Other than maybe the Kansas City Royals of the last few years, every fan thinks that the bullpen of their favorite team is bad and could use improvements at the trade deadline. So with all the fanfare regarding the Cubs trading for Aroldis Chapman, their brand-new, shiny closer, you’d think they’ve had problems at the end of the game this season. But that’s simply not the case, with Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop largely getting the job done. In fact, they’ve been really good for a few years, which is pretty unprecedented for the Cubs.
Strop came over from the Baltimore Orioles in 2013 in the deal that also brought the Cubs Jake Arrieta. At the time of the deal, the then-28-year-old Strop had a 7.25 ERA and 6.0 BB/9 in 22 1/3 innings with the Orioles. He pretty much immediately turned things around, finishing the season with a 2.83 ERA in 35 innings with the Cubs and dropping his BB/9 to 2.8.
Strop has stepped into the primary eighth inning role the last few years, throwing 203 2/3 innings in a Cubs uniform and posting a 2.65 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, and a miniscule 5.3 H/9. Despite the occasional home run allowed to fringey Cardinals bench guys, he’s been one of the best and most consistent set-up men in the game the last few years.
Rondon started his career with the Cleveland Indians, but injuries early stunted his development. When the Cubs took him in the 2012 rule 5 draft, he had pitched just 41 2/3 total innings the previous three seasons in the minors. They took a chance on him, moving him to the bullpen—he had primarily been a starter in the Indians organization—and sticking with him through some early tough times. Rondon had a 6.68 ERA through 27 appearances in the 2013 season with the Cubs, but the teams’ bad record allowed them to continue to keep him on the roster rather than returning him to Cleveland.
Around late July—roughly the time Strop showed up on the scene—a switch was flipped in the hard-throwing Rondon. He gave the Cubs 23 2/3 innings with a 2.28 ERA from July 24 to the end of the season, earning a chance to stick around long term. He stepped in as the primary closer early in 2014 and has never looked back, performance-wise. Rondon has a 1.99 ERA with 9.5 K/9 and just 1.8 BB/9 and a 0.959 WHIP over the last two-and-a-half seasons.
When you think back through the annalsof Cubs history, has there been a more successful relief tandem? It’s very possible that, at some point in like the 1930s or something, the Cubs had a run of a couple relief pitchers that had a few good years in a row. But the bullpen was such a different thing prior to even the 1980s that it’s hard to even look beyond the last 30 years. Do we really think of guys like Bruce Sutter, who threw 107 1/3 innings in 62 appearances for the Cubs in 1977, in the same way? Absolutely not. They’re totally different animals.
The Cubs have had plenty of dynamic duos in the bullpen over the last 30 or so seasons. Lee Smith had a different guy with him every year. Rod Beck and Terry Mulholland in 1998. Tom Gordon and Kyle Farnsworth in 2001. Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol in 2008. But the pair of relievers sticking together longer than one season has been pretty rare for the Cubs.
By my own count, which is imperfect, the Cubs have six reliever tandems that have had at least two seasons together in prominent bullpen roles in the last 30 seasons. Here’s how they fared.
1989-90: Mitch Williams and Les Lancaster
Williams, also known as ‘Wild Thing’, was allegedly the inspiration for Charlie Sheen’s character Ricky Vaughn in the movie Major League, if that tells you just about everything you need to know about him. When you went to the plate against Williams, you had a really good chance you were either being walked, hit by a pitch, or striking out. Williams had a 2.76 ERA in 81 2/3 innings with the Cubs in 1989 and a 3.93 ERA in 66 1/3 innings in 1990, both as the closer for the Cubs.
Lancaster came up with the Cubs in 1987 and worked in a set-up role in 1989, posting a 1.36 ERA in 72 2/3 innings. He, along with Williams, were a big reason for the Cubs excellent season and trip to the NLCS to take on the San Francisco Giants. The following season, however, he would post a 4.62 ERA in 109 innings. The second year for the duo was not so good. After that season, Williams was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
1991-93: Chuck McElroy and Paul Assenmacher
Who could forget this legendary pair? McElroy had a 3.06 ERA in the three seasons with the Cubs, compiling 232 1/3 innings over that period. His best season came in 1991, when he had a 1.93 ERA. Assenmacher was acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the 1989 season and paired with McElroy in the ‘pen for parts of three seasons. He was traded in the middle of the 1993 season to the New York Yankees, but posted a 3.53 ERA over those three seasons. This tandem was good, but also fairly forgettable.
