With Cubs pitchers and catchers having reported to Arizona just last week, the honeymoon period of the Cubs’ World Series victory draws to a close and the competition for spots on the 2017 25-man roster begins. One of the more interesting battles figures to be between the Cubs’ bullpen arms, all jockeying to grab one of the reliever spots. There are some players that will be shoo-ins for the 2017 pen, but there are many others whose roster spot may be contingent on a strong spring. To get a feel for the type of pen Joe Maddon likes to assemble, let’s take a look at the last two Cubs’ Opening Day bullpens. From there, we can peruse the options the Cubs have going into 2017 and see who seems to align with Maddon’s priorities.
2015 Opening Day Bullpen (7): Phil Coke, Justin Grimm, Edwin Jackson, Jason Motte, Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop
The Constants: Grimm, Ramirez, Rondon, Strop
Having been officially converted to a reliever in 2014, Justin Grimm took a big step forward for the Cubs and was poised to maintain his role under the new Maddon regime. Grimm posted a respectable 3.78 ERA but an even better 3.18 FIP and 3.47 DRA, indicating there was even better performance ahead for Grimm. His 2014 success rode on eliciting ground balls and keeping fly balls in the ballpark. While Grimm had not fully established himself as a guaranteed asset, the Cubs had sufficient reason to think he would. Although Grimm saw his 2015 groundball rate drop and his home run rate grow, he compensated for that by striking out more batters.
It’s strange to think back to a time the Cubs’ back three looked like it was going to feature righty Neil Ramirez prominently, but that was the case going into 2015. Ramirez was coming off of an excellent rookie season in 2014 when he earned a 1.44 ERA with a 2.58 FIP (albeit with a less splendid 3.78 DRA). With a K rate of just about 30 percent in 2014, Ramirez seemed like he could become a huge member of a competitive Cubs bullpen. But early season shoulder inflammation derailed his 2015 season. When he returned in late June, he was stuck with mop-up duty. After another DL stint later in the year, Ramirez wasn’t healthy enough to make the playoff roster.
Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon were also coming off of great 2014 campaigns. Strop posted a 1.4 WARP in 61 innings, mostly as a setup man and Rondon posted a 1.1 WARP while blossoming from rule-5 draft pick to dominant closer. Strop stayed and succeeded in his setup role in 2015, but Rondon had a slightly bumpier road as he was temporarily displaced by Jason Motte as closer, before ultimately reclaiming the job and running with it into the playoffs.
The Lefties: Coke
Yes, Opening Day 2015 the Cubs employed only one lefty out of the pen and it was Phil Coke. After performing well that spring, the veteran Coke had ingratiated himself to Joe Maddon so much that he wound up pitching a shutout inning in the first game of the season against the Cardinals. But that inning aside, Coke was otherwise beaten up – mostly due to a disastrous opposing .406 BABIP and he only ended up getting a short leash of ten innings to prove himself. Still, Coke’s brief stint saw him elicit ground balls at a 64% rate and only wind up with a 3.99 DRA. Unfortunately for him, his 6.30 ERA worked to his detriment, leading him to wind up unemployed only a couple weeks into the season. But Maddon’s fascination with ground ball relievers was just getting started and would continue to manifest through his future use of guys like Brian Schlitter, Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard.
The Long Men: Jackson
The lingering Ghost of Cubs Teams Past, Edwin Jackson, was also still around at the start of the 2015 season. In the third year of his regrettable four-year, $52 million contract, Jackson was finally bumped from the rotation to the bullpen, where Maddon and the Cubs’ brass hoped he could resurrect himself. Having pitched over 140 innings in eight straight seasons, Jackson made sense to serve as a fail safe if a game got out of hand early or went deep into extra innings.
But in reality, those occasions were few and far between as Jackson only pitched more than two innings twice during his 2015 stint in Chicago. As it became clear Jackson was not trusted in anything but the lowest leverage situations, the playoff bound Cubs cut ties with him in mid-July. Though at the time of Jackson’s release the Cubs didn’t have other longer, swing pitchers to directly take his stead, the additions of Cahill and Richard later in the summer filled that void and flashed a sign of a future trend Maddon would move toward.
