Brandon Morrow won’t be back tomorrow. He won’t be back opening day. Probably more like the beginning of May. So what will Joe Maddon do? Well, it wasn’t like he didn’t deal with this last season. Morrow went down with an elbow injury and didn’t pitch after the All-Star break.
The next thing you know, it’s September and the Cubs have 5 saves over a 10-day span by 5 different pitchers (Chavez, Strop, Rosario, De La Rosa & Cishek). On top of that, in the game Rosario saved, Strop got hurt and missed the rest of the regular season. So Maddon simply told the team to start winning by at least 4 runs just to avoid save situations. OK, that didn’t exactly happen, though the Cubs’ next four wins (after that 10-day span with 5 different pitchers earning saves) were all by 4 or more runs.
Maddon made it work. Cubs relievers posted a 3.72 ERA (8th in MLB) and 1.320 WHIP (12th in MLB) after the All-Star break. Let’s put it this way, the bullpen wasn’t the reason they didn’t win the division. After Strop went down on September 13, they scored 1 or 0 runs in 7 of their final 17 games to finish the season.
There are a few changes for 2019. Gone are Jesse Chavez, Jorge De La Rosa & Justin Wilson, among others. Xavier Cedeño & Brad Brach are here. How will they fit in and who will do what for the first month of the season (and in many cases beyond)? Let’s do some “Reliever Role Call.”
Closer - Pedro Strop (RHP)
Did you ever realize just how good Pedro Strop is? He is already fourth on the Cubs career relief appearance list with 361. He has spent six seasons with the Cubs, and his ERAs in those seasons are: 2.83 (after coming over from Baltimore), 2.21, 2.91, 2.85, 2.83 and 2.26. Overall, that’s a 2.63 ERA, or a 155 ERA+ which means he has been 55% better than league average (adjusted for ballpark). His WHIP as a Cub has been 1.020 and is strikeout percentage has been 28.2%. Standout numbers. He thrives in a variety of situations. He’ll enter in the 6th or 7thinnings. He’ll go for two innings if he has to. His consistency makes him the best pitcher to fill in as closer while Morrow is out.
Fireman - Carl Edwards Jr. (RHP)
The words “Fireman” and “Closer” are not exactly interchangeable. I use the term fireman here because if there’s a fire, the Cubs have nobody better to put it out than Carl Edwards Jr. If there’s a runner on third with less than two out – or any situation where you absolutely need a strikeout, Edwards is the guy. In MLB history, among pitchers with at least 150 career innings (in seasons for which we have data), the lowest opposing batting averages look like this:
Lowest opponent BA
MLB history (min 150 innings) – in seasons with available data
.153 Carl Edwards Jr.
.154 Craig Kimbrel
.158 Aroldis Chapman
.171 Dellin Betances
.175 Kenley Jansen
Edwards is number one (yes, it’s a tiny sample, but play along here). Of course, the reason he hasn’t reached elite status yet is because of the walks. Here are the same five pitchers ranked in terms of career walk percentage:
6.7% Kenley Jansen
9.8% Craig Kimbrel
11.0% Dellin Betances
11.6% Aroldis Chapman
13.6% Carl Edwards Jr.
He has 217 career strikeouts, compared to only 83 hits allowed, though there is work to be done. In terms of making batters miss, however, Carl Edwards Jr. is a special talent.
Bridge Guy - Steve Cishek (RHP)
Not exactly a submariner, though he used to be a Mariner, Cishek gives batters something to look at from a different angle. The rubber-armed righty appeared in nearly half (80) of the Cubs’ games in 2018 and pitched extremely well (2.18 ERA, 197 ERA+) if not a bit lucky (.241 BAbip). Cishek was often used in small doses (33 appearances of less than an inning), though he also went more than an inning 15 times. He may not be quite as good as he was in 2018, but he should still be solid.
ROOGY - Brad Brach (RHP)
The 6’6” righty Brach doesn’t necessarily have to be used against righties only, but there’s clearly a gap in performance vs both sides. That gap was particularly noticeable in 2018, though he improved greatly once traded to Atlanta.
Brad Brach platoon splits
Career 2018 2018 w/BAL 2018 w/ATL
Vs LHP .247/.333/.356 .330/.423/.415 .342/.422/.452 .303/.425/.333
Vs RHP .209/.287/.353 .243/.297/.395 .272/.337/.457 .200/.234/.300
LOOGY - Xavier Cedeño (LHP)
Like Brach, Cedeño doesn’t need to be limited strictly to same-side opponents, but for his career he shows a noticeable platoon split. In 2018 for the White Sox and Brewers, he was good against lefties & righties alike.
Xavier Cedeño platoon splits
Vs LHP .223/.285/.293 .207/.281/.293
Vs RHP .283/.362/.434 .212/.316/.288
Need a Ground Ball Guy - Brandon Kintzler (RHP)
The Cubs will need to bank on Brandon Kintzler getting back to what he’s best at – generating ground balls. His ground ball rate dropped from 61.9% in 2016 to 54.9% in 2017 to a career low 49.7% in 2018. With a career strikeout rate of 16.5% he’ll need to be able to generate weak contact to survive. Perhaps he ought to be Need a Ground Ball in Road Games Guy since his career home/road splits look like this:
Brandon Kintzler career home/road splits
Home .300/.348/.442 4.58 ERA in 177.0 IP
Away .237/.289/.335 2.46 ERA in 190.1 IP
Whatever You Need Guy – Mike Montgomery (LHP)
Montgomery started as a starter, so he can handle several innings. He tossed two complete game shutouts within his first 6 career Major League games! He had a pair of 10+ out saves in 2017! That being said, he’s probably known best for the game where he made two pitches (Game 7 of the 2016 World Series). Either way, Montgomery can go long or short, face lefties or righties, he can do fairly well in any situation. By the way, in 2018 Montgomery became only the second Cub since 1975 with 19+ starts & 19+ relief appearances in a season, joining Glendon Rusch in 2005.
Wild Card – Tyler Chatwood (RHP)
Chatwood had a respectable 3.95 ERA through his first 14 starts of 2018. But his tightrope act went awry after that, posting a 7.90 mark in his remaining 10 appearances (6 starts). There were stretches where he looked fairly tough to hit; after all, he allowed only a .245 BA on the season. That was better than Quintana (.246), Hendricks (.247) or Lester (.256). But the walks. Oh, those walks. Jon Lester led the Cubs in 2017 with 60 free passes allowed. Chatwood surpassed that total on June 19. He allowed a bizarre .245/.403/.371 slashline on the season. If Chatwood could cut those walks (big if), he could be an effective member of the Cubs pitching staff.
When Morrow returns, several of these pitchers will continue on in these same roles. A number of pitchers not listed here will see time with the Cubs as well. Holdovers from 2018 such as LHP Brian Duensing, LHP Randy Rosario, RHP Dillon Maples & RHP James Norwood will most likely find their way to Wrigley at some point, as well as newcomers like RHP Tony Barnette & RHP Rowan Wick. A fully healthy Cubs bullpen could be one of the strongest in baseball, but in the meantime, they have the personnel to get the job done.