Pen Pals: Will the Cubs’ Relief Corps Be Something to Write Home About or Just Something to Write Off?

One of the best facets of the increased presence of alternative media is the turning over of stones that might never have otherwise been looked under. At the same time, one of the downfalls of having more writers than angles is the increased potential to pick up an examine a rock that’s still warm from the appraisal of another. As such, I feel beholden to you, dear reader, to make a fair attempt to peruse the milieu into which I’ve thrown myself in order that I don’t simply put new tread marks on still-fresh footprints.

That’s not to say it’s my duty or desire to shy from topics a colleague has already covered, but that my responsibility lies in finding a different angle or in telling a story from a different perspective. That is, after all, what we are: storytellers. Some may speak better with metrics and pragmatism while others favor humor and sarcasm, but we all — even the beat writers who perhaps only reluctantly fall under the umbrella I’ve just opened — take pleasure in presenting to the reader a combination of words that entertain and inform. Or, at least, we should.

All that said, I was a bit worried when I set about putting together a too-early assessment of the Cubs bullpen only to find that Rian Watt was planning the same for BP Wrigleyville. I’m not often one to gush, but Rian’s work is among the most impressive I’ve seen beyond my own. In all seriousness, he’s gone from off-the-radar to on the map, both a product of and reason for BPW’s rapid ascent. As far as stone-turners go, Watt’s what’s up.

What I realized after reading his piece on the construction of the Cubs bullpen is that he’d actually done a lot of my work for me. Truth be told, I think some of our conclusions might even be the same, but Rian’s heavy lifting allowed me to jump straight into the meat of my own observations. While I must highly recommend clicking the link and reading the full text, I’ve included an excerpt below to sort of set the stage a bit.

In 2015, 22 different players made at least one appearance in relief for the Chicago Cubs. They are:

Trevor Cahill, Phil Coke, Chris Denorfia, Carl Edwards, Jr., Gonzalez Germen, Justin Grimm, Tommy Hunter, Edwin Jackson, Yoervis Medina, Jason Motte, Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Fernando Rodney, Hector Rondon, David Ross, Zac Rosscup, James Russell, Brian Schlitter, Rafael Soriano, Pedro Strop, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Travis Wood.

Of those players, Germen (Rockies), Medina (Pirates), Motte (Rockies), Russell (Phillies), Schlitter (Rockies), and Wada (NPB) have already left Chicago for other homes via free agency or trade. Coke, Hunter, Jackson, Rodney, and Soriano remain unsigned, but appear unlikely to rejoin the Cubs unless on incentive-laden or split contracts, which we won’t know about for a few months and which needn’t meaningfully affect our analysis for the moment. And Denorfia and Ross—despite their myriad talents—can be safely removed from consideration for meaningful bullpen roles in 2016.

That narrows the list of returning 2015 relievers to just nine names, with my estimates of their 2016 salaries in parentheses (those’ll become relevant later):

Cahill ($4.3 mm), Edwards ($0.5), Grimm ($1.2), Ramirez ($0.5), Richard ($2.0), Rondon ($1.2), Rosscup ($0.5), Strop ($3.5), and Wood ($6.0).

As a group, those nine players will be paid approximately $20 million in 2016, though Grimm, Rondon, Strop, and Wood are arbitration-eligible and might be paid in excess of my expectations, pushing the total up somewhat. Cahill and Richard, for their parts, are on contracts whose values are known, and Edwards, Ramirez, and Rosscup will make the major-league minimum or close to it next year.

To that collection, all of whose members have spots on the 40-man roster, the Cubs have rostered the following six relievers or potential relievers this offseason:

Andury Acevedo ($0.5 mm, if MLB), Rex Brothers ($1.4), Pierce Johnson ($0.5, if MLB), Edgar Olmos ($0.5), Spencer Patton ($0.5), and Adam Warren ($1.2).*

All of which brings the Cubs’ bullpen commitment in 2016 (so far) to 15 players and approximately $25 million. Except, there’s no way that the Cubs are bringing 15 relievers with them to Anaheim for Opening Day. Last year, the Cubs spent the better part of their season with eight relievers on the roster. Given their flexibility on the positional side in 2016, I’d imagine that they’ll continue that practice going forward. Of course, they might not. But for now, I’m comfortable working with eight bullpen spots.

Watt goes on to lay out some of the scenarios, including option years and contract statuses, all of which will certainly factor heavily in the group the Cubs break camp with. I’m not big on speculation, but I can’t find fault in the logic employed in determining that the Cubs likely head to Anaheim with Cahill, Richard, Warren, Wood, Grimm, Brothers, Rondon, and Strop. I’m tempted to add Carl Edwards to the mix, though the fact that he’s got options remaining makes him a prime candidate to hone his craft at Iowa.

