Koji Uehara

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018


How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

We have officially reached a Bullpen Revolution.

Never before in baseball history have relievers carried so much weight and importance as starting pitchers are being pulled earlier and earlier in games.

We see it in the slow winter, where even guys who aren't being signed as closers are still earning $7 or $8 million a season and being inked to multiyear deals.  

Meanwhile, the largest contract given out to a starting pitcher (as of this writing) is still the Cubs' three-year, $38 million pact with Tyler Chatwood.

"The money is shifting to the bullpen and teams are building super-bullpens," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the Cubs Convention inside the Sheraton Grand Chicago earlier this month. "A lot of organizations are not expecting their starters to go deep into games anymore. 

"The pendulum swang a little bit too far in that direction, because if you're constantly pulling your starter before tehy face the order a third time, it puts a tremendous burden on your bullpen throughout the course of the regular season."

The Cubs saw that last fall, when their relievers experienced a prolonged drought of inconsistency and instability.

From the morning of Sept. 1 through the end of the postseason, the Cubs bullpen ranked 17th in baseball with a 4.38 ERA. Among playoff teams, only the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers had worse marks and keep in mind, those numbers are skewed because both World Series teams saw bullpen implosions constantly throughout the seven-game Fall Classic.

Yet in the first half of the season, the Cubs posted the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.26 ERA), second to only the Dodgers (2.99) among National League teams.

"Our bullpen, I think, got a bit over maligned by the end of the year," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I think they were [out of gas]. Throughout the year, we could not throw enough strikes. That was almost like a disease that ran through our bullpen.

"Guys had their career worst strike-throwing years. But overall, I think our bullpen was better than it looked at the end of the year. We have a lot of really good relievers in that bullpen that are gonna throw well for us."

In that same stretch from Sept. 1 onward, the Cubs were second only to the woeful Cincinnati Reds bullpen in walks per nine innings. On the season as a whole, Cubs relievers tied with the New York Mets for the second-highest BB/9 mark.

Hoyer is right: The Cubs featured a bunch of guys with their worst walk rates ever.

Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Koji Uehara and Justin Wilson all either approached or set new career highs in BB/9. The only relief pitcher who turned in a quality strike-throwing season was Brian Duensing, which is part of the reason why the Cubs re-signed the veteran southpaw to a two-year deal last week.

So how do the Cubs fix that issue?

For one, they're hoping the change in pitching coaches — from Chris Bosio to Jim Hickey — will do the trick. Bosio is one of the most highly-respected pitching coaches in the game, but for whatever reason, oversaw that alarming increase in relief walks. A new voice and message could be enough to effect change.

Beyond that, the Cubs placed an emphasis on strike-throwing as they remade their bullpen this winter. 

Gone are Davis, Rondon and Uehara and in their stead are Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, two veterans who are adept at throwing strikes. Morrow ranked 18th in baseball last season in BB/9 (1.85) among relievers who threw at least 40 innings. That's a big part of the reason why the Cubs are so confident in Morrow's ability to close, even though he has just 18 career saves only two of which have come in this decade.

The Cubs are counting on a return to form from Justin Wilson, who walked just 37 batters in 119.2 innings from 2015-16 before doling out 19 free passes in 18.1 innings in a Cubs uniform last year.

Last season, manager Joe Maddon felt Edwards was getting too fine at points and trying to nibble to avoid getting hit hard, which led to an uptick in walks. But because the young flamethrower has such dynamic stuff, even if he lives in the strike zone, he should still find — Edwards has allowed just 44 hits in 102.1 innings the last two seasons.

The Cubs are also woke to the importance of keeping relievers fresh down the stretch.

The proof was in the pudding last postseason when all bullpens were "fried," Epstein said, especially by the time the World Series rolled around.

"We need to strike a balance," Epstein said. "We as an organization still put a lot of value on starting pitchers and starters' abilities to get through the order a third time because it really works in the long run — it allows your bullpen to stay fresher throughout the six months of the season."

The Cubs don't intend to wear out any pitcher, whether it's a reliever with a checkered injury history (Morrow), a starter getting up there in age (Jon Lester) or anybody else who takes the hill for the team in 2018.

The idea is to have the entire pitching staff strong and hitting their stride as October approaches.

But even with the weight placed on bullpens — especially in October — the Cubs know they still need more starting pitching depth because bullpens are so volatile.

"There's definitely a shifting dynamic in the game where there's increased importance on the 'pen and slightly less on the rotation because more innings are shifting to the bullpen," Epstein said at the MLB Winter Meetings last month. "But there's a contradictory dynamic which is relievers are a lot less predictable than starters.

"So if you react to the first dynamic that I described and put all your resources into the 'pen and then you end up becoming the victim of unpredictability, then you're in a really tough spot."

The Cubs are a perfect fit for Shohei Ohtani


The Cubs are a perfect fit for Shohei Ohtani

Let's get a disclaimer out of the way first: Every single team in baseball is a fit for Shohei Ohtani.

Who wouldn't want a 23-year-old pitcher who can touch triple digits with his fastball, provide quality at-bats (and power) from the left side and only costs a few million of payroll (plus a $20 million posting fee)?

But the Cubs may be the best fit in Major League Baseball for the young Japanese phenom.

Because the money is so reasonable — Ohtani could've made hundreds of millions and would've incited a bidding war unlike anything we've seen if he waited to be posted until he turned 25 — dollar signs aren't going to sway his decision in choosing where he spends the next few years of his life.

Which is something he acknowledged in Jorge L. Ortiz's article at USA TODAY earlier this week:

Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, asked teams not to submit financial terms. More significantly, restrictions on international signings will limit Ohtani’s bonus to a maximum of about $3.5 million, depending on the club he chooses, and allow him to sign only a minor-league deal.

That makes him affordable to all teams, although they would also have to put up a posting fee of $20 million for the right to negotiate with him.

The letter asks the teams to provide information, in English and Japanese, on matters such as their player-development and medical staffs, their facilities, resources to ease Ohtani’s assimilation and the desirability of the franchise, city and marketplace. It also requests the clubs’ evaluation of Ohtani as a hitter and/or pitcher.

Let's start with player development and medical staffs — the Cubs have done a remarkable job of keeping pitchers healthy over the last few seasons even as they've played far more games than anybody else in baseball (though it will be interesting to see if that health continues with pitching coach Chris Bosio gone). The Cubs also have arguably the best young core in the game, so player development is a serious check in the Cubs' favor.

The Cubs' facilities are also top-notch in spring training and now in Chicago as well with the two-year-old state-of-the-art clubhouse and utilities.

Players have also raved recently about how the Cubs organization takes care of the players and their families off the field, treating them as more than just assets and making everybody in the player's family feel comfortable. Under Theo Epstein's regime, the Cubs have hosted a handful of Japanese players — Kyuji Fujikawa, Tsyoshi Wada, Munenori Kawasaki and most recently Koji Uehara — and the young clubhouse has created and environment of acceptance, regardless of background.

It doesn't get much more desirable than Chicago in the summer (I'm biased as a Chicago native, of course) plus historic Wrigley Field, a franchise with title expectations every season and a young core that should be competing in October every fall for the next few years. Only New York or Los Angeles could offer more in terms of a market than Chicago.

The Cubs front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff are also very open-minded to bucking conventions, so they should have no problem with Ohtani playing both ways.

What manager would be better at maximizing Ohtani's two-way abilities than Maddon? He's always looking for the next "Madd Scientist" experiment to go against the grain.

The Cubs need a starting pitcher and if they trade from their core of young position players this winter, that would open up some playing time in the outfield for Ohtani.

Conceivably, the Cubs could pitch Ohtani on a Monday, sit him on Tuesday, start him Wednesday or Thursday or both in the outfield, then sit him again Friday and have him take his regular turn in the rotation Saturday. On his days off, Ohtani could also be utilized as a bat off the bench at the most opportune time late in a game.

Ohtani will have his choice of where he wants to play, but the Cubs certainly appear to check all the boxes.

Projecting the 2017 Cubs' 25-man playoff roster

Projecting the 2017 Cubs' 25-man playoff roster

Now that the Cubs have locked up the National League Central, the attention has turned to the postseason.

The Cubs will head to Washington D.C. for a date with Bryce Harper and the Nationals in the National League Division Series beginning Oct. 6.

There are still a couple question marks regarding health and effectiveness on several players, but here's how the Cubs' 25-man roster could look for that NLDS showdown.

Note: This isn't a projection of a lineup for Game 1 of the NLDS. I don't envy Maddon deciding which three outfielders to sit each night (assuming Javy Baez and Addison Russell are set at middle infield).


Willson Contreras
Alex Avila

This is an easy call. Contreras figures to start every postseason game he's healthy for with his unique blend of arm strength to control the running game, energy and offensive prowess. Avila is a steady veteran who would be the starting catcher on the roster of almost every other playoff team, but instead will contribute off the bench as a left-handed bat and clubhouse presence.


Anthony Rizzo
Javy Baez
Addison Russell
Kris Bryant
Tommy La Stella

Not including Ben Zobrist or Ian Happ here because the assumption is Baez takes over at second base with Russell at short for every postseason game (and possibly every inning in October). That's how things ended up last fall as Baez emerged as a national star while starting all 17 playoff games at second base and displacing Zobrist from the infield to the outfield.

Of course, Rizzo and Bryant will start every single playoff game at the corners (with good health).


Ben Zobrist
Kyle Schwarber
Albert Almora Jr.
Jason Heyward
Jon Jay
Ian Happ

This is where Maddon will make his money. There's a legitimate shot for all six guys to start each game, yet clearly that won't happen. Does Zobrist deserve to start every game? Maddon has turned him into a part-time player at age 36 and Zobrist is hitting just .238 with a .705 OPS.

Against left-handed starting pitchers (like Washington's Gio Gonzalez), Schwarber will not start and Almora (if he's fully over his recent shoulder issue) almost assuredly will man center. Will Jason Heyward also sit vs. LHPs, leaving an OF of Happ-Almora-Zobrist left-to-right? Heyward has been only slightly better offensively this season (.707 OPS) compared to 2016 (.631 OPS), but is the best defensive outfielder in the game.

How much will Schwarber play? We know he'll sit against all LHPs, but he's also only been starting sparingly against RHPs in important games down the stretch despite 5 HR and a .970 OPS in 46 September at-bats.


Jake Arrieta
Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana

I tell you what, I would not want to be the person who has to tell John Lackey he's not going to make the playoff rotation. But if all of these guys are healthy, I don't see how Lackey makes the cut, even if he does have a 2.51 ERA in 28.2 September innings and 26 career playoff outings under his belt.

Lester took a step forward Monday after a startling stretch of ineffectiveness (5.91 ERA, .948 OPS against in four starts between Sept. 2-20). He has one more start to continue to right the ship but regardless of the outcome in that game, Cubs have to feel pretty good about a guy with a 2.63 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 133.2 career postseason innings.

The only true question with the rotation comes in how they line up. While Lester has been struggling, Arrieta has picked up where he left off pre-hamstring injury, Kyle Hendricks has been a stud and Jose Quintana just pitched the game of his life over the weekend to neutralize the Brewers.

My bet is Arrieta and Hendricks Games 1 and 2 in D.C. and then Lester in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Quintana would go Game 4 assuming there is no sweep.


Wade Davis
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Pedro Strop
Brian Duensing
Hector Rondon
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm

Here's where things get a bit hazy, as well. With Koji Uehara still unable to get past a knee and back injury, he's essentially out of the mix. Rondon is also nursing a sore elbow, but has thrown 2.1 dominant innings over the last week and hasn't allowed a run since Aug. 23. 

Wilson has been an enigma since coming over from the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline, going from one of the elite late-inning options in baseball to a guy who has allowed 35 baserunners in 15.2 innings in a Cubs uniform. But he's done it before and he did have an outing over the weekend that was encouraging, retiring all four Brewers he faced, including three strikeouts. Then there was Tuesday, when Wilson walked the only two batters he faced against the Cardinals and was removed in the middle of an at-bat.

There's also the Justin Grimm factor. He's got a 5.57 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 48 appearances, but the Cubs don't really have any other trustworthy options in the 'pen and the worst thing a team could do in October is somehow wind up without enough pitching if a game extends to extra innings or a pitcher is only used for one hitter. Over the last three years, Grimm has held lefties to a .597 OPS against and did make six appearances last October.

If not Grimm for the 25th man on the roster, the Cubs do have the option of keeping an extra position player, but nobody really stands out right now. 

Leonys Martin could be a pinch-runner, but the roster has plenty of left-handed bats and outfielders as it stands, so Martin doesn't hold a ton of value. Victor Caratini can catch or play first/third base, but he's a rookie in his first MLB season and has hit just .240 with a .681 OPS in 56 plate appearances. Rene Rivera is a wily veteran who can do some damage against left-handed pitchers, but do the Cubs really need a third catcher in the postseason?