Over the last couple of seasons for the Chicago Cubs, the front office has taken a patchwork approach to building a bullpen. Mainstays like Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm were cast-offs from other organizations and have excelled since joining the team. The approach had 20 total pitchers pitch in relief to a tune of a 3.38 ERA, eighth in the majors with no real star among them.
During the offseason, the Cubs tinkered with the bullpen in much the same way, adding Rex Brothers who wore out his welcome in Colorado, brought back Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill and took gambles with lottery tickets Andury Acevedo, Edgar Olmos and Spencer Patton. Let’s take a look at what the bullpen might look like for the coming season.
It’s been really remarkable to see how far former Rule 5 Draft pick and closer Hector Rondon has come in his time with the Cubs. Rondon had a breakout season last year, pitching to a 6-4 record in 72 appearances. He notched 30 saves, struck out 69 batters in 70 innings and posted a 1.67 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Rondon actually lost his closing gig for three weeks last year when he blew three saves in his first 20 appearances. However, Rondon was lights out after that giving up just five earned in his next 52 appearances and saving 21 games in his next 22 opportunities. Rondon will go into spring as the team’s closer, but manager Joe Maddon has shown he’s not afraid to give others a chance when his closer goes through a rough patch.
The next person in line for those saves could be eighth inning setup man Pedro Strop. Like Rondon, Strop ended up with the team as an almost throw-in when the team acquired Jake Arrieta from the Orioles. Since the trade, Strop has been one of the Cubs’ most reliable relievers and last season was no different. In a team leading 76 appearances, Strop had a 2-6 record, 81 strikeouts in 68 innings, a 2.91 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Strop saved three games in four tries and racked up 28 holds. He will likely continue to do more of the same for the Cubs and set up Rondon.
Maddon said more than a few times last year that Justin Grimm was his go-to guy to get the team out of tough jams and his stopper in the bullpen. The former starter has really taken to that role and had a stellar season last year. In 62 appearances, Grimm had a 3-5 record, three saves, 67 strikeouts in 49.2 innings, a 1.99 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. Grimm was especially lights out in the first half giving up just three earned runs in his first 22.2 innings and sort of returned back to earth in the second half with eight earned runs in 34 innings. Even with his numbers for the second half, should be expected to fill the same role for Maddon next year.
While the solid seasons from the aforementioned three are impressive, the biggest surprise may have been the ascension of Travis Wood. Wood went from being a league average starting pitcher to a lights out multi-inning reliever. In 45 games in relief last year, Wood had a 3-2 record, four saves, 71 strikeouts in 58 innings, a 2.95 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. He pitched over an inning in 18 games as a reliever and was called on three more times in the playoffs to extend games due to poor starting pitching. Wood has been asked to stretch out this spring, but probably so he is able to reprise his role as a multi-inning reliever this year.
Another pitcher asked to stretch out was Trevor Cahill who pitched alongside Wood in a few games in relief. In 11 appearances, Cahill was a revelation with 22 strikeouts in 17 innings, a 2.12 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. In seven games, he pitched in over an inning in seven of those 11 games and should do more of the same this coming spring, if he doesn’t sneak into the rotation with a good showing.
The last pitcher being considered for a multi-inning gig is Clayton Richard. Richard earned a roster spot after making a couple of emergency starts for the team once he was acquired in a minor trade. As a reliever, Richard went 2-2 in 20 appearances, with 14 strikeouts in 24.1 innings, a 4.44 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. Richard was very solid against LHP giving up a line of just .234/.269/.266. Although Richard pitched more than an inning in six of his 20 games, some consideration may be given for him to become a lefty specialist.
Should Richard return to his multi-inning role he filled last year, Rex Brothers will likely fill the lefty specialist role. Brothers was acquired from the Rockies in a minor trade in November. He spent most of last year in Triple-A, but did pitch in 17 games, with one win, five strikeouts in 10.1 IP and a 1.74 ERA. However, in those 10.1 innings, Brothers gave up eight walks and going back to last year had walked 47 in 66.2 innings. On the positive side, Brothers has seen good results in the past and from 2011-2013 pitched to a 2.82 ERA and has closing experience with 19 saves in 2013. If pitching coach Chris Bosio can work his magic on Brothers like he has on other pitchers on the Cubs staff, Brothers could be a sneaky pickup.
The final bullpen spot is anybody’s guess assuming the team decides to go with eight pitchers. Names like Adam Warren, Carl Edwards Jr. and Neil Ramirez are the most likely candidates.