I could also see the Cubs going with a smaller number of position players due to the positional flexibility of guys like Javy Baez and Ben Zobrist, which could mean room for one of Rosscup, Ramirez, or Olmos. Given that all are out of options, it’s pretty much do-or-die for them, at least as far as pitching for the Cubs is concerned. My crystal ball is on the fritz, so I can’t give you any sort of prediction as to the outcome, but that’s not really the point I’m driving toward anyway.

What I’ve been impressed with, and what I believe will be the strength of the Cubs’ ‘pen in 2016, is the way they have built it around former starters. That’s not really anything new or unique, but it is at least interesting to note that the bullpen sort of mimics the lineup in terms of its interchangeable parts. That also bodes well for support of the starting rotation on two fronts in particular.

Heading into the offseason, Jed Hoyer made mention of a desire to bolster the starting rotation, though the Cubs did little major renovation to that wing of the house. Aside from signing John Lackey replace Dan Haren and [Insert 5th starter here], the Cubs will head into the new season with 80% of the 2015 rotation intact. So I guess this is the point where I throw a little nanny-nanny-boo-boo back at my buddy Cork Gaines¹, but he’s too busy throwing stones from his glass house to care.

When Hoyer talked about improving the rotation, most of us assumed that meant going out and signing/trading for a couple of arms. Admittedly, the latter could still happen, but let’s assume they’re done. While the Cubs didn’t acquire another immediate candidate for the rotation, the entire front line of the bullpen is easily capable of being pressed into starting duty should the need arise. Whether it’s due to injury or poor performance, Wood, Cahill, Richard, and Warren are all capable of taking the bump every 5th day.

And even if all breaks well and every one of the Cubs starters remains in good health, not every start is going to be a good one. You’ve also got the very real possibility that the guys at the back end of the rotation (I’m going with Hammel and Hendricks taking those two spots) will struggle to go deep into games, particularly as the season wears on. Add to that the increasing credibility of the concept that having starters throw to fewer batters is a good thing² and you’ve got a recipe that calls for a heaping helping of swingmen.

No one’s going to say that plugging Clayton Richard into the rotation for Jake Arrieta isn’t a huge drop-off, but the Cubs have done an excellent job of using their ‘pen to insulate their rotation. Likewise, they’ve judiciously stockpiled several arms that afford leeway in terms of both options and payroll. To that end, they’ve insulated the big-league ‘pen with what will be Iowa’s relief corps.

We’re not talking about a collection of lights-out guys who could suddenly morph into the Royals, but this isn’t a group of derelicts either. The Cubs know, for the most part anyway, what they can expect from the characters who make up the front end of the pen. Things get perhaps a bit more dicey when you get into the late-inning combo of Strop and Rondon, pitchers with electric stuff and personalities to match. It’s easy to see either or both of those men swinging between abject failure and unhittable filthiness, sometimes in the same inning, but I tend to lean toward a more positive outlook.

So is this unit perfect? No, far from it. But the way the bullpen has been constructed allows the Cubs to meet a variety of different needs that could crop up during the course of a long season, and to do so without having to drastically change course. As strange as it sounds, the strength of this ‘pen is in the fact that it’s not a weakness. But isn’t just some collectively anthropomorphized lump of bubblegum and twine here, these guys are straight-up duct tape. Or something like that. What was I talking about?

I really do like how things set up for the Cubs in 2016 though. As much as we like to romanticize the really great players and play potential as a trump card, there’s something to be said for players who just go out and perform their duties. The ceiling may not be too high on these ‘pen men, but I don’t think the floor is too low either. And with a stronger rotation and a more powerful offense, I don’t think this group is going to mopping too many floors.


¹ If you haven’t already clicked the link, it’s to a piece in which I shredded an article Gaines had written about the Cubs’ realization of a fatal flaw in their rebuilding plan. While I was perhaps a little harsh in my criticism, I have looked back on it a couple times and stand by everything I wrote. While I never actually tagged Mr. Gaines on Twitter, he searched his name and found my post, though I didn’t find that out until much later. He summarily blocked me and then tweeted me months later with a quote from Hoyer regarding the team’s need for pitching. I’d like to spend some time breaking down just how petty and childish that move was, but then I’d be no better than him.

² Oddly enough, this is from another Gaines piece. I took issues with some of the assumptions he makes, but the concept is sound at its core.


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