Last week, I wrote about the wealth of bench options the Cubs have available to them in 2016. Happily, the team finds itself in exactly the same circumstances with respect to its bullpen, which is loaded with dozens of pitchers competing for just a few spots. Sure, the final composition of the ‘pen isn’t locked in stone—we’re not even sure if they’ll go with seven or eight pitchers, when all is said and done—but there’s no doubt that the talent is there in camp. This week, I’ll be taking a two-part look at the guys available to Joe Maddon out of the bullpen. And today, we start with the late-inning guys.
Neil Ramirez, RHP
2015 Stats: 14.0 IP, 3.21 ERA, 3.23 FI, 4.09 DRA, 94 cFIP
Ramirez is of the more intriguing bullpen options for the Cubs coming into the season. For the last few years, his “thing” (insofar as it is a “thing”) has been that he can’t seem to be both healthy and good at the same time. That’s problematic. Ramirez lost velocity last year, moving down to 95.7 miles per hour from 97.2 in 2014, which is a significant drop for a predominantly fastball pitcher. He also struggled with the two worst things a pitcher can struggle with: walks and fly balls. His HR/FB% increased by about two percentage points from 2014 to 2015, and though his BB/9 didn’t take as drastic of a leap, the increase from 3.50 to 3.86 could be an indicator of what lies ahead. Those factors, coupled with the decline in his strikeout rate from 29.9 to 25.0 percent, don’t make for an exceptionally tasty recipe. Because he is out of options, the Cubs will be in an interesting predicament when deciding how to move forward with Ramirez. His case for making the April roster really depends on how much faith the Cubs brass have in his health and consistency, as well as what he brings to the mound in March. When he’s on, he can be very good.
Justin Grimm, RHP
2015 Stats: 49.7 IP, 1.99 ERA, 3.14 FIP, 3.53 DRA, 87 cFIP
His nickname was the Grimm Reaper, and that he surely was in 2015. Though he was sidelined with forearm irritation for some part of the season, which cut down on his innings, for the 50 innings he was on the mound he brought his strikeout rate up to an incredible 12.1 per nine (up from 9.1 per nine in 2014). His walks went up as well, of course, straying from his usually steady rate somewhere around 3.5 per nine to 4.5, but despite that, his WHIP was a career low 1.15. Also worth noting: Grimm brought his strand rate up from 68.7 percent to 76.3 percent in 2015. His FIP indicates that his dominant year isn’t entirely based on his “stuff”, and the walks surely contributed to the stat’s inflation, but Grimm also didn’t give up any extra longballs in 2015. His line drive rate spiked quite significantly, and his BABIP was low, indicating that he may have just had some stellar defense behind him for those moments he did allow contact between all the strikeouts. While I wouldn’t expect him to post that attractive 1.99 ERA again this season, I would expect him to remain worthy of a solid right-handed setup man role straight off, pending how his spring goes.
Zac Rosscup, LHP
2015 Stats: 26.7 IP, 4.39 ERA, 4.89 FIP, 6.21 DRA, 101 cFIP
Let’s be frank—with the long list of other guys waiting in line to fill various roles for the Cubs’ 2016 bullpen, I don’t think Rosscup will be making the 25-man roster come Opening Day unless he magically morphs into Kevin Siegrist,. With one option year left, he will be more of a “waiting in the wings” type of guy down in Iowa, which is exactly the type of thing he’s good at. As his tiny little player comment in the BP annual says “Zac Rosscup throws with his left hand”, which is one of the things that probably keeps the Cubs hanging on to him for depth-related purposes. Rosscup throws just two pitches, a fastball and a slider, both of which saw a loss of velocity in 2015 after he came back from rehabbing a shoulder issue, and his HR/FB rate showed it at over 17 percent. Let me, again, be frank: Rosscup’s fastballs are often down the middle and top out around 94, and his sliders are often in the dirt but only swung at when they’re hanging out in the zone. Hopefully, Rosscup can rectify these issues but most likely, look for him to be making trips back and forth from Iowa to Chicago in 2016.
