Position: Relief Pitcher, Occasional Worm

2018 Stats: 2.60 ERA, 2.89 FIP, 4.39 DRA, 1.31 WHIP, .227 TAv, 0.3 WARP

Year In Review:

We know about the Cubs struggle to develop pitching, but if you consider the Spokane Indians part of the Cubs farm system, it’s much less of a problem: the Rangers affiliate rostered both Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards, Jr.

Since coming over in the good Matt Garza trade, Edwards has been a crucial piece in the back of the Cubs bullpen. His career-best ERA of 2.60 came last year, but that was largely powered by an absolutely ridiculous first quarter of the year. As of May 8, he had pitched 17 innings, struck out 30 (!), only allowing seven hits and eight walks. That led to an ERA of 0.53, and a WHIP of 0.50. A quarter into the year, Carl Edwards was the best reliever in baseball.

For various reasons, that’s probably not what you remember. For one thing, that was a long time ago. Do you even remember May 8th? Back then, Tyler Chatwood had a 3.31 ERA through six starts, Melania launched her “Be Best” campaign, ending bullying forever, and there were three remaining Blockbuster video locations. I can’t decide which makes me feel older.

After May 8, Edwards gave up seven runs in his next three starts…before going on another extended run of success and reeling off nine straight scoreless outings. That has been CJ in a nutshell: dominance, completely losing it, dominance, sometimes even within an outing.

You can also look to the three games when he completely lost it, and see that to that point, he had pitched in exactly half of his previous 32 games. That’s a slightly-above-Cishek pace. Joe Maddon has a tendency to have a small circle of trust with a bullpen (understandable!) but it is possible that with Edwards and Morrow, he just wasn’t careful enough. Edwards missed all of June with shoulder soreness.

CJ’s fastball was down a bit last year overall (94.5 from 95.2 in the previous two), and it was significantly down toward the end of the season. He experienced forearm tightness that led to his being left off the roster for the Wild Card game, and it’s clear he just wasn’t right at the end of the year. In his final 10.2 innings pitched, he walked 13. That’s not the real Carl Edwards.

This makes it all the more important to make sure the coaching staff, and the Cubs health and training staff (who took a giant F on the year, for the handling of Darvish alone) stay on the same page about not overworking those pitchers. It also makes it important, in my opinion, to sign the rubber-armed “Cubs or nothing” Jesse Chavez back, yesterday.

Edwards walked a ton more at the end of the year, but overall the batted ball data stayed in line with previous years except for one thing: the launch angle he gave up went from 11.8% in 2017 to 18.8% last year. Launch angle across the league has been trending up, but not by that much, so that’s something for (insert new pitching coach here) to look into.

Looking Ahead:

Carl Edwards should be around for a while. MLB Trade Rumors estimates he’ll make $1.4 million in this, his first arbitration year (a measurement unofficially known as a “Half-Duensing”), and he won’t be a free agent until 2023.

This is good news, because Carl Edwards rules. Sure, he’s a double-plus bullpen dancer, an 80-grade big-out-celebrator (only Strop is in his league when it comes to fist pumping/yelling), and whenever he has to deal with nonsense, he has the sense to push it to the side in favor of seeing the dinosaur museums. But he also has a talent ceiling that matches or exceeds anyone in the Cubs pen, and he’s put those results on paper. If he can stay healthy and add a touch more consistency, we’re talking about an elite closer, no matter what inning he actually pitches in.

Theo Epstein laid out his goals for Edwards while talking to Patrick Mooney for the Athletic, and one part stood out to me: “If it’s not going to be a protected role, he needs to be really strong physically to get through the whole year.” That makes me think that the Cubs are asking for (the naturally skinny) Edwards to get a little stronger, but it also hints at considering a “protected” role for him, in the vein of Morrow, with strict usage rules.

You have to keep Edwards healthy, and maybe he is made for more of a Craig Kimbrel-like workload, with around 60-65 one-inning appearances. (For reference, he appeared in 73 in 2017, and 58 last year even while missing significant time.) That’s fine, but you can only have so many relievers in your bullpen with strict protections before Cishek literally pitches every game.

Besides health, the other thing Edwards needs to reach his absolute ceiling is to find a way to keep his non-dominant outings from spinning out of control. It’s a mix of mechanical consistency and, as Theo put it, “locking in his mental game.” He’s incredibly hard to hit when he’s on and healthy, but when he doesn’t have it, you can tell fairly quickly (don’t watch this).

In terms of pitch mix, Edwards threw his fastball five percent more than he did in 2017, so maybe a return to previous pitch selection is in order. But really, when you have the elite spin that this pitcher has on a fantastic cutting fastball, and an absolutely stupid curveball, it’s probably less about pitch selection and more about staying healthy, and finding at least reasonable command. If he can do that, maybe Carl will be able to make another offseason visit to the Smithsonian — excuse me, the Dinosaur Museum.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports


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