As the trade deadline struck on July 31, 2017, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein probably felt terrific. He had checked off every box on his midseason shopping list. Cubs needed to add another starter? Epstein had pulled off a shocking deal to acquire left-hander Jose Quintana from the crosstown White Sox. Cubs were looking to grab a veteran backup catcher to serve as a failsafe for Willson Contreras? Epstein had nabbed Alex Avila, Detroit’s catcher, having a career year at the plate. Finally, the Cubs needed to lengthen the bullpen and take some of the onus off of relievers Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Wade Davis? Epstein picked up one of the most sought-after relievers on the market: Tigers lefty Justin Wilson.
Three holes. Three solid stopgaps. Or so Epstein and Cub fans, alike, believed.
Quintana and Avila provided the Cubs with the reinforcements they anticipated, combining for a total 2.6 WARP in the second half. But Wilson, on the other hand, only added 0.1 WARP in his 23 outings with his new club. With Wilson providing no discernable help, suddenly, a bullpen that had already looked wobbly prior to his acquisition, became one of the critical weaknesses of the NLCS-bound 2017 Chicago Cubs.
Let’s face it: Wilson’s results were bad. With the Cubs, he pitched 17.2 innings with an ERA of 5.09, FIP of 3.74 and DRA of 4.89 (which, frankly, isn’t an atrocious slashline, but in a small, often high-leverage sample size felt even worse than it was). Notably, Wilson was absolutely destroyed by walks with a sky-high 20.9 percent walk rate, coming out to 9.68 BB/9. He had a 2.09 WHIP and a super elevated .391 BABIP against. Things were not pretty during Wilson’s second half.
Now, an important stipulation before we go any further — the purpose of this article is not to pile onto Justin Wilson’s second half struggles. Wilson had a bummer of a stint with the Cubs this season, and it’s hard to imagine how much that must have infuriated him, a guy who had previously been a very solid reliever with three other clubs and who, at the time of his acquisition, was heralded as the missing cog in the Cub bullpen. Your heart breaks for Wilson and you wish him nothing but the best in 2018.
The purpose of this article, though, is to explore the ways in which a productive Wilson could have assisted the Cubs throughout their playoff run. He was acquired to step into a big role for a reason and the sad truth is that Wilson’s underwhelming spell with the Cubs had ramifications that are hard to overstate. Ineffectiveness led the Cubs prized deadline relief acquisition to only get into one game of the NLDS. He was left off the NLCS roster completely. Wilson’s presence, or lack thereof, had tons of further implications for a Cubs bullpen that played such an integral role in both series.
Let’s take a look at some of the situations in which Joe Maddon went to his pen and how an effective Justin Wilson could have potentially changed the game
NLDS Game 2
Situation: With the Cubs leading 3-1 in the 8th inning, having used Pedro Strop in the 7th, Joe Maddon went to Carl Edwards Jr. to start the inning.
Due Up: A pinch hitter (Adam Lind), Trea Turner and Bryce Harper.
What Happened: Lind singled, Turner struck out, Harper homered to tie the score at 3-3. Edwards walked Anthony Rendon and was pulled in favor of Mike Montgomery. Montgomery walked Daniel Murphy and allowed a go-ahead three-run homer to Ryan Zimmerman to give the Nationals a 6-3 lead.
Could Wilson Have Helped: Throughout the season, Edwards had become Joe Maddon’s go-to set up man to deliver the lead to closer Wade Davis. However, though Edwards had shown signs of wildness, he was seldom bombarded with hits, with opponents only hitting to a .132 average against him in the 2017 regular season. Entering him to face a pinch hitter, Turner and Harper wasn’t outrageous, though, an effective lefty could have better combatted Turner, who hit to a dismal 68 wRC+ against lefties, and Harper, who’s good against everyone, but was worse against lefties than righties (110 wRC+ against lefties compared to 173 wRC+ against righties, while slugging .209 lower against left-handed pitching). Based on the splits, Maddon could have used either Montgomery or fellow lefty Brian Duensing out of the gate in the 8th, but neither had fully earned his trust in critical situations like this one. But, if the Cubs had a shutdown left-hander in the good graces of the manager, it’s logical he, not Edwards, would have been handed this inning.
