One of the brightest spots for the Cubs last season was a young bullpen that performed admirably pitching to a 3.61 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP, despite using 19 relievers. Four pitchers stood out as reliable options, but injuries exposed a shaky back-end which led to some veteran signings and will likely feature quite the competition for the last couple spots. Let’s take a look at how the Cubs plan to revamp the bullpen for the upcoming season.
One of the biggest surprises last year came from the ascension of this year’s incumbent closer, Hector Rondon. As a Rule 5 Draft pick who struggled to stay on the roster in 2013, Rondon stepped in the closer position in May and never looked back. He saved 29 games in 33 opportunities and lowered his ERA from 4.77 to 2.42 and his WHIP from 1.40 to 1.05. The front office has said Rondon has earned the closer job for the coming season, but the signing of free agent Jason Motte to push Rondon suggests otherwise.
Of course, that’s assuming Motte can still pitch effectively after Tommy John surgery wiped out his entire 2013 season. His results last year of a 4.68 ERA, 1.54 WHIP and just 17 strikeouts in 25 innings were less than inspiring. Reports have suggested that a lower back strain and coming back before he was fully rehabbed from Tommy John may have attributed to his poor results. A contract heavy on incentives for games finished suggests though that the Cubs are hoping that Motte can go back to the pitcher he was back in 2012 that saved 42 games and struck out 86 batters in 72 innings. If he can be close to that pitcher, Motte may be another solid option to pair with two other right-handers that fared well in the bullpen, Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez.
Until Motte can prove he’s back to full strength, Pedro Strop projects as the eighth inning guy, a role he has taken to quite well in his two seasons with the team. Through May, Strop pitched to a 4.61 ERA and 1.39 WHIP, but bounced back nicely with a 1.52 ERA and 0.97 WHIP for the rest of the season. Strop may be the most reliable arm in the Cubs bullpen going into Spring Training, but if Neil Ramirez can be as solid as he was in his rookie season, he may give Strop a run for his money.
How good was Ramirez last season? In 50 games, he posted a 1.44 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 53 strikeouts in 43.2 innings and he even saved three games in four tries in June when Rondon was out with an injury. Ramirez missed a couple of weeks during the season with a sore triceps, but reports say it was to give the young pitcher some rest after getting a lot of use due to his in-season dominance. Another excellent season from Ramirez, Strop and Rondon could shorten games quite a bit for opposing teams and ultimately translate to more wins, but with all three being relatively young and not having a large track record it’s possible that they are going to need some help if they struggle.
If the Cubs go with a seven man bullpen as the front office has suggested that leaves three more spots to be had. One or two of those spots will definitely be taken by a left-hander, but who that will be is anybody’s guess. Based on non-roster invites and current pitchers on the 40 man roster, the club will have ten pitchers to choose from. Those names include: Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, Felix Doubront, Drake Britton, Eric Jokisch, Zac Rosscup, Joseph Ortiz, Francisley Bueno, Hunter Cervenka and possibly Pedro Feliciano.
Wood, Wada and Doubront will spend most of the spring competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, with Wood the likely winner. Of course, Wood’s name has also been bandied about in trade rumors and may find himself with another team to start the season. No matter the outcome, it’s hard to see Wood in the bullpen. Wada and Doubront are more likely choices to take that spot with Doubront having more experience as a reliever. Wada held his own in 13 starts with the club, but pitched more than six innings in just five of his starts. With a .184 batting average against same handed pitchers last year, Wada might work out nicely as a left-handed specialist, if he’s interested in making the switch or doesn’t get sent to the minors as depth. As for Doubront, he has not been very good in the bullpen in his career, managing a terrible 8.58 ERA in 29 games. He has a penchant for walks and losing his command, but has shown the ability to make batters miss. Perhaps, the front office feels that pitching coach extraordinaire Chris Bosio can work some magic on Doubront and help him settle down into a useful arm. It’ll be interesting to see this spring where he ends up.
If none of the runners-up of the rotation competition pan out, Drake Britton might be a name to watch. Britton was claimed from the Red Sox last week and drafted by Theo Epstein back in 2007. He worked mostly as a starter in the minors, but has been exclusively in the bullpen in the majors. In 25 games, he owns a 2.93 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 21 strikeouts in 27.2 innings and has held lefties to a .238 average. Britton has a fastball that sits in the 92-93 mph range and can top out at 95, but struggles with his command at times. He has an average 80-81 mph slider and a delivery that is reminiscent of Jon Lester. His familiarity with the front office likely gives him a leg up on his competition this spring.
