Much has been made over the past couple of weeks of the struggles of certain members of the Cubs bullpen (I won’t name names, but one may or may not rhyme with Dayton Snitchard). Now, even though Jared Wyllys has told us that maybe the problem isn’t as bad as some make it out to be, I think we can all agree that the ‘pen isn’t where it needs to be. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have both recently acknowledged as much, but at the same time made sure to point out that changes might not be urgent.
While a need for a lefty might still stand out, the Cubs have built quite a stable of organizational bullpen depth that they have already started to tap into. Let’s get to know it a little bit better.
The Major Leaguers
Carl Edwards Jr., RHP
Originally acquired in the Matt Garza trade, Edwards Jr. was recently called up to take Dexter Fowler’s spot when he landed on the DL. After a very brief stint in the majors in 2015, the story in Iowa this year has been much of the same as years past. The book on Edwards Jr. is high strikeout numbers (12.4 per nine), high walk numbers (6.0 per nine) and not a ton of damage (.232 TAv against). The String Bean Slinger, as he’s affectionately known due to his wiry frame, brings a mid-90s fastball with a devastating curveball to the table and the stuff is definitely there for him to become a late inning reliever in the big leagues. The only real question is if he can keep the walks under control enough to be successful. We’ll get a good look if he can do so in the coming weeks.
Gerardo Concepcion, LHP
For a much more in depth look, you can check out Cat Garcia’s piece on Concepcion. He was signed for $6 million back in 2012 right around the time of the Jorge Soler signing. By this point in his career, many had already declared him a bust, but Concepcion decided to show up in 2016 and try to prove everyone wrong. Following 17 2/3 scoreless innings in Tennessee, he was promoted to Iowa, where he was still pretty good despite an increasing walk rate. With a deceptive low-90s fastball and usable curveball, Concepcion could stick around if he’s able to neutralize left-handed hitters. He is the first to get a crack at the second lefty spot in the pen. Whether or not he can keep that job is another story, but the Cubs seem willing to give him a chance.
Spencer Patton, RHP
Acquired in the off-season from the Rangers, Patton went on to throw eight scoreless innings in the Spring. Despite not making the roster out of Spring Training, Patton wasn’t going to let that keep him down. He kept his scoreless streak going, registering 15 innings in Iowa before giving up his first run. Patton got an extremely brief cup of coffee earlier in the year, but he’s now back after the flurry of bullpen moves last week. In Iowa this year, he struck out an insane 42 in 26 innings all while allowing a TAv of just .198. In his first appearance in mop-up duty against the Cardinals, he struck out three in two scoreless innings.
The Young Guns
Felix Pena, RHP
Not seen as much of a prospect earlier in his career, Pena saw a bit of a career resurgence last year as a starter after seeing a jump in velocity. This year out of the pen in Iowa, Pena has continued the positive trend that he started last year. Working largely as a multi-inning guy, Pena might be ticketed for a super-utility pitcher role in the future. In 34 2/3 innings (across 21 games), he has struck out 42 and walked just 10, all while allowing a TAv of just .201. Pena is a guy who might get a look in September if there is a 40-man spot open.
Armando Rivero, RHP
We’ve known about Rivero’s stuff for a while, but the command has always lagged behind it. Entering his third year in Iowa, nothing has really changed. After a somewhat disappointing year last year strikeout-wise, Rivero has seen his K rate climb back up to 11.8 per nine innings. The walk rate is still at 5.2 per nine, but the hits per nine rate has dropped from 7.1 last year to 5.8 this year. If the .228 TAv against can hold up, he could be effective out of the pen, but in this crowded system until he cuts down on the walks I’m not sure if he’ll get his shot.
R.J. Alvarez, RHP
R.J. Alvarez might have the most interesting stuff of anyone on this list, with a mid-90s fastball and plus-plus slider. Alvarez is another guy who has put up big strikeout numbers, but has also struggled with walks (sense a theme here?). In 28 big league innings with San Diego and Oakland over the past couple seasons, Alvarez didn’t have great results, but he did strike people out. Along with the walks, he has also dealt with some injuries over the past couple years but if the Cubs can iron out some of those issues, Alvarez has the stuff to be a back-end-of-the-bullpen type guy. If he demonstrates solid command in Tennessee, he could definitely be one of the next in line for innings given his spot on the 40 man roster.
