Wade Davis

Cubs opposition research: Should the Rockies inspire fear in the NL?

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USA TODAY

Cubs opposition research: Should the Rockies inspire fear in the NL?

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Colorado Rockies

2017 record: 87-75, third place in NL West

Offseason additions: Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, Chris Iannetta, Shawn O'Malley

Offseason departures: Greg Holland, Mark Reynolds, Jonathan Lucroy, Alexi Amarista, Tyler Chatwood, Pat Neshek, Jordan Lyles

X-factor: Ian Desmond

The Rockies made a splash last winter when they handed Desmond $70 million over five years even though they already had a shortstop and a centerfielder.

Desmond, now 32, had a forgettable first season in the Mile High city. In between a hand fracture and a calf injury, he filled something of a utility role for the Rockies, playing mostly left field and first base while also seeing time in center and at short.

Desmond hit just .274 with a .701 OPS in 373 plate appearances, a far cry from the .285 AVG and .782 OPS he posted in Texas in 2016.

If Desmond can get back to being a potent hitter in one of the best offensive environments in baseball, it would do wonders for a team that made it to the NL wild-card game last year.

Projected lineup

1. Charlie Blackmon - CF
2. D.J. LeMahieu - 2B
3. Carlos Gonzalez - RF
4. Nolan Arenado - 3B
5. Gerardo Parra - LF
6. Trevor Story - SS
7. Ian Desmond - 1B
8. Chris Iannetta - C

Projected rotation

1. Jon Gray
2. Chad Bettis
3. Tyler Anderson
4. German Marquez
5. Kyle Freeland

Outlook

The Rockies were something of a surprise as a contender in 2017, in large part because of a pitching staff that far exceeded expectations.

Holland was a revelation as the Colorado closer last season, but the team has still upgraded in that regard by inking former Cubs closer Wade Davis to a big free-agent deal. The Rockies also retained the services of Jake McGee and added Shaw to a bullpen that also includes Adam Ottavino and Mike Dunn.

It's a good group of relievers, but Shaw has appeared in an absurd number of games the last few seasons and at some point, that high workload may come back to haunt him. Cubs fans remember Shaw as the guy who served up Ben Zobrist's World Seres-winning hit in the 10th inning of that epic Game 7.

The Rockies have a lot of depth to their rotation with Jeff Hoffman and Antonio Senzatela joining the group above, but only Gray may be the only above average arm of the bunch. Gray — selected in the 2013 MLB Draft immediately after Kris Bryant — may be ready to take the leap into ace territory.

But the Rockies have far too many question marks to confidently peg them as a playoff team again. Carlos Gonzalez back on a one-year deal helps a little, but where will young outfielder David Dahl play when healthy?

Blackmon and Arenado are two of the best players in the game and former Cub LeMahieu is very solid, but they may wind up missing Mark Reynolds quite a bit in that lineup.

Colorado would need everything to break right again in 2018 to get into the postseason, and I'm not so sure that happens.

Prediction: Fourth place in NL West, no playoffs

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

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AP

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."

Predicting what the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen will look like

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AP

Predicting what the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen will look like

We're still five weeks away from Cubs pitchers and catchers reporting to Arizona, but it's never too early for 2018 season predictions.

What else is there to do for baseball fans right now? The "hot" stove season has been boring as hell.

On the latest NBC Sports Chicago Hot Stove Facebook Live (complete video below), we broke down what the Cubs' bullpen may look like when they break camp and head to Miami for an Opening Day tilt with the Marlins:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Justin Grimm
TBD

A lot to unpack here, but let's start with the closer spot. 

Theo Epstein's front office would love for their team's relievers to have defined roles because they understand the bullpen is made up of a bunch of humans and humans typically prefer to know when they're going to be used and prepare in accordance with that.

Joe Maddon, however, is notorious for running with a "closer by committee" where he plays the matchups.

The Cubs don't have a surefire ninth-inning option like they have the last year-and-a-half with Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis, so it will be interesting to see how the debate between front office and coaching staff turns out.

But Morrow is the guy signed to be the closer (as of right now), though there is some concern about his ability to stay healthy — he's averaged only 18 appearances a season since 2013. 

The Cubs believe Edwards is a closer in waiting while Wilson was one of the top stoppers in the game for the first four months of the 2017 season while in Detroit. 

Strop could also close if needed, but represents one of the top setup men in baseball, even though he draws some hate from meatball Cubs fans. He's been remarkably consistent, posting a 2.72 ERA in five seasons with the Cubs and never finishing a campaign with an ERA over 2.91. 

Cishek also brings closing experience, but can slot in in pretty much any role in the bullpen.

Montgomery is slated as a starter right now given the Cubs don't have a surefire fifth guy in the rotation and even if they sign a guy, Montgomery will absolutely get some starts at some point. But he's also the long man in the bullpen and will fill a swingman role.

From there, things are a bit iffy. The Cubs figure to carry eight guys in the bullpen because they have so many versatile position players that they need fewer bench bats than the average team. 

Justin Grimm used to be a mainstay in the Cubs bullpen, but he struggled to the tune of a 5.53 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. From 2014-16, however, Grimm posted a 3.36 ERA and 10.6 K/9 in 203 games in a Cubs uniform. Assuming he can rekindle that form, Grimm may once again be counted on as one of Maddon's middle innings closers.

The final spot in the bullpen may well go to Dillon Maples if the young flamethrower shows up and has a great camp. 

Eddie Butler could also be in the mix if the Cubs want another longman to join Montgomery in the 'pen. But with 2.5 months until Opening Day, the Cubs could also acquire another reliever — via trade, free agency or claiming a guy off the scrap heap/waiver wire.

Hot Stove - Predicting the Cubs Bullpen/Sox Prospects Up in 2018

What will the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen look like? Which White Sox prospects will be up in 2018? Hot Stove is BACK and we want to hear your thoughts!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, January 10, 2018