The most likely person for the final spot could be Neil Ramirez. Last year was a lost season for him as he spent a fair amount of time on the disabled list with shoulder and abdominal issues. He pitched in just 19 games, winning one, with 15 strikeouts in 14 innings, a 3.21 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. Ramirez was really impressive in his first season posting a 1.44 ERA in 50 appearances. If he proves to be healthy, the last bullpen spot could be his to lose. If he suffers an injury again, he could open the door for Warren or someone else.
Adam Warren was profiled as a starter in our last preview, but also has a fair amount of experience in the bullpen. In his career, Warren has a 6-9 record, five saves, 169 strikeouts in 183 innings, a 3.05 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. The front office told Warren when he was acquired they intended to use him as a starter, but in interviews also mentioned his versatility. It likely depends on how the rest of the bullpen shakes out and if someone can lay claim on the final spot.
Carl Edwards Jr. is probably a dark horse in the race, but there’s no doubt he has the talent to pull it off. He was converted to a reliever last season in the minors after concerns over his long term durability as a starter. In 41 appearances split between the minors and the majors, Edwards Jr. pitched to a 5-3 record, six saves, 79 strikeouts in 60 innings, a 2.85 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. He did struggle with his control though walking 44 batters. With just 23 games at the Triple-A level, it can be argued that Edwards Jr. could use some more developmental time and could be one of the first relievers called upon in case of injury.
Other names to keep an eye on this spring include active roster players and non-roster invitees. Of the rostered players, Zac Rosscup, Andury Acevedo, Edgar Olmos and Spencer Patton could be in the mix for jobs depending on performances and injuries.
Zac Rosscup has almost been like a backup lefty specialist over the last few years. Whenever a lefty reliever goes down, Rosscup comes up and takes their place. He pitched in 33 games last year, a career high and pitched to a 2-1 record, 29 strikeouts in 26.2 innings, a 4.39 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. There’s no doubt that Rosscup has the stuff to strike out batters and be shutdown reliever, but he’s always had trouble with his control and the big inning. Rosscup has one minor league option year left.
Andury Acevedo was signed to a Major League deal, but has options to the minors. Acevedo converted to pitching back in 2012 as an infielder and had a breakout season at the minor league level in the New York Yankees system. In 41 games, Acevedo was 3-4, with three saves, 49 strikeouts in 59 innings, a 3.36 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. He pitched at all levels last year and was effective across the board. He is likely a project in the minors and scouts see him as an elite fastball/slider reliever who needs to work on his command.
Edgar Olmos was claimed twice this off-season off waivers and likely to add to their left-handed depth in the bullpen. He has limited experience in the majors thanks to issues with walks with 11 issued in 19 innings. Olmos pitched well for the Seattle Mariners Triple-A team last year with a 3.55 ERA in 20 appearances. He doesn’t have any minor league options left, so the Cubs may try to sneak him through waivers during Spring Training if he doesn’t make the team.
Spencer Patton was acquired from the Texas Rangers organization and will likely serve as minor league depth, but has shown ability to be a strikeout reliever. Patton pitched in 27 games for the Rangers last year, with a 1-1 record, 28 strikeouts in 24 IP, with an unsightly 9.00 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. Patton did strike out 10.5 batters per nine innings and has been above that number every year in his minor league career. If the Cubs can teach Patton to harness that ability properly, he could be a solid addition.
Of the invitees, Brandon Gomes, Jack Leathersich, Jean Machi and Armando Rivero also have potential.
Brandon Gomes is pretty familiar to Maddon as he has spent the last five years of his Major League career with the Tampa Bay Rays. Last year, he pitched in 63 games with a 2-6 record, 44 strikeouts in 59 innings, a 4.27 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Gomes has done well against right handers giving up a .230/.296/.385 line against them. He’s a good candidate to be the first man up due to injury if the team decides to keep him.
Jack Leathersich is another left-hander and could add to the minor league depth that the Cubs’ front office has always felt thin at. He’s shown a ton of potential striking out 356 batters in 210.2 innings at the minor league level. However, he underwent Tommy John surgery last year and probably won’t be ready until August at the earliest. His invite to Spring Training is likely to keep track of his rehab.
Armando Rivero should be a familiar name to Cubs fans as the prospect was a hot name last spring due to a breakout season. Rivero wasn’t able to keep the momentum up and his strikeouts dropped from 100 in 2014 to 53 last year. In 48 games last year at Iowa, he was still an effective reliever with a 3.16 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. Rivero isn’t on the 40-man roster and will need to show the front office he still has the ability he showed last year.
With much of the same cast returning, the Cubs bullpen will likely continue to surprise some people due to their lack of star power. With the front office adding more starting pitching depth, it’s possible that the bullpen may get even better with less work and more rest as the group of young relievers matures.
2016 Cubs Spring Training Previews
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