Rex Brothers, LHP
2015 Stats: 10.0 IP, 1.74 ERA, 4.52 FIP, 3.36 DRA, 118 cFIP
You may want to note the small sample size of the numbers above and correlate them accordingly with Brothers’ Triple-A stats: 42.0 IP, a 5.83 DRA, and a 109 cFIP. Now, that offers a bit more context. “Wild” seems to be the word used to describe Brothers’ pitching style, whether it be preceded by the word “effectively” or not. That, and “closer of the future”, which didn’t seem to work out as planned in Colorado. But there’s something in Brothers that Epstein and Hoyer liked, causing them to pick him up almost immediately upon his release from a frustrated Rockies club.
Brothers has had issues with walks, and his strikeouts have fallen off the proverbial cliff, but he offered up zero home runs in Colorado last year (an incredible accomplishment even over just 10 innings) and gave up just one during the 42 innings he pitched in Triple-A, indicating that there is something to be salvaged, and possibly rather quickly, by the magic hands of Chris Bosio. Brothers may no longer be the closer of the future at this point, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be something good. If anything, he provides organizational and bullpen depth as a lefty, and that alone is worth something. If the Cubs go with an eight man bullpen, look for Brothers to be a strong contender for the final spot going into April. Or at least that’s my secret hope.
Pedro Strop, RHP
2015 Stats: 68.0 IP, 2.91 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 2.67 DRA, 79 cFIP
The two most-commonly heard things about Strop are that he is consistent and exceptional, and those are two things that, as a relief pitcher, you most certainly like to hear being said about yourself. His slider is filthy, and he uses it quite often (in 2015 he threw the pitch around 50 percent of the time), and with great effectiveness. Strop has the makeup of a closer, but with Hector Rondon handling that role quite well, it’s not looking as though Strop will be have the 9th inning delegated to him anytime soon.
But in Strop, the Cubs have someone who is not just an adequate man ready to take the reigns, but an exceptional option should Rondon become unavailable for any reason. PECOTA has Strop working just 56 innings in 2016, which seems viable considering that the Cubs have a deep pool of options to go to in the late innings, leaving Strop able to take on the role of being a true setup man for Rondon. PECOTA is skeptical of Strop repeating his dominant season, showing him posting an ERA of 3.34, but as the description of PECOTA warns in the annual “PECOTA can tend to appear bullish on players coming off a bad year, and bearish on players coming off a great year.” Strop is most definitely already written in ink to make the 25-man roster out of camp, so look for him on the mound throwing sliders that taper off to the left just about as much has the brim of his hat does.
2015 Stats: 70.0 IP, 1.67 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 3.18 DRA, 80 cFIP
Hector Rondon’s player comment in the annual describes him as the “most successful Rule 5 draft pick in recent Cubs history”, and it’s hard to argue with that. The flamethrowing righthander has solidified himself in the closer role for 2016. In 2015, he accumulated 1.3 WARP in a position that only required him to log 70 innings, which means he was damn good at what he did during those 70 innings. His stat line indicated that there may have been more than meets the eye behind his success, as his FIP was a whole run higher than his ERA, but to be concerned with that almost seems like splitting hairs: a 2.68 FIP is absolutely nothing to complain about.
PECOTA has Rondon’s BABIP going up to a more sustainable rate of .290 in 2016, which correlates a bit with why his projections don’t show him repeating his outstanding campaign. His career low BABIP of just .268 in 2015 most definitely indicates that good defense came to his aid last season—but none of this is to say that Rondon is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Perhaps my favorite quote in the 2016 BP Annual comes from Rondon’s player comment, and reads “My dude, you have a 97 mph sinker—throw it!” And that he did. As of now, Rondon is the club’s unofficial “official closer”, and unless a stroke of misfortune should hit him in camp, you will most definitely see him in the ‘pen come April.
These options for the first half of the Cubs bullpen should have you a bit giddy. The arms that are almost sure locks to make the roster are not simply based on their ability to fit reasonably well into the roles that a standard bullpen calls for, but because they excel at filling those roles. The rest of the options are just potential icing on the cake, and it’s pretty good icing, too. Stay tuned this week for an in-depth look at the second half of the Cubs’ bullpen options: the long relievers. Till then, just dream about the Strop-Rondon tandem raising hell on the mound in a couple of months.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.