Additionally, once Rendon reached base, it seems plausible that an effective Wilson would have entered at latest to face Daniel Murphy, who, like Harper, hits everyone well but is worse against lefties. Nonetheless, the presence of Ryan Zimmerman, who crushes left-handed pitching, negates any true matchup advantage for a full-inning guy like Wilson or Montgomery.
NLDS Game 3
Situation: With the ballgame tied at 1-1 in the 8th, Carl Edwards Jr. entered, tasked with keeping the game even.
Due Up: Turner, Harper, Rendon
What Happened: Turner grounded out. Harper struck out. Rendon grounded out. Game remained tied for the Cubs to take the lead in the bottom half of the 8th.
Could Wilson Have Helped: Though the result from this one worked, the same logic that could have been used for the Game 2 decision against Turner and Harper holds true here. Turner isn’t good against lefties and Harper is good, not great, against them. The presence of Anthony Rendon, who is excellent against left-handed pitching (.337/.448/.683 line in 2017, 186 wRC+), mucks up the advantage, but that’s what you get when facing a team as balanced as the Nationals.
In his third appearance in three games against the Nats, Edwards wound up throwing 14 pitches. Although he was extremely effective in this outing, it is worth pondering if someone like Wilson should have gotten this inning, or at least the first two batters, to cut down on Edwards’ pitch count and limit the Nationals’ exposure to the Cubs primary set-up man. The fallout from Edwards overuse was made abundantly clear as the wheels really began to fall off his performance in Game 4.
NLDS Game 4
Situation: Cubs trailed 1-0 in the 8th inning. With two outs, Jon Lester, in his fourth inning of relief, allowed a single to Daniel Murphy. With Murphy on first, Maddon gave Edwards another call.
Due Up: Rendon
What Happened: Bad shit. Edwards threw a wild pitch. Rendon walked. Matt Wieters walked. Edwards was pulled mid-batter against Michael A. Taylor in favor of Wade Davis. Taylor deposited a grand slam into the right field basket. Adam Lind singled, Trea Turner walked, Davis was pulled. Brian Duensing eventually got Howie Kendrick to ground out.
Could Wilson Have Helped: Though this is one of the most emblematic innings of the Cubs’ playoff bullpen implosion, it’s not abundantly clear how Wilson could have helped here. Edwards came in to face lefty-crushing Anthony Rendon, Matt Wieters struggled against lefties and righties alike in 2017, and Michael A. Taylor hit lefties well. Aside from Wilson entering to take on Daniel Murphy with two outs, he doesn’t necessarily find a logical spot in this inning.
That said, imagine a scenario where Wilson pitches in the 8th inning of Game 3 and Edwards gets to rest. That leads to a more rested Edwards entering Game 4 and the Nationals having less knowledge on his tools against their hitters. Of course, it’s too hypothetical to say with any certainty that would have been the case, but it is a fair scenario to consider.
NLDS Game 5
Situation: With the Cubs leading the Nationals 9-6 in the 7th inning, Carl Edwards Jr. walked Michael A. Taylor and was immediately pulled and replaced with starter Jose Quintana, pitching out of the bullpen in the elimination game.
Due Up: Jose Lobaton, Turner, Jayson Werth
What Happened: Lobaton flew out. Turner singled. Werth walked. Harper knocked Taylor in with a sacrifice fly. Wade Davis was called upon with two outs to shut the door against Ryan Zimmerman. He did so, but was also tasked with the 8th and 9th innings. Davis closed the game and the series out, but threw 44 pitches in doing so.