The Wild Cards: Motte
The former St. Louis closer, Jason Motte, was a legitimate lottery ticket the Cubs held onto leaving Arizona. Signed to a $4.5 million big league contract over the winter, Motte was essentially guaranteed a bullpen role. The only question was how he would perform in it. The hard-throwing Motte had been a dominant closer for the Cardinals as recently as 2012, posting a 1.9 WARP and a 30.8 percent strikeout rate. But Motte missed the entire 2013 season after having Tommy John surgery on a torn ligament in his elbow and did not return to form when he returned to the Cardinals in 2014. Though Motte’s velocity ticked back up during his stint in Chicago, he was unable to strike out many hitters, doing so at just a 16.5 percent rate.
In addition to the low strikeout rate, Motte seemed to really play with fire by allowing a quite high 47.1 percent flyball rate. Motte’s perplexingly small 5.5 percent HR/FB numbers mercifully saved him from a disaster of a year and even led Joe Maddon to turn the closer role over to him briefly during the summer. But as Motte’s luck began to wear thin in late July, his high leverage opportunities lessened and he found himself on the DL, where he stayed for the rest of the year, missing the playoff run.
2016 Opening Day Bullpen (8): Trevor Cahill, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Adam Warren, Travis Wood
The Constants: Grimm, Rondon, Strop
Like Opening Day 2015, Grimm, Rondon and Strop all were pretty clear locks for the bullpen from the jump. Grimm was coming off of his best professional season, having accrued a 1.99 ERA, 3.14 FIP and 3.31 DRA and had taken a solid step forward by getting whiffs at a 32.8 percent strikeout rate. Strop, too, was coming off another solid year, having posted a 2.91 ERA, 3.19 FIP and 3.10 DRA while maintaining a 30 percent K rate and a 10.7 percent walk rate – quite comparable numbers to his respective 29.1 percent and 10.3 percent rates in 2014.
Though Rondon had lost his role briefly during 2015, he came into 2016 entrenched as the team’s closer. Still, even after posting a 1.67 ERA, it seemed that Maddon, Theo Epstein and company were not convinced Rondon was a legitimately elite closer. Perhaps this was due to his less kind 2.70 FIP, 3.51 DRA or his good – but not great – 24.6 percent strikeout rate. While Rondon was the closer from day one, it always seemed likely he would either be replaced or given immense backup.
The Lefties: Richard, Wood
Clayton Richard, acquired in the middle of 2015 from the Pirates for just $1, had stepped up toward the end of the season as an intriguing swingman. Richard, who fit with Joe Maddon’s MO of snagging groundball pitchers, elicited them at a terrific 59.3 percent in 2015 and stepped into many games down the stretch to throw more than one inning. A career journeyman, Richard had found a home in the Cubs’ bullpen and was retained for 2016. Though Richard was a lefty and had shown a propensity to pitch a little better against lefties during his career, he had previously worked as a starting pitcher, so he was not limited to matchup roles in either 2015 or 2016.
But while the Richard experiment had worked so nicely in 2015, it was not quite duplicated in 2016. Maddon often turned to Richard in situations with runners on base, hoping his extreme ground ball tendencies would come in handy. But an egregiously high .411 BABIP worked against Richard and led to his ERA ballooning to 6.43 before his late July release.
Travis Wood, who had performed nicely out of the bullpen after being transferred there from the starting rotation, served a more distinct swingman role in 2015, with many outings in which he pitched more than an inning. But noticing that he had pitched particularly well against lefties throughout his career, the Cubs identified that Wood may be used best in a one-inning or matchup role. His role in 2016 was mostly that, as Wood was seldom used in multi-inning stints, but did great work as a LOOGY, holding lefties to a miniscule .128/.208/.239 line.
