“You kinda know going into the season that not everyone is going to perform as well as you hoped. It’s a lot of guys to expect them to perform at the level they were previously at; you can have injuries or poor performance, and so you kinda know that it might be an area you have to tweak going in.”
— Jed Hoyer
In recent years, baseball has seen its share of otherwise-great teams falling from glory at the hands of poorly constructed or neglected bullpens. The Dombrowski-era Tigers are one of the first examples that come to mind here. Those Tigers were a force to be reckoned with from 2011 to 2014, moving with enormous momentum through regular seasons and into October, only to have their success come to a screeching halt season after season at the hands of poorly-performing bullpens.
It’s not just the Tigers, though. A failure to address bullpens’ extreme volatility—they can fluctuate dramatically in quality on even a month to month basis (closer Jason Motte, circa 2015, is one example of this)—seems to come up time and time again. Expecting a bullpen pitcher to consistently perform with the same type of consistency as a starter or a hitter in your lineup does just isn’t a reality that front offices can rely on. The fact that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are aware of this has been one of the biggest secrets of the Cubs’ continued success.
Over the last month of so, Cubs fans have endured many head-scratching weeks that have left them wondering what this organization is up to in terms of the bullpen. But after a few months during which fans saw a revolving door of relief arms come up from the minors in the wake of the bullpen’s struggles and Clayton Richards’ injury, the plan has now been revealed, and it looks to be a very legitimate one.
Epstein & Co, in June, were simply assessing the depth of the organization in preparation for the deadline. The moves made last week wouldn’t have been as much of a glove-like fit without taking a proper inventory of what the Cubs had tucked away in the minors, which relievers were no longer a good fit, and what type of profiles needed to be acquired in the coming weeks to refresh a tired and outdated ‘pen.
“I think you definitely assess your bullpen over the first half of the season and you throw out areas you want to improve and you do that.” Hoyer told the media after the acquisition of RHP Joe Smith from the Angels. “When we looked at this team that was an area we thought we could make some changes”
Many scratched their head at the Smith deal, one that was made in the final moments before the deadline. Who was Joe Smith and why did the Cubs need him? He was simply a final spritz of depth and style added to an already impeccable bullpen. The extra cherry on the sundae.
“He’s a veteran guy with outstanding makeup, and an outstanding competitor. I think for us he gives us a different look out of the bullpen, he’s a groundball guy, a sidearm guy, we don’t have that look or that ability right now in our bullpen.” Hoyer continued. “It’s great to have hard throwing guys with great breaking balls, but it’s nice to add a different look to your bullpen” Hoyer said of Smith.
Epstein & Co. are one of the most well respected set of minds in baseball today. They’ve taken their time and created a superteam which they’ve reinforced it at every turn of the coin. Not only that, but they’ve insulated it with enough usable depth that there is no stone left unturned. Bench depth? You got it. Extra outfielders? That’s why they brought back Chris Coghlan. Bullpen needs a bit more character? Pick-up a side armer that can add some “funk” as manager Joe Maddon referred to it as. Rondon has been struggling? Trade the extra pieces in the farm system for the end-all-be-all of MLB closers.
The importance of a dynamic, strong, up-to-date bullpen and how much a team such as the Cubs focus on such matters may lead to conversation and debate among Cubs fans who view the importance of certain aspects of this club through different lenses, but the bottom line is that bullpens are volatile because they’re so important.
October is a game of chance. It’s not a time in which a team with the best record behind them wins. Part of putting the odds in your favor comes down to preserving leads and being able to put forth a reliever that can and will give you a shutdown inning when needed, having enough depth to cover certain situations, and rest your best arms accordingly. For the Cubs, they have now constructed a bullpen that has transformed over the first half of the season. It started out with some old-timers and a sturdy set of long relievers that weren’t performing as planned, so the Cubs quickly shed them and moved on. Now, the Cubs possess the best closer in the game today in Aroldis Chapman, have bumped their already elite closer in Rodon to the role of setup man, and have a plethora of other arms that come in all shapes and sizes to use whenever the time is right.
“Adding to the bullpen—including possibly investing in a salaried reliever—is on the list of things that we would like to do to improve the club,” Epstein said last November. It’s safe to say that halfway through 2016, Epstein has come through on this desire.
“I just think we may look to add talent (through) some of the routes that we’ve used in the past to find quality relievers—the Rule 5 draft, minor-league free agency, smaller trades, buy-low scenarios.” Epstein said.
In Theo We Trust is a mantra many loyal Cubs fans subscribe to, so next time this front office makes a head scratching move, know that there is a detailed explanation and a strong motive behind it as to why this move will help sculpt the Cubs into what looks to be one of the strongest contenders October will see in 2016.
Lead photo courtesy John Hefti—USA Today Sports.