Hey, who else knew it was Jeremiah Estrada Appreciation Day? I was only made aware of it well after doing the research to find out the rookie was responsible for both of the Cubs’ league-worst two swinging or called strikes on pitches of 98 mph or greater last year. Estrada hasn’t had an easy journey so far, but he does have the best fastball on the staff and should be in line for plenty of high-leverage innings this season.
In fact, Eno Sarris of The Athletic is willing to bet “Dollars to doughnuts he’s the closer by the end of the year if not April.” That claim came in Sarris’s fantasy primer on closers, but don’t go thinking this is just about winning fake games. Estrada was listed among the best sleeper closers in baseball due to having the best Pitching+ rating among a group of unheralded or post-prime relievers.
Sarris leaned more heavily on the Stuff+ factor than Location+ because the former is “stickier year to year,” and Estrada’s 137 was tops there as well. In fact, that score puts the 24-year-old right up there with the likes of stud closers Felix Bautista (142), Ryan Pressly (142), and Edwin Diaz (140). When you narrow things down to just four-seam fastballs, Estrada is tied for sixth in all MLB with a 144.
The man he’s tied with: Jacob deGrom.
You could see Estrada had something special after a debut outing in Toronto in which he struck out two of the four batters he faced. Out of the 40 pitchers who had thrown at least one fastball greater than 98 mph with at least 20.4 inches of vertical break, only 15 had thrown more than Estrada. And that was after he threw only 12 total fastballs in a single appearance.
It may seem a little presumptuous to project a guy who’s only made five big-league appearances as the closer, but Estrada definitely has the stuff to do it. He isn’t the only dark horse on the roster, though, as the Cubs have another highly-ranked sleeper in their midst. Righty Julian Merryweather, who was picked up from the Blue Jays recently, has a very lively fastball and a 121 Stuff+ mark with a 105 in the Pitching+ department.
Some of you might be tired of hearing about it already, but this Cubs team might actually be sneaky-good with just a little good fortune. They’ve always done a good job of cobbling bullpens together and now they’re starting to get some homegrown hurlers with legit filth, plus there’s a chance for Cody Bellinger to be legit again. Pair that with improved defense and what appears in the early going to be great chemistry and you’ve got a team that should be pretty fun to follow.