Coming into 2016, the bullpen looked strong. Swingmen Adam Warren and Clayton Richard appeared poised to have great seasons, but then it all came crashing down. Poor performances by both led them to be off the team after the trade deadline, where the Cubs swung for the fences by trading top prospect Gleyber Torres for flamethrowing reliever Aroldis Chapman. The risky move worked, as Chapman and the Cubs won the World Series, even with former closer Hector Rondon and set up man Pedro Strop falling off a cliff performance-wise. Nonetheless, what was a question mark last year is now poised to be a strength, with many situational-specific spots up for grabs.
Even with so many open spots, closer is all but held down. Wade Davis was acquired from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for once-promising OF Jorge Soler, and even though it looks to be only a one-year rental, Davis is among the game’s best closers. With a 1.18 ERA in the last three seasons (tops in the league), he can essentially replace Chapman as the team’s dominant closer. However, a flexor bundle strain sent him to the DL last season, where he wasn’t quite the same after. A staggering 14.40 ERA in Spring Training may be cause for concern, but Joe Maddon said that as long as he looks healthy then the numbers will come back down to normal. If he does stay healthy, Davis should enjoy an easy 30+ save season.
The primary set up man as of now looks to be newcomer Koji Uehara, though that may change if injuries occur. A flyball reliever, Uehara ranked No.1 among relievers with at least 40 IP in FB percent while also staying middle-of-the-pack in home run per flyball rate, a good combination. Though he could reduce his hard contact percentage a bit to further limit opportunities for home runs/extra-base hits, his sub-one WHIP leaves him as a reliable set up man to start the season. The duo of Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop could challenge Uehara down the line, but for now they look to be middle-to-low leverage options, especially Rondon, who has struggled mightily since late last year. Carl Edwards Jr. is a high strikeout guy who’s shoddy walk rate should decrease as he matures. He might replace Travis Wood as the team’s most used arm in the pen.
The team’s middle relievers are above average. Justin Grimm has an impressive 11.11 K/9 IP rate, though he’s among the league leaders in BB/9 IP at 3.93. His 4.10 ERA isn’t indictave of how good he was last year, so expect better numbers in 2017. Mike Montgomery was slated to be the team’s 5th starter, however Brett Anderson locked that up, leaving Montgomery as the main lefty out of the pen. He may start some, especially if Maddon uses a six-man rotation later in the summer, but seeing as how his walk rate was an abysmal 4.70 it may be best to wait and see if he can bring that number down. Like Grimm, his curveball remains his best pitch, so if he can keep the pitch down then expect a sizeable workload and better-than-average results.
One of the biggest questions for the bullpen heading into the 2017 season is if they can survive another season of gaudy walk rates. The pen was sixth in the league with 3.81 free passes per nine IP, and still the team’s historic defense defense allowed them to put up an above average left on base percentage. If the team can once again hover near the bottom of the league in hits and runs given up, the team will win a bunch of games again in 2017.
Our 2017 season predictions: 26-19, 3.65 ERA, 490 K
*Image via Arturo Pardavila III