Jokisch, Rosscup and Cervenka also have been under the watchful eye of Epstein and Hoyer in the Cubs minors over the past couple of years and have a decent shot if the club decides to carry two lefties instead of one. Jokisch performed well in 14.1 IP at the end of the season, posting a 1.88 ERA, but a 1.53 WHIP. He more than likely will be a member of the Iowa rotation to start the year. Rosscup ended up getting a fair amount of time in the bullpen at the end of last year after James Russell was traded, but got hit hard most of the time, managing a rough 9.45 ERA in 13.1 innings. He pitched better in September against weaker competition, but he might be on his last chance with the organization. Cervenka spent all of last year in Tennessee and pitched to a 3.79 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 61.2 innings and is another former Red Sox prospect. Like Britton, his fastball sits in the mid-90s, but a cutter that hits the mid-80s is his bread and butter pitch. He tends to struggle with control and command at times and will likely start the year in Iowa. His invite to Spring Training looks to be more of a test to see how he handles Major League-type hitters.
The remaining lefties in the mix for a job include Bueno, Ortiz and Feliciano who was rumored to have signed a minor league deal, but has not been officially completed at this time. Any of those three have had varying degrees of success in the majors and could make the team with a strong spring.
On the right-handed side, that leaves one or two spots to a list of names that includes: Justin Grimm, Brian Schlitter, Jacob Turner, Edwin Jackson, Blake Parker, Daniel Bard, Anthony Carter, Jorge De Leon, Armando Rivero and Donn Roach.
Jacob Turner and Edwin Jackson are most likely as Turner is out of options and Jackson still has $22 million owed to him over the next two seasons. Turner has a lot of potential and ability, but just hasn’t figured it out at the Major League level yet as evidenced by his career 4.97 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. The Cubs are likely hoping that Bosio can work his magic on the young talent and he may perform well with less pressure in the bullpen. The same goes for Jackson, who the front office says will have to earn his roster spot this year. At his paygrade, Jackson is more valuable in the rotation, but has been absolutely awful in his Cubs career with a 5.58 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP in two seasons. Perhaps Jackson can add some velocity in the bullpen and use his secondary pitches to be solid long man, much like Carlos Villanueva was in the pen a year ago. If he continues to stink during Spring Training, the Cubs may choose to outright release him and eat his contract.
Other good bets are Justin Grimm and Brian Schlitter. Grimm led the team with 73 appearances last season and really came on towards the end of the year pitching to a 1.99 ERA from August on. However, Grimm was pretty up and down for most of the year and struggled with his command at times. He still has options and with starting experience, it would not be unfathomable to see the front office try to stretch him out or have him hone his craft at Iowa instead of assuring him a spot in the bullpen. It likely depends on his Spring Training performance and if he can continue his solid pitching from the end of the season.
Schlitter had an almost reverse experience to Grimm as he performed well to start the year, pitching to a 2.98 ERA as one of the team’s most trusted setup men. However, in the second half, Schlitter struggled quite a bit pitching to a 7.71 ERA. He spent time on the DL with a sore shoulder in August which likely hampered him. Like Grimm, his Spring Training performance will likely determine if he has a role or not.
Of the rest, Bard, Rivero and Parker may have the best shots of sticking. Daniel Bard was once a dominant reliever with the Red Sox during Theo Epstein’s tenure as general manager and was known for high velocity and racking up strikeouts. A lack of velocity and control over the last two years may have been blamed on overuse and thoracic syndrome, which he had surgery for during last year. If Bard is recovered and can get some of his former magic back, the Cubs might have another lights out reliever on their hands. If not or he shows a glimmer of getting his abilities back, he can work on it in Iowa.
Armando Rivero was signed by the Cubs from Cuba in 2013 with the promise of a fastball that tops out at 96 mph and average secondary stuff like a changeup, slider and splitter. He had a rough debut in 2013, but showed signs of figuring it out towards the end of the year. Rivero continued on that momentum between Tennessee and Iowa last year posting a 2.22 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 100 strikeouts in 65 IP. Rivero worked as a closer in Cuba and may end up there at some point. If he can dominate hitters in spring, he has a good shot of making the team considering the front office has been pretty aggressive with his promotions throughout the minors. Rivero would have to be added to the 40-man roster, he’s in camp on a non-roster invite.
Blake Parker spent much of last year shuttling between Iowa and the Cubs to less than stellar results which were very disappointing after he posted solid numbers in the second half of 2013. He got hit hard a lot and may have been miscast as a long reliever. Parker has been fairly dominant at the Triple A level and this season may be his last chance with the club to prove he belongs at the Major League level. A strong spring will do a lot for his stock with the team, but it would not be surprising to see him released either. Like Parker, Carter, De Leon and Roach are also major long shots to make the team and will either end up as minor league depth or outright released.
With the Cubs looking to contend for the NL Central this year, it’s interesting to note that the team is in the midst of a bullpen overhaul this spring. With a lot of heat at the top in Rondon, Strop, Ramirez and Motte, the front office may feel that they can tweak the bottom half as the season progresses. The club does have a lot of intriguing options, but it is concerning that the team has no real experienced left-handed possibilities and unless someone steps up this spring, it may be a lot to ask for the bullpen to repeat its strong performance from a year ago.