The Long Men: Cahill, Warren
One of the main reasons the Cubs were able to limit Wood to one-inning stints was because of the presence of righty relievers Trevor Cahill and Adam Warren. Cahill, who shared a similar story to Clayton Richard’s, was a late season minor league signing in 2015 who was added to the roster on September 1. Having been released by the Braves after posting a 7.52 ERA in 15 outings, the Cubs snagged Cahill and helped the former All-Star return to form. After getting the call to return to the bigs, the sinkerballer put up very good numbers, eliciting a ground balls at a 61.8 percent rate and striking batters out at a 34.9 percent rate. On top of his good numbers, Cahill’s ability to come out of the bullpen to toss more than an inning solidified his spot in the pen into the 2015 playoffs.
Figuring Cahill’s career resurrection was real, the Cubs were prepared to slot him into the bullpen going into the 2016 season. Still, they weren’t done adding multi-inning pitchers to the pen, as they traded Starlin Castro to the Yankees in exchange for Adam Warren, a converted starter who had made 17 starts in 43 appearances with the Yanks in 2015. Having posted a 3.29 ERA and 1.1 WARP in 2015, the versatile Warren looked like he would be a solid asset for the Cubs’ 2016 run. But, things never clicked for Warren in Chicago as his walk rate went up, his strikeout rate went down and his HR/FB rate doubled (8.3 percent to 16.7) from 2015. Though the idea of a reliever who could start or go multiple innings made logical sense, especially to a team that went deep in the playoffs the previous season and was poised for a long run in the current season, Warren just wasn’t the right fit. He was ultimately traded back to the Yankees as part of the Aroldis Chapman deal.
The Wild Cards: Ramirez
As previously discussed, Neil Ramirez’ injury-plagued 2015 kept him from capitalizing on his terrific 2014. But the promise of an excellent late inning reliever was still there. Seeing Ramirez’ talent, Joe Maddon found room for him in the bullpen, hoping that he could revert to the 2014 version. But in the end, the 2016 Cubs had their sights set too high to hold onto the lottery ticket arm that Ramirez represented. He only wound up appearing in eight games before being designated for assignment in mid-May.
So where does that leave us for 2017? As we’ve seen, the members of Joe Maddon’s previous Opening Day bullpens have carried the obvious suspects, a lefty or two, a long/swingman or two and a wild card. Maddon’s bullpen in 2015 started off with seven relievers but expanded to eight for the majority of that year. His pen in 2016 started with eight relievers from jump, a number that would be reasonable to expect going into 2017.
Taking a look at the potential members of the pen for 2017, something that jumps out is how many of candidates could fall into the “wild card” category. Of the pitchers on the current 40-man with a plausible chance of making the roster out of Spring Training (all due respect to Jose Rosario or Pierce Johnson, but they don’t fall into this category), Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing, Jack Leathersich and Caleb Smith all could be considered wild cards, mostly due to injuries in 2016.
Barring something surprising, Strop, Rondon, Davis and Uehara will all be on the roster come April 2 in St. Louis, and Duensing’s major league contract gives him an inside track to also join them. But seeing as the Cubs have only carried one wild card reliever the last two seasons – both of whom had recent and significant major league success – the potential volatility of the more established arms makes Leathersich and Smith’s challenge to snag a roster spot all the more difficult.
Depending on the health of starter Brett Anderson, which is always a question with him, Mike Montgomery figures to start off 2017 in the bullpen where he will slide into more of the swingman role like Cahill or Warren rather than the lefty matchup like Wood or Richard. If Montgomery does find a home in the rotation, though, that may open the door for the rule-five selection Smith or last year’s late season discovery Rob Zastryzny to show up as a lefty who can hurl an inning or two.
One way or another, the competition for the last few bullpen spots will be fierce, but understanding what Joe Maddon likes in a pen – especially ground ball elicitation, versatility, and high upside risks – gives a better idea of who may wind up taking the ball from the skipper come the later innings in the 2017 season.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports