Early last week, I reviewed the Cubs’ late inning bullpen options, or at least those options as they appear during the trial period that is known as Spring Training. With the amount of depth and flexibility the Cubs have on their bullpen roster, this is a neverending discussion with a large range of possible outcomes. And so let’s continue that conversation with my favorite part: the long relievers. Here are the men that the Cubs will have to choose from as middle inning relief options.
Travis Wood, LHP
2015 Stats: 100 IP, 3.84 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 3.91 DRA, 87 cFIP
In the beginning of 2015, Travis Wood struggled as a starter. He posted an ugly 5.59 ERA over seven short yet exceedingly agonizing starts. To put that another way: during those starts, Wood allowed 39 runs and 9 home runs over just 37 innings pitched. Finding his groove after an assignment to the bullpen, he allowed just two more home runs (two!) over the 63 innings remaining in his season. Wood struck out 79 batters in those 63 innings in the ‘pen, while pitching to an ERA of 2.83. In the process, he became a new pitcher: Travis Wood, middle reliever. He raised his velocity by 2-3 mph on all of his pitches across the board, stopped surrendering so much contact on fastballs in the zone, and tidied up the location of his slider. Wood didn’t receive as much recognition as he should have for his brilliant campaign once he moved to the bullpen, but it surely didn’t go unnoticed by those who watched carefully. If Wood can continue to build on the success and progress he made in the bullpen, he will provide immeasurable late inning strength to this club with the ability to come into games for multiple innings while missing bats with his quality stuff. Though his starting days are most likely over for now, he’s adapted to his new role quite well. Definitely look for him to be in the bullpen come April.
Trevor Cahill, RHP
2015 Stats: 43 IP, 5.40 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 4.76 DRA, 107 cFIP
Trevor Cahill’s numbers are nothing to swoon over. His ERA tells the story of an unsuccessful run in the bullpen, overall, which is the even less fortunate end to his broader story of having been moved there, by Atlanta, from the starting rotation. But his FIP tells another story, probably due in part to the fact that his walks went down considerably in 2015 from their previous level. It’s actually not fair to look at Cahill’s season-long numbers for 2015, because he posted a 2.12 ERA with the Cubs over 17 innings (even in relation to the small sample size that’s quality), and a 7.52 ERA over 26 innings in Atlanta. Something, it seems, changed. So how does the future look? Well, Cahill’s groundball rate is elite due in part to his sinker, but he virtually never allows whiffs with the offering as a trade off for that 63 percent groundball rate. While most would say “an out is an out”, the path to this type of out can be much less attractive, as it leaves significant room for error. Cahill securing a spot in the bullpen in 2016 will largely be dictated by how his spring goes, and in turn, how well everyone else’s spring goes too. Those are really the only two factors that will affect whether or not Cahill makes the roster in Chicago.
Kyle Hendricks, RHP
2015 Stats: 180 IP, 3.95 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 3.87 DRA, 90 cFIP
The odds of Hendricks starting the season in the bullpen seem quite low unless he struggles considerably in camp or Adam Warren ends up being the starting pitching hero of the spring—which is a possibility. These are the situations that add some extra spice to spring training. As I noted in my piece on starting pitching PECOTA projections last week, Hendricks made successful improvements with his most fringy pitch—his changeup—in 2016. He improved the pitches’ whiff rate from 11 percent in April to a 34 percent whiff rate by September. If he can continue improving this offering, and work on his ability to go deeper into games, that might just give him his edge in spring training over Warren.
Clayton Richard, LHP
2015 Stats: 42.3 IP, 3.83 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 4.86 DRA, 109 cFIP
It should be noted that Clayton Richard was almost out of baseball due to a landslide of shoulder-related surgeries in 2013-14. With that context in mind, Richard posting the stats he did in 2015 with the Cubs was quite an accomplishment. Richard is a sufficient late inning guy, although he no longer suffices as a starter, because he can still handle putting in 2-3 innings of quality work. Richard’s velocity climbed just a touch in the end of 2015, his fastball rising to a speed of nearly 96 mph. He is a heavy groundball pitcher, posting a groundball rate of 59 percent in 2015. This is mainly due to his sinker that he is able to generate weak contact with all over the zone. My main concern with Richard is the amount of high fastballs he produces. Predictably, these pitches are not swung at often and will lead to high walk rates if they continue to miss the zone. When Richard does get in the zone with his fastball (which is quite often), he is most certainly the master and commander of it. The fact that Richard is a lefty gives him a significant advantage in the bullpen, but the Cubs have a plethora of talented options this year, potentially nullifying the significance of his left handedness.
Adam Warren, RHP
2015 Stats: 131 IP, 3.29 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 3.43 DRA, 94 cFIP
The most varying factor in whether or not Warren makes the bullpen in 2016 is whether or not he makes the Cubs’ starting rotation instead. He has a lower ERA as a reliever than as a starter (2.29 in 35 IP vs. 3.66 in 96 IP), but the most interesting thing that Warren brings to camp is his splits. Warren has a reverse split, and it is significant enough not to ignore. Warren allowed a .224 BAA to righties, while allowing a .240 BAA to lefties in 2015. Wrigley Field’s deep right field corner should aid Warren in these splits, something that Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right did not do. Warren’s home batting average was nearly the same for righties and lefties in 2015 due in part to this fact, but his road splits showed a significant advantage when he pitched to lefties. But now we’re simply splitting hairs. The bottom line is that Warren does best as a reliever, but eats up innings as a starter, which is where the dilemma for the Cubs moving forward into spring really lies. It’s more practical for Warren to be in the bullpen, and his reverse split gives the Cubs some leverage, so my guess is Warren will start off in the bullpen, but look for him to fill holes in the rotation when needed in 2016.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.