Bullpens are such an X-factor that it’s no coincidence the Cubs and Indians made it all the way to the World Series by pushing some of the most dominant relievers in the game – Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen.
We saw the way bullpens were used last fall, unleashed as early as the fifth inning, with closers getting more than just three outs. And, of course, some of the biggest postseason backlash centered around Orioles manager Buck Showalter not using elite closer Zack Britton in a wild-card loss.
Even in saying bullpens are unpredictable by nature, just look at how much better this projected Opening Day bullpen appears to be on paper than the one the Cubs put together a year ago:
Carl Edwards Jr.
[PODCAST: The evolution of the Cubs bullpen]
Davis will have two former closers (Uehara and Rondon) setting up in front of him. There’s a potential future closer (Edwards), a middle-innings closer (Grimm), a guy who could probably close for at least half the teams in the majors (Strop) and a lefty who recorded his first career save in a World Series Game 7 (Montgomery).
"When this all shakes out, everybody in that bullpen can be very capable to pitch at almost any time and that's a good thing," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "We have all even or ahead guys, meaning they can all pitch well or effectively when the score is even or when you're ahead.
"There are a lot of guys that are minus guys that pitch much better when you might be way up or trailing by a little bit and then all of a sudden, you see the best side of them. We have all even or ahead guys throughout the bullpen, which hopefully is going to mean we can spread out their workload."
Going off 2016 stats, this group of seven relievers posted a stat line that looks like this: 3.05 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 10.6 K/9 in 341.2 innings.
Those marks would've easily given the Cubs the best bullpen in the big leagues, as the 2016 season leaders in each category had a line of: 3.35 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 10.1 K/9.
"I've been here for five years and I feel like this is one of the best groups we've ever had right now," Rondon said.
Of course, the season is not played on paper and the Cubs will assuredly need to rely on other pitchers outside the season-opening seven.
Rondon is a specific point of concern right now after surrendering four runs in his final spring appearance Thursday night, running his official line to 14.73 ERA, eight hits, six earned runs in eight innings. Couple that with seven hits and five earned runs in 1.2 innings in the World Baseball Classic and you can see why Cubs fans are biting their fingernails with their ex-closer.
But spring numbers are not everything, of course. Rondon had a 12.38 ERA and 2.37 WHIP in spring last year and wound up with a 1.72 ERA and 0.67 WHIP in the regular season before the All-Star break.
The bigger concern here with Rondon is the triceps issue that hampered him in the second half of 2016 and limited his effectiveness in the playoffs, plus his overall medical history. For his part, Rondon has insisted he feels 100 percent this spring and the health issues are in the rearview mirror.
[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]
Even if the struggles persist into the season, the Cubs have enough talent in the bullpen they can afford to let Rondon work through his issues in low-leverage situations.
Maddon and team president Theo Epstein have repeatedly mentioned how the Cubs have enough depth in the back end of the bullpen to allow a rotation of sorts in the closer and setup roles, because it's all about getting to October healthy.
"This bullpen's got some serious power arms," said veteran left-hander Brian Duensing, who will start the season on the disabled list. "It should be a lot of fun."