched and second with 70 strikeouts. His 3.78 ERA was a nice finish to a mostly up and down year where on July 31 he held a 4.66 ERA and pitched to a 1.98 ERA for the rest of the season. Because Grimm has past experience as a starter, it’s still possible the Cubs could stretch him out to do so down the road, but for now, like Ramirez, the Cubs want him to stay a reliever, who can provide innings in a pinch.
Other likely options for the bullpen include Wesley Wright, Brian Schlitter and Jacob Turner. Wright is currently the team’s only lefty penciled in to a job, but struggled against same-handers allowing a .273 average. He also struggled in the second half posting 4.15 ERA to the first half’s 2.36 ERA. Schlitter also had issues in the second half pitching to a 7.71 ERA versus a 2.98 ERA first half where he was one of the team’s most trusted relievers. Turner did not fare well as a starter with a 7.12 ERA in six starts, but as a former top prospect may get a shot in the bullpen due to being out of options if he does not win a rotation spot of Spring Training.
The team also has some possibilities from Zac Rosscup, Blake Parker, Arodys Vizcaino and Eric Jokisch, but it is more likely each pitcher will begin the season in Iowa. Rosscup could get a shot as the second lefty due to a decent September where in seven games he pitched to a 3.60 ERA and struck out 10 batters in five innings. A big improvement from the rest of the season, where in 11 games he pitched to 21.96 ERA, but struck out batters 13 in 8.1 innings. Parker was a surprise cut in Spring Training after an impressive 2013 where he pitched to a 2.72 ERA. He had issues in 2014, raising his ERA to 5.14 and getting hit hard a lot more often. Vizcaino received minimal time with a 5.40 ERA in just five games, he’ll likely work on building his arm strength and consistency before he gets another shot. Jokisch spent most of his year as starter in Iowa and may be stretched out to start again, but he impressed the front office enough to keep him on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft after giving up two earned runs in 14.1 innings in September.
For most of the year, the Cubs used an eight-man bullpen to keep their guys fresh and avoid overwork and injury. But beyond the foursome of Rondon, Strop, Ramirez and Grimm, some upgrades are needed to make sure the bullpen stays a strength of the team. On the front office’s wish-list is a more dependable lefty to pair with Wesley Wright and a proven right hander to provide veteran leadership for their young squad.
Starting with the lefties, the cream of the crop is definitely Andrew Miller, who signed as a free agent with the Red Sox in 2011 by Theo Epstein. Miller was a failed starter when signed by Epstein but has become one of the most dominant lefties in the game. Last season he had a 5-5 record, 73 games pitched, 103 strikeouts in 62.1 innings with a 2.02 ERA and 0.80 WHIP. He’s sure to be a hot commodity and will likely ignite a bidding war with a three- to four-year deal at $6 million plus a season.
Other possibilities include Josh Outman, Zach Duke and Phil Coke. Outman makes sense besides his clever name as he holds a career .186 average against lefties and pitched to a 2.86 ERA last year. Duke held lefties to a .198 average and pitched in 74 games, 74 strikeouts in 58.2 innings, with a 2.45 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. Coke has pitched for quite a few playoff teams in his time with the Tigers and last season was his first in three years where he pitched below a 4.00 ERA with a 3.88 ERA. Any of these three pitchers have had ups and downs in their careers and are far from sure things, but can likely be had on one year deals with minimal guarantees.
On the right side, the Cubs have a lot more options and have even been linked to Yankees closer David Robertson. Robertson was an extended a qualifying offer by the Yankees and would cause the team to lose their second round pick as their first rounder is protected. Robertson impressed in his first full season as a closer with a 4-5 record, 63 games pitched, 39 saves, 96 strikeouts in 64.1 innings with a 3.08 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Robertson has been dominant throughout his career and holds a 12.0 K per 9 IP but past multi-year contracts for closers like Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon, who have declined and were also dominant in the past, make giving out long-term contracts to closers risky business. Even with the front office hoping to compete for the NL Central, it seems like more of a luxury to sign Robertson to a team that’s not fully set yet.
Instead of a veteran closer, the front office may be more on the lookout for a premier set-up man who can be counted on. Luke Gregerson should be at the top of the list and will have interest in the Cubs as he lives in Chicago in the off-season. Gregerson has averaged 72 games pitched, 68 strikeouts in 70 IP with a 2.75 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over the past six seasons. That kind of consistency will probably earn him a three-year deal for around $6 million per season.
Other options could include Luke Hochevar, Pat Neshek, Joba Chamberlain and Tim Stauffer. Hochevar would be a nice bounce-back candidate after losing his entire 2014 season to Tommy John. In 2013, it looked like he found his niche as a setup man and 5-2 record, 58 games pitched, 82 strikeouts in 70.1 innings with a 1.92 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP. Neshek is no spring chicken at 34, but has been one of the most reliable pitchers over the past three seasons pitching to a 2.26 ERA and owns a career .180 batting average against righties. Chamberlain was one of the more dominant relievers in the game a few years ago and it is possible eight years in the majors has taken its toll, but Chamberlain still holds a career 3.81 ERA. He bounced back after two rough seasons to post a 3.57 ERA and it’s possible that pitching coach Chris Bosio could help him relive some former glory. Stauffer is almost like a poor man’s Gregerson in this pitching market and has managed a 9-3 record, 87 games pitched, 131 strikeouts in 134 innings with a 3.62 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP over the past two seasons.
After a top heavy foursome of Rondon, Ramirez, Strop and Grimm, the Cubs have a lot of decisions to make to fill out their bullpen. The front office could stick with their young pitching depth or opt to go for a variety of veterans in the lefty and righty pitching markets. New manager Joe Maddon has had some past experience fielding an effective bullpen of spare parts, but with the team looking to contend in 2015, some veteran augmentation may be necessary to improve and strengthen a young bullpen.
Cubs Positional Analysis
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- Left Field
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- Right Field
- Starting Pitchers