Could Wilson Have Helped: Although Taylor was a good hitter against lefties, it’s possible that Joe Maddon would have opted to go with Wilson to take the entire 7th inning on, especially considering Edwards’ unimpressive previous outing. At a minimum, though, an effective Wilson probably sees action once Taylor reaches base, allowing him – not starter Jose Quintana – to face off against Lobaton, Turner and Werth. Quintana’s inability to escape the 7th led to Wade Davis entering early and expending tons of energy to close out the series. With a useful Wilson available in this big situation, Quintana could have been pushed back, allowing for one more reliever to throw before Davis entered as the failsafe.
On top of that, Davis’ overuse in Game 5 had further implications once the Cubs headed to the NLCS. Of course, no bullpen situation was more critical than…
NLCS Game 2
Situation: With the ballgame tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th, Joe Maddon kept Brian Duensing in to start the inning after he had completed a scoreless 8th.
Due Up: Yasiel Puig, Charlie Culberson, Kyle Farmer
What Happened: Puig walked. Culberson sacrificed Puig to second. Farmer struck out. With Chris Taylor coming up, Maddon pulled Duensing in favor of John Lackey. Lackey walked Taylor. Then Justin Turner did Justin Turner things, ending the ballgame.
Could Wilson Have Helped: The logic behind Duensing returning to the mound to start the 9th was probably something like this: Puig’s 2017 line against lefties is ugly (.183/.317/.275 with a 61 wRC+) and Culberson and Farmer had only 33 MLB at bats in 2017 combined. If you were ever going to keep a tired left-handed reliever out for his second inning of work, that’s probably the group of batters you would want him to face.
However, once the lineup turned over to the top of the order with Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, who hit everyone well, all bets were off. Yes, a fresh, good Wilson could have been an option against them, but he probably wouldn’t have been far preferable to Lackey.
The obvious preference would have been to have Wade Davis enter the ballgame in this situation, but as Joe Maddon discussed after the game, Davis was limited to only one inning in Game 2, still recovering from his 44-pitch NLDS Game 5. In this moment, the ramifications of carrying an ineffective reliever and needing Davis that extensively came back to directly bite the Cubs.
What is evident from these examples is Justin Wilson’s effective presence would not have been a stopgap for every bullpen decision during the Cubs’ 2017 playoff run. There are many scenarios where he would not have been the optimal arm out of the pen. But there were also many scenarios where he could have saved innings for other relievers.
Of course, this is an impossible argument to prove. In reality, Wilson was not effective and did not get used in these high-leverage situations. Edwards and Davis had Joe Maddon’s trust and were used in them. But prior to the trade deadline, the front office identified the bullpen as an area of weakness and pulled off one of the bigger deadline deals to acquire Justin Wilson to shore it up. When he was acquired, the plan was for him to take on these critical innings down the stretch and into the playoffs. Unfortunately, his inability to do so left the Cubs bullpen in an even worse position than it was prior to the trade, and, ultimately, cost them multiple games in the playoffs.
Sometimes that happens. Sometimes the prized deadline acquisition just doesn’t get it together. And in that situation, it’s easy to sit back and question why the front office picked up that player at all or didn’t do more. “Why didn’t the Cubs go out and trade for Sean Doolittle/Ryan Madson or David Robertson/Tommy Kahnle?” you may wonder. But, that’s the risk a team takes in making a pickup like this. They may not always pan out and even a front office with as good of a track record as Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer may whiff periodically. In those events, it’s fair to point out the error but still accept that it is a hazard of any major decision.
The Justin Wilson trade may not have paid off in 2017, but with another year on his contract, he still has 2018 to prove that Theo and Jed did not make a mistake in acquiring him as he has tons of potential to get back to being the dominant force he has been at many points throughout his career.
Perhaps next year we’ll find ourselves discussing how Justin Wilson was the most effective member of the bullpen on the Cubs 2018 World Series champion team.
Lead photo courtesy Kim Klement—USA Today Sports