Corey Black, RHP
Black originally came over to the Cubs from the Yankees in the Alfonso Soriano trade as a smaller starter with huge stuff. He was moved to the bullpen midway through 2015 while in Tennessee and the initial results were great. He struck out 10.6 per nine and walked 4.9 per nine to go along with an above average ground ball percentage of 51 percent. Black has regressed a bit in 2016, but he still got a promotion to Iowa. The extreme small sample (six innings) early returns have been good as he has struck out eight and has walked just one. I’ve always liked Black as a high-effort, high-stuff reliever, and if he can cut down even a little on the walks, he could get his shot later this year.
The Wily Veterans
Joel Peralta, RHP
The 40-year-old was released on June 4th by the Mariners thanks to some awful results, but actually put up some decent peripherals. While he had a 5.40 ERA in 23 1/3 innings, his DRA was just 3.68 and his cFIP was 97. An extremely and almost-assuredly unsustainable home run rate did him in with the Mariners, and he’s currently throwing for the Cubs in Iowa. If he can keep up the solid strikeout and walk numbers that he showed in Seattle, he’s probably one of the next in line to get a call to the big leagues.
Brian Matusz, LHP
Matusz is one of the more interesting names on this list given the Cubs’ need for a second lefty and his history of success in that role. Over the past three years, Matusz hasn’t had a DRA higher than 3.40. This year he lost his mechanics and really struggled for the Orioles before being traded to the Braves and immediately designated for assignment. The Cubs will experiment stretching him out to start, but if the need arises and Matusz has ironed out his early season issues, he could definitely be called upon.
Joe Nathan, RHP
Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the Cubs signed the 41-year-old veteran with 377 career saves in May and immediately put him on the 60-day DL. While I’m not sure how much he has left in the tank, we’ll find out soon as he started his 30-day rehab last week. In his prime, Nathan worked in the mid 90s with a very good slider. While he’s lost at least a couple ticks off the fastball, the slider should still be there. This is one of those very low risk, decent reward moves that the Cubs have tried over the past couple years. I would guess that we definitely get a look at Nathan in the big leagues sometime before or just after his 30 day rehab time in the minors is up. Hopefully for Nathan and for the Cubs, he ends up much more like Fernando Rodney than Rafael Soriano. At the very least, he will be able to join Lackey and Ross in conversations about what it was like to live through the Great Depression.
Aaron Crow, RHP
The 29 year old Crow was a former first round pick who had some mild success from 2011 to 2013 in the pen with Kansas City. He had Tommy John last April and has been rehabbing in Arizona. After a brief setback in May, Crow is back on the mound and facing live hitters. Prior to his injury, the stuff and the velocity took a step back so I’m not sure if he can help the Cubs, but if he can regain his 2012-2013 form, they might have an option for middle relief. He’s a guy who I wouldn’t exactly be betting on to help the Cubs in 2016.
Jack Leathersich, LHP
Leathersich was claimed on waivers from the Mets back in November and was then non-tendered in early December. He decided to stick around in the Cubs organization while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, which he had last July. The strikeout numbers have always been ridiculously high for Leathersich throughout his career, but the walks have been a little high, if not unusable. Through 210 2/3 innings minor league innings across five seasons, he struck out an absolutely ridiculous 15.2 per nine innings while walking 4.9 per nine innings. Leathersich had a brief major-league stint in 2015 with the Mets, where he had some success as a LOOGY. While he might not be ready until July or August at the earliest (he’s been throwing already in Arizona), he presents a swing and miss option from the left side for the Cubs to utilize down the stretch. The health is a big question, but the stuff is unquestioned and if healthy he could really help the Cubs out.
Duane Underwood Jr., RHP
Underwood Jr. definitely isn’t an orthodox guess to help out down the stretch, but the hard-throwing right-hander could be a high reward option. He got a late start to the year, so he’s definitely in line for more innings once the minor league season is over. He’s coming up on his time of being Rule 5 eligible, so they’ll have to add him to the 40 man soon. He generally sits in the mid-90s as a starter, so the stuff could easily play up to the upper 90s out of the pen. All this adds up to a potentially dangerous option for the Cubs bullpen in September and October, but I’m not sure it’s one they’ll look into given the rest of the power arms in the system.
Dylan Cease, RHP
Yeah, they’re not going to disrupt his development plan and add him to the 40 man this early, but wouldn’t it be fun to have Cease hitting 100 mph out of the pen in September?
As you can tell there are a ton of potential options for the Cubs to consider down the stretch and they come in many different shapes and sizes. You might see none of these guys or you might see ten. If we’ve learned anything from this front office, it’s that they’re not afraid to go to a wide range of options to try to solve the bullpen puzzle. That shouldn’t change this year.
Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports.