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How Cubs plan to rebuild their bullpen for next October

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How Cubs plan to rebuild their bullpen for next October

The Cubs saw Andrew Miller’s upside, envisioned how the lefty reliever could dominate late-game situations and checked in with his representatives last year. It quickly became clear where the market would be heading – especially for a last-place team – and the New York Yankees gave Miller a four-year, $36 million deal.    

The entire 2016 season will be a high-leverage situation after the Cubs won 97 games and Kris Bryant (Rookie of the Year), Joe Maddon (Manager of the Year) and Jake Arrieta (Cy Young) just made it a 3-for-3 sweep during awards week.

[RELATED - After winning Cy Young, Arrieta says Cubs would love to have Greinke]

But it’s still hard to see Theo Epstein’s front office paying top dollar to rebuild a bullpen that helped the Cubs advance to the National League Championship Series.

The Cubs are looking to get creative at a time when they have more pressing needs and the asking price for Darren O’Day, the top reliever on the market, is a four-year deal in the range of $28 million to $36 million, according to Fox Sports.

The blueprint appears to be the one-year deal for Andury Acevedo announced on Thursday, signing a hard-throwing right-hander who had spent the last four seasons in the Yankees system, reaching the Triple-A level for the first time in August.      

The Cubs also claimed lefty reliever Jack Leathersich off waivers from the New York Mets. During his minor-league career, he put up 356 strikeouts in 210-plus innings. He debuted with the Mets this year and underwent Tommy John surgery in late July.

“Adding to the bullpen – including possibly investing in a salaried reliever – is on the list of things that we would like to do to improve the club,” Epstein said. “But you have to prioritize, too. We’re not going to be able to accomplish everything that we want to do this winter. We just don’t have the means to do it all. No club really does, so we have to prioritize.

“It just happens to be a poor supply/demand dynamic this year for free-agent relievers, so I don’t necessarily think we’re going to talk our way into a really reasonable contract for a reliever. We’ll see. Especially considering that we really prefer to allocate the resources that we have to starting pitching and some other areas.”

[MORE: Maddon ready to help Cubs recruit free agents]

Acevedo will be another project for Maddon and coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode. The Cubs have their pitching infrastructure in place and will see what it can do for Acevedo, who’s 25 years old and listed at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds.

Acevedo originally signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007 as an infielder out of the Dominican Republic. He switched to pitching in 2012 and made it through three levels of the Yankees system this year.

Acevedo’s Florida State League All-Star selection in 2015 doesn’t compare to what O’Day did for the Baltimore Orioles across the last four seasons (23-8, 1.92 ERA, 0.939 WHIP).         

But the Cubs once struck gold in the Rule 5 draft and found a future 30-save closer in Hector Rondon. And when the Cubs bought Clayton Richard out of Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate for one dollar, no one expected the lefty to make six scoreless appearances in the playoffs.

The hope is Neil Ramirez will come back at full strength after throwing only 14 innings in the big leagues this year. The reality is that Trevor Cahill – an under-the-radar minor-league signing in August – might have priced himself out of Chicago with all that exposure in October.

Throwing money at the bullpen isn’t necessarily the answer. Kyuji Fujikawa and Jose Veras were two big misses for the Epstein administration, the Cubs wasting almost $14 million on two closers who saved two games combined. 

At the same time, thoughts about the bullpen have evolved, the Kansas City Royals showing what a lockdown bullpen means in October by winning a 2014 American League pennant and this year’s World Series.

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“By no means are we going to ignore the ‘pen,” Epstein said. “I just think we may look to add talent (through) some of the routes that we’ve used in the past to find quality relievers – the Rule 5 draft, minor-league free agency, smaller trades, buy-low scenarios.

“That might be more likely than investing a reliever, even though we’d be open to it. It was one of the things we talked about all year: ‘Hey, this might be a good offseason to invest in a reliever.’ But the reality is we can’t do that and preclude a shot at the starter that we need.”    

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.