In our last installment, we analyzed a starting pitching staff that despite a lack of depth was one of the best in all of baseball. While their accomplishments were impressive, what may be even better was a bullpen that finished eighth in overall ERA at 3.38 with 20 pitchers and two position players making at least one appearance. Let’s take a look back at the Cubs patchwork bullpen.
Much like last year, the bullpen was again headlined by three pitchers, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm who are expected to do the same next year.
Rondon had his best year yet. In 72 appearances, Rondon was 6-4 with 30 saves, a 1.67 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 70 innings. Despite those impressive numbers, he still somehow lost the closer’s job for a three-week stretch to Jason Motte. Rondon blew four saves total, with three of them in his first 12 opportunities. Once he earned the job back, he saved 19 of his 20 opportunities.
Strop also had his ups and downs and had a knack for blowing some big leads at times. A rough May with a 6.59 ERA was his worst month, but for the rest of the year didn’t let tough games sink him. He ended up leading the team with 76 appearances and became one of manager Joe Maddon’s most trusted bullpen arms. In total, he had a 2-6 record, three saves, 2.91 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and struck out 81 batters in 68 innings.
The other most trusted arm in the bullpen was probably Grimm who Maddon liked to use to get out of tough jams in a variety of situations. Grimm ended up third with 62 appearances, a 3-5 record, three saves, 1.99 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 67 strikeouts in 49.2 innings.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the bullpen was the emergence of failed starter Travis Wood. The left-hander started out as a mop-up duty long reliever, but quickly turned into a high leverage arm that could give extra innings when needed. In 45 games, Wood notched a 3-2 record, 2.95 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 71 strikeouts in 58 innings. Wood is in his final year of control and earned just under $6 million last year. With his salary expected to rise, it’s possible Wood could be on the trading block despite his strong finish.
Two left-handed relievers who got a fair amount of work could be in line to replace Wood if he is traded are Clayton Richard and Zac Rosscup. Like Wood, Richard was a pleasant surprise who originally was acquired to be an emergency starter, but became a trusted veteran option of Maddon’s. In 20 appearances, he managed a 4.44 ERA, 1.43 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 24.1 innings. While not impressive numbers, Richard did post solid numbers against left-handers who batted just .234 against him. Rosscup also shined against lefties as they batted just .158 against him. Rosscup was not so effective against righties and was prone to the big inning as his 4.39 ERA suggests. He’s more of a power pitcher than Richard as he struck out 29 batters in 26.2 innings.
Neil Ramirez and Carl Edwards Jr., could also be in line for roles next year as both pitchers were expected to fill bigger roles during the season, but injuries or ineffectiveness held them back. Ramirez pitched in 19 games with a 3.21 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 15 strikeouts in 14 innings. Edwards Jr., pitched in just five games, but held his own with a 3.85 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and four strikeouts in 4.2 innings.
Other big contributions in the bullpen came in four pitchers in Motte, Trevor Cahill, James Russell and Fernando Rodney, and three are unlikely to return. Motte was signed in the off-season as a veteran reliever who could compete with Rondon for the closer role while rebuilding his reputation thanks to Tommy John surgery. In 57 appearances, he had a solid 8-1 record, six saves, 3.91 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in 48.1 innings. Motte was prone to inconsistency and suffered a shoulder strain at the end of the season. With injuries mounting, it’s unlikely the Cubs would take a chance on him again.
Similar to Richard, Cahill and Rodney were in-season acquisitions who paid dividends in the stretch drive to the playoffs. In 11 appearances, Cahill struck out 22 batters in 17 innings with a 2.12 ERA as a high-leverage reliever who could pitch multiple innings. At 27, Cahill’s resurgence likely will earn him a shot at another big league rotation since there’s likely no room for him in the Cubs starting five.
In 14 appearances, Rodney was even more remarkable than Cahill striking out 15 batters in 12 innings and giving up just one earned run. However, Rodney was abysmal with Seattle and at 38, is probably not worth the risk.
Similarly, Russell filled a nice role for the team from May to August stepping in as the team’s main left-handed specialist after Phil Coke failed and until Wood emerged. He pitched in 49 games, but a rough August where he gave up 12 of his 20 earned ended up getting him released. He has since signed with the Phillies.
