With Cishek in Tow, Cubs Speed Toward a Complete Bullpen

If you blinked, you might have missed the Cubs completing most of their 2018 bullpen this week. Only days after inking Brandon Morrow to a two-year, $21 million deal with a vesting option, the club reeled in righty-killing, groundball-willing Steve Cishek, who spent parts of 2017 in Seattle and Tampa Bay. With Morrow slotting in as the closer (barring an unexpected re-signing of Wade Davis), Cishek rounds out a unit with Carl Edwards, Jr., Pedro Strop, Justin Wilson, Mike Montgomery, and Justin Grimm.

Early reports are that Cishek’s contract is another two-year deal, worth somewhere between $12 million and $14 million, which begins to close the daylight remaining between the Cubs’ payroll and the luxury tax threshold. As I wrote at length in my Yu Darvish offseason target piece earlier this week, the Cubs had already added $24.5 million in 2018 salaries prior to Cishek’s contract, so Cishek brings them into the $36-38 million range. That… might be just about all the major money the Cubs have to spend this offseason, if they are looking to sneak in under the cap for this season so their penalties when they splurge next winter will be smaller. Estimates pegged the Cubs’ offseason “allowance” before hitting the $197 million mark were between $40 and $50 million.

I outline the greater implications of this signing first because, well, Cishek is a pretty known quantity. He’s a dependable submariner who has excelled in relief every year since his 2010 debut, and he will get the Cubs 45 to 65 innings. The ERAs are sterling, the walk rates are better than average, and the strikeout rates are surprisingly good for a submarine pitcher. The primary attraction, though, is Cishek’s ability to get groundballs. Here are some of the righty’s 2016, 2017, and career numbers.

2016 29.5 8.1 43.9 13.1 2.67
2017 23.6 8.1 56.1 10.0 2.40
Career 25.7 8.8 49.8 7.3 2.84

The numbers are impeccable. Cishek has quietly been a dominant reliever every year except for 2015, and his DRA has been a remarkable 40 to 50 percent better than league average nearly every year. His strikeout and walk rates are relatively static, and have been for years, but even Cishek has experienced an uptick in home runs allowed on his flyballs. Luckily, he limits flyballs. As league walk rates go up, as league home run rates explode, and as we await the coming out party for whatever baseball Rob Manfred and company decide to toss into play for 2018, Cishek’s skills bode well.

Cishek’s role will be closer to that of Koji Uehara’s in 2017, most likely, vying for some eighth innings while often finding sixth- and seventh-inning work. One hopes that Joe Maddon will not use Cishek in a limited role, as Cishek has generally worked complete innings in his career despite being much better versus righties than lefties. This should also help come October, as he offers a steadying hand where the Cubs had previously wanted for consistency. There are no guarantees in the playoffs, and the Cubs bullpen could still walk way too many hitters en route to an early exit in the NLDS, but there’s a modicum of certainty granted with Cishek.

Overall, it’s somewhat comforting that the Cubs signed Cishek, who is unnaturally consistent for a reliever, in tandem with the oft-injured Morrow. No matter what, the Cubs should have a solid back-end of their bullpen in 2018.

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