Among other things, 2018 has to be considered the "Year of Pedro Strop" for the Cubs.
You know you're kind of a big deal when Joe Maddon builds an entire theme trip around your unique — and loud — sense of style.
Strop entered 2018 already entrenched as one of the franchise's best relievers of all time but also finally got an extended run to serve as the team's closer and took major advantage of the opportunity.
Though it was his sixth year with the Cubs, 2018 served as a complete realization as to how reliable and stable he's been since coming over in the middle of the 2013 season as the "other" part of the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles.
Now, Strop is underrated no more.
The best indicator of that was the huge hole he left in the Cubs bullpen after injuring his hamstring running out a groundball Sept. 13 in Washington D.C.
Strop missed the rest of the regular season, but made a gutsy return to the mound for the NL Wild-Card Game last week to toss a scoreless 9th inning and help give his team a chance to walk it off (though that never came):
Afterwards, Strop indicated he actually was pitching through "severe pain" and wasn't going to be able to pitch in the NLDS or possibly even beyond if the Cubs had made it that far.
Pedro Strop told me that he was in severe pain but feigned that he was fine so they wouldn't take him out of the game; told me he wouldn't have been available for the next round. https://t.co/JbBZiuUlmT— Marly Rivera (@MarlyRiveraESPN) October 3, 2018
"I knew I was going to be done after this game," Strop said. "What I said was, 'Without this game, there's no longer playoffs, there's no World Series.' So I thought it was the most important game of my season. That's why I took the challenge. And I knew I was able to command my pitches, even with the pain, so I was like, 'OK, let's take the pain.'"
That gritty mindset is exactly what has endeared Strop to teammates, coaches, front office execs and fans throughout his 6-year run in Chicago.
"What an unbelievable performance," Theo Epstein said. "That was a 4-6 week injury that he came back from in about 2 [weeks]. Did a great job on a big stage, just wanted to be back for his teammates and found out after the game that he was actually pitching in pain and didn't want to show it because he didn't want to come out of the game.
"He's such a big part of the heartbeat of this team. I mean, this guy — I hope he can be a part of this organization when he's done playing. That's how impactful he is to the other relievers and to the team as a whole. Just a great disposition, great heart on that kid and a great pitcher."
Strop may be the most well-liked player in the Cubs clubhouse, always smiling and energetic, picking up his teammates when they're down or cheering the loudest when they come through with a big play.
When Javy Baez flipped his bat in frustration after popping out early in the season, it was Strop that stepped up and told Baez that's not how he should act, prompting an unprompted, public apology from the Cubs' young infielder.
The Cubs have a $6.25 million team option on Strop for 2019 and while we won't find out for sure that they plan to exercise that option until after the World Series, it's all but guaranteed the affable reliever will once again be an anchor for the bullpen next season.
Strop, 33, already has more holds than any other pitcher in Cubs history by a wide margin — his 114 dwarfs Carlos Marmol's 83 holds — and ranks 11th in franchise history in games pitched (361). With another full regular season of work if he can stay healthy, he could move into 6th place on the Cubs' all-time appearances list, leap-frogging the likes of James Russell (365 games), Ryan Dempster (374) and Fergie Jenkins (401).
Strop has been remarkably consistent in his Cubs career — never turning in an ERA higher than 2.91 — while pitching in some of the most high-leverage situations. Coming into 2018, he only had notched 9 career saves but finished 13 games with the Cubs when Brandon Morrow went down to injury midseason.
In a day and age where the bullpen is more important than it's ever been around baseball, Strop is such a valuable weapon for the Cubs as a respected veteran who runs towards big moments, can pitch in any role (including closer) and help serve as a stabilizing force in the most volatile position group in the game.
"I'm glad he had that opportunity this year to close games and get some much-deserved recognition for how good he is and what he means to this team, even if it was only for 6 weeks or so," Epstein said. "Lotta fans tipping their cap to him — or moving it to the side for him. He deserves that and we fully expect him to be back next year and playing a huge role."