Righty reliever Jeremy Jeffress was one of the Cubs’ two guaranteed signings this winter, inking an $850,000 deal that makes him the highest-priced addition to a bullpen that looks like it was cobbled together in a consignment shop. That isn’t necessarily a critique, though, especially if a few things break the right way. Or, you know, don’t break at all.
That means towering righty Trevor Megill getting comfortable with the spike-curve grip and having lefty Brad Wieck recover successfully from a recent heart ablation procedure. Brandon Morrow getting and staying healthy is too much to ask for at this point, but Craig Kimbrel doing so is a must. Then it’s a matter of actually getting the game to Kimbrel, which is where Jeffress comes in.
Once an All-Star reliever for the Brewers, the 32-year-old really showed his age during a 2019 campaign in which he logged his fewest appearances (48) and innings (52) since 2014. His velocity was down, but his 2.94 BB/9 mark was a little lower than usual and his 3.96 FIP was significantly better than his unsightly 5.02 ERA. The results weren’t great, but maybe his performance wasn’t as bad as it appeared on the surface.
Significant reductions in velocity and effectiveness often result from injury, which in Jeffress’ case was a nagging hip problem. He didn’t report pain until the middle of August, but it was already too late by then and he was DFA’d by the Brewers on September 1. As Cubs fans saw with Steve Cishek throughout the second half of 2019, lingering hip pain can really dampen a pitcher’s performance.
After taking some time to relax and heal up, both the Cubs and their new reliever feel good about what he can do when healthy. He threw a scoreless inning in Friday’s loss to the Padres, allowing a hit with no walks and no strikeouts in his Cubs debut.
“I feel great,” Jeffress said after the game. “Body weight’s where it needs to be. My hip injury last year is fully healed. Like I said, I felt great out there, no problems with it, and I think I’m where I need to be.”
Jeffress after scoreless spring debut pic.twitter.com/PJ6luuXAwz
— Gordon Wittenmyer (@GDubMLB) February 29, 2020
Spring games are weird because you’ve got high-leverage relievers entering games early in order to get their work in against what might not even be an MLB lineup. Even so, it’s good to start building a rhythm and getting a feel for game action. The dynamics will obviously change as the Cactus League wears on, but a lot of the work is taking place behind the scenes.
Just as the position players are working on holding each other more accountable, members of the relief corps want to make sure they’re no longer the weak link. After a season in which the bullpen caused much consternation, the relievers are working as a unit to be better.
“The whole bullpen is trying to band together, make sure our routines are good so we can come out firing,” Jeffress said. “So they can come to us whenever they need us. If we do that, want the ball every day, we’ll all band together and it’ll be good.
Spotty Chatwood battles
Jeffess came on in relief of Tyler Chatwood, who is targeted to return to the rotation after spending 2019 figuring some things out in the ‘pen. The very nature of his high-spin stuff means that he’s not going to struggle with consistency at times, perhaps more than most, but simplifying his mechanics should smooth things out this season.
Chatwood pitched two innings Friday night, walking two and striking out two more while giving up a long home run on a mistake pitch. Overall, though, it was a solid effort that saw him grind away with lest than his best stuff.
“It was spotty,” Chatwood told reporters after his two innings of work. “Felt good physically, fighting myself a little bit, but that’s their A lineup [and] I got through it. The homer, I’ve been working on a back-door cutter, so I’ve been trying to keep it out there. Obviously I didn’t throw that one where I wanted. Bad pitch, but other than that I thought I battled well and got through it.
“I had to resort to my changeup and got a lot of bad swings and weak contact.”