1996-97: Turk Wendell and Terry Adams
Another unforgettable couple of back-end relievers, Turk Wendell and Terry Adams were once thought to be part of the future in the Cubs bullpen. Wendell had his best season, albeit a little bit wild, in 1996. He posted a 2.85 ERA with 8.5 K/9 but 5.0 BB/9. He would pair with Adams, who had a 2.94 ERA in 101 innings, to solidify the end of the game for the mediocre Cubs. But, with another season lost to a bad record, the Cubs would deal Wendell to the New York Mets in the middle of the 1997 season.
2002-03: Joe Borowski and Kyle Farnsworth
Borowski came seemingly out of nowhere to end up being a solid late-inning reliever for the Cubs. He didn’t have the best stuff, but he made up for it with plenty of grit, guile, and sweatiness. Borowski posted a 2.69 ERA with a 3.11 FIP over those two seasons, ripping the closer position away from the massively disappointing Antonio Alfonseca in 2003. He also gave up two runs in the top of the ninth, thanks in part to an error by second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, in game one of the 2003 NLCS—which the Cubs lost 9-8 in 11 innings.
Farnsworth was coming off an excellent 2001 season and was ready for a featured role in the ‘pen, but ended up getting rocked all year. He had a 7.33 ERA and 10.2 H/9 that year, but bounced back to play the role of primary set-up man for Borowski in 2003. In 2004, Borowski got hurt and missed the majority of the year while Farnsworth regressed yet again to post a 4.73 ERA in 66 2/3 innings before being shipped out to Detroit in a deal for lesser-known reliever Roberto Novoa.
2006-07: Ryan Dempster and Bob Howry
Dempster’s best season as a reliever was actually 2005, when he had a 1.85 ERA in 58 1/3 innings in relief, saving 33 games for yet another yawn-worthy Cubs team. The Cubs, erroneously thinking that the poor performance in the late innings leading up to Dempster was the thing keeping them from contending for a championship, went out and signed Bob Howry and Scott Eyre to play prominent roles in getting leads to the ninth.
Howry primarily pitched the eighth inning and he was pretty good in that role, tossing 76 2/3 innings in 2006 and 81 1/3 in 2007. Dempster was the closer those two years before stretching back out and having success as a starter in 2008, but he was pretty awful in his bullpen role. He averaged 4.2 BB/9 over those two years, striking out 7.8 per nine and compiling a 4.76 ERA in 141 2/3 innings. Howry stuck around in the ‘pen in 2008, but the primary shutdown men were Marmol and Wood that year.
2010-11: Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall
It was actually 2009 where Sean Marshall made a role for himself on the Cubs as a reliever. In nine starts, he had a 5.24 ERA in 46 1/3 innings with just 34 strikeouts. Moving to the ‘pen in the middle of the season in a long relief role initially, Marshall would get comfortable and end up giving the Cubs 39 innings with a 3.23 ERA and 34 K’s. Taking the job as the primary set-up man and left-hander in 2010, Marshall was even better—posting a 2.65 ERA in 80 appearances. He repeated the dominant performance in 2011, too, with a 2.26 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings setting up for Marmol.
Marmol was also quite dominant, giving the Cubs one of the top one-two punches in the league. He had an outstanding 2010, striking out 138 batters in 77 2/3 innings with 38 saves and a 2.55 ERA. He wasn’t quite as good in 2011, posting a 4.03 ERA but still striking out a phenomenal 99 batters in just 74 innings. Marshall would be traded in the offseason prior to the 2012 season to the Cincinnati Reds and Marmol would stick around for a few more seasons, becoming more known for his unpredictability than his electric slider.
Having long extended periods with the same relievers in important roles at the end of the game is fairly rare. Pairings like Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances with the New York Yankees are few and far between. This list, and that fact, make what Rondon and Strop have done that much more special. With Chapman, the Cubs now have one of the better trios at the end of the game that you’ll find. But with Chapman set to hit free agency in October and no early indication that he’s going to be back, there’s a decent chance the 2017 Cubs will feature Strop in the eighth and Rondon in the ninth again.
For a variety of reasons, Cubs fans should be happy with that.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports.