Like their season as a whole, the Cubs bullpen was quite the enigma in 2019.
This season, Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA (No. 8 in MLB) and a .234 batting average against (No. 6 in MLB). On a surface level, that appears good.
But those numbers lose value when paired with what the Cubs bullpen did in high leverage situations: 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB), 15 home runs allowed (tied for No. 22), 61 walks (No. 29) and a .380 on-base percentage (No. 27). The bullpen also blew 28 saves (sixth-most in MLB) and converted just 57.58 percent of their opportunities (No. 22 in MLB).
Essentially, Cubs relievers weren't good enough when it mattered most in 2019. As a result, Theo Epstein and Co. know that they must address the relief corps during the offseason, one where they’re open-minded about changing up the roster..
“It was a real interesting year in the pen,” Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. “Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor [to the Cubs missing the postseason].
“We had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined one and two run games. Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for.”
Signing closer Craig Kimbrel was supposed to alleviate some of the early-season bullpen woes, but he also struggled, finishing the season with a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances. He'll be back in 2020, and Epstein believes a full spring training will go a long way for his closer.
Where does the rest of the bullpen stand heading into 2020, though?
Brandon Kintzler proved his value to the Cubs in 2019, but he’s set to hit free agency after the postseason. Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop have been two of the team's more reliable relievers in recent seasons, but they also will hit free agency.
The Cubs are unlikely to pick up their team options for Tony Barnette ($3 million) and Derek Holland ($6.5 million), while David Phelps’ $5 million option could be too costly. Phelps can start or pitch in relief, but so can Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay.
Tyler Chatwood, Mills and Alzolay could find themselves competing for a Cubs starting rotation spot, but they’re also bullpen candidates. Dillon Maples and James Norwood will likely be given a look, as will Danny Hultzen. However, Hultzen (and Duane Underwood Jr.) are out of minor league options, meaning the Cubs could lose them via waivers if they don’t make the 2020 Opening Day roster.
Right now, only Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck are locks to start the 2020 season in the Cubs bullpen. And while Epstein said he needs to do a better job finding relief options, he deserves credit for unearthing the latter three.
After an impressive 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs signed Ryan to a big-league deal last November. And, despite not making the roster out of spring training, he played a big role with the Cubs in 2019.
Not only did Ryan finish the season with a 3.54 ERA (2.13 vs. lefties), but he made a team-high 73 appearances. His emergence made World Series hero Mike Montgomery – whom the Cubs traded to the Royals in July – expendable (though so did the latter’s struggles as a reliever).
The Cubs acquired Wick (Nov. 20, 2018) and Wieck (July 31, 2019) in separate deals with the Padres, and both players have benefitted from working with the Cubs’ “Pitch Lab.”
Wick finished the season with a 2.43 ERA in 31 outings, striking out 35 batters in 33 1/3 innings. His fastball velocity averaged 95.8 mph in 2019, playing well off of his curveball, which had a 34.1 percent strikeout rate.
At 6-foot-9, Wieck is an intimidating presence on the mound (as a lefty, nonetheless). His fastball velocity averaged 93.7 mph in 2019, while the pitch lab helped him add more vertical break to his curveball:
In short, Ryan, Wick and Wieck came out of relatively nowhere, though each offer the Cubs something that the team needs. Ryan pitches well against left-handed hitters; Wick and Wieck have high velocity and generate swings and misses.
Ryan is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, while Wick and Wieck are still under team control. Therefore, they won’t cost the Cubs a lot to retain, which means more money is available to add other bullpen pieces.
The Cubs have more needs than relief pitching, including center field, second base, a leadoff hitter and starting pitching depth. Therefore, they may need Epstein to work his magic again and unearth another low-key pitcher or two with high potential.
Epstein admitted that the solid ‘pen numbers mean less when paired with the high leverage woes, but he also expressed optimism for how the group performed, especially the under the radar guys.
“…I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well,” Epstein said, “because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level.
“We’ve seen more of that. We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats, which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."
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