While the front office showed they could magically make quality bullpen pitchers appear out of thin air, they also made some miscues as well. Tommy Hunter, Phil Coke, Brian Schlitter, Yoervis Medina, Edwin Jackson and Rafael Soriano were all attempts at filling holes.
Hunter was one of the Cubs’ trade deadline acquisitions who was supposed to stabilize the bullpen, but instead did the opposite. In 19 appearances, Hunter won two games, but also posted an awful 5.74 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. Coke intended to do the same at the start of the season, but was even worse and lasted just a month and a half thanks to a 6.30 ERA and 1.70 WHIP. Soriano pitched in just six games and gave up eight hits and four earned runs in 5.2 innings. Schlitter was not much better than a batting practice pitcher giving up 12 hits and six earned runs in 7.1 IP. Medina lasted only five games before being demoted to the minors thanks to being shelled for a 7.00 ERA and 1.77 WHIP. The best of the bunch was probably Edwin Jackson who handled being demoted to the bullpen well posting a 3.19 ERA, but in 31 innings gave up 30 hits and 12 walks.
With Rondon, Grimm and Strop locked in and Ramirez, Richard, Rosscup and Edwards Jr. in the conversation, the Cubs have already made some deals to tinker further with their bullpen this off-season. They did so by adding Ryan Cook, Andury Acevedo, Jack Leathersich and Spencer Patton to the 40-man roster.
Shoulder issues derailed Cook’s 2015 season but he has a nice history of ability across his young career. In five seasons, he owns a career 3.43 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 17 saves and 210 strikeouts in 207 innings. If the Cubs can get him back on track, he should be a solid pickup.
Acevedo has no major league experience, but the converted position player performed well across three levels in the Yankees minor league system. In 41 games, Acevedo posted a 3.36 ERA, 1.25 WHIP with 49 strikeouts in 59 innings. He gets hitters out with a 95 mph fastball, slider, changeup and deceptive delivery. Acevedo was signed to a Major League deal, so maybe the front office sees something in him like they did with Rondon.
Patton was acquired from the Texas Rangers recently and like Acevedo uses a deceptive delivery to fool hitters. His velocity in the low-90s is not impressive as Acevedo’s, but has had impressive strikeout rates in the minors. Patton pitched in 27 games for the Rangers last year striking out 28 batters in 24 innings, but also had a horrendous 9.00 ERA. He likely will be a nice project at Iowa.
Leathersich is another player in the mold of Acevedo and Patton, but is very unlikely to make the team as he is recovering from Tommy John surgery done in July. Like the other two, his deception has earned him crazy high strikeout rates, but as a left-hander who the Cubs can stow on the 60-day DL, will likely come in handy in 2017. In 17 games this year, Leathersich posted a 2.31 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 11.2 innings.
With many free agent relievers well into their 30’s and the front office not known to commit big money or time to relievers, a free agent deal is unlikely. Nonetheless, the Cubs have been linked to two free agents, Darren O’Day and Tyler Clippard.
O’Day is the top reliever on the market as he’s been one of the most consistent middle relievers for the last four years. In 68 games last year, he went 6-2, had six saves, 1.52 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 82 strikeouts in 65.1 innings. He’d likely step into the eighth inning role and move Strop down to the seventh. At 33, he’s likely looking for a three- to four-year deal in the $30 million range.
Clippard was linked to the Cubs at the deadline, but there hasn’t been much chatter so far. Clippard made 69 appearances, 19 saves, 2.92 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 64 strikeouts in 71 innings. His closing experience is nice and gives the team insurance should Rondon falter again and like O’Day could be a nice fit for the eighth inning. At 30, Clippard is a little younger than O’Day, but has racked up a similar amount of games. Also, his recent closing experience may be where he’s more interested and explain why the Cubs haven’t really been linked to him. Closers earn big money and a three-year deal around $24 million makes sense.
After patching together the bullpen with power arms over the past couple of years, the front office is likely to do the same again as they’ve already demonstrated so far. With a solid top three and some young arms with potential, the front office seems to have a solid formula to build one on the cheap while still being effective.
Cubs 2015 Position Reviews
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- Starting Rotation
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