As Cubs look to augment bullpen this winter, here's what they need to fix

As Cubs look to augment bullpen this winter, here's what they need to fix

For the first time in a few years, the bullpen did not take center stage in the Fall Classic. 

The powerhouse rotations of both the Astros and Nationals have — rightfully — drawn the focus, with Wednesday night's Game 7 marking the first time since 2001 that both starting pitchers went at least five innings in a winner-take-all contest.

That's quite the changeup compared to the days of bullpenning and short starts that have filled the past few Octobers.

But that likely won't do much to change the importance of bullpens in 2020 and beyond and it will be one of the most fascinating areas to watch as the Cubs reshape their roster this winter.

In fact, relievers are now more important to today's game than ever before, accounting for more innings and also experiencing more struggles compared to just a few years ago.

Here's where the league average ERA and innings total (per team) stand for bullpens over the last five MLB seasons:

2019: 4.43 ERA, 609 IP
2018: 4.08 ERA, 581 IP
2017: 4.15 ERA, 549 IP
2016: 3.93 ERA, 530 IP
2015: 3.71 ERA, 506 IP

So in the span of just five seasons, relievers have been tasked with pitching 103 more innings per team — on average — and the ERA has subsequently jumped 72 points. 

A big part of the dip in bullpen effectiveness could be explained by the usage, but the 2019 baseball and home run spike was also a huge factor.

"If you look across the league, bullpens were a roller coaster on every single team," veteran Cubs reliever Steve Cishek said on the final weekend of the regular season. "Even teams in the playoffs, the guys that teams relied on weren't pitching as well now, based on usage or whatever it may be. That's just been kind of the theme. If you have a close lead and with the baseballs we're throwing out there right now, it's tough to hold that lead. You feel like you have to pitch perfect all the time. 

"It's totally different. I'm a big pitch-to-contact guy and that's super risky now because if anybody gets lift on the ball, it's gone. It's insane. ... We joke around, there's a 0 percent chance of the ball leaving the yard if they hit it on the ground. That was always my philosophy — I was a sinkerball guy, but now guys are learning how to lift the ball, so now you have to change your approach. 

"With these baseballs, they can leave the yard at any moment. One-run leads aren't safe. You almost have to pitch to perfection and sometimes that can catch up to you."

The idea that even a 10-year MLB veteran like Cishek feels like he would have to be perfect on every single pitch illustrates how much pressure relievers were under in 2019 with home run totals soaring through the roof. 

We don't know how the baseball will play in 2020 — common sense would dictate some sort of regression — but the Cubs have to address their bullpen regardless of the home run rate.

In 2019, the Cubs finished eighth in Major League Baseball with a 3.98 bullpen ERA, though most fans will remember the down moments like Cishek walking in the winning run in San Diego or Craig Kimbrel serving up homers on back-to-back pitches to blow a lead against the Cardinals on the final homestand. 

The overall bullpen stats don't tell the whole story — the Cubs struggled mightily in the most important moments in games.

Theo Epstein summed it up thusly:

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," he said at his end-of-season presser. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1- and 2-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."

As a team, the Cubs ranked 24th in baseball in ERA (7.92) in high-leverage spots, as defined by FanGraphs, though two of the teams behind them (Dodgers, Nationals) wound up facing off against each other in the National League Division Series.

The Cubs bullpen had the worst K-BB percentage (5.3 percent) in the league in high-leverage spots, mostly because they walked a league-high 15.4 percent of batters in such situations, tied with the 105-loss Marlins. 

But it was also where the inability to miss bats came into play as Cubs relievers struck out only 20.7 percent of opposing hitters in high-leverage spots, which ranked 29th in baseball ahead of only the White Sox.

Meanwhile, in low- and medium-leverage spots (again, defined by FanGraphs), the Cubs tied for second in the MLB with a 3.19 ERA, though they still walked far too many hitters (ranking 26th with a 10.4 percent walk rate). 

In short, the Cubs bullpen had too many issues doling out free passes in 2019 and did not miss near enough bats to make up for it. Those issues were magnified in tight spots late in games and told the real story of the 2019 unit. 

Of course, high-leverage spots are an enormous part of a bullpen's performance, so how do the Cubs fix it? 

Epstein is looking at the glass half-full.

"We were actually fourth in the league in bullpen ERA, second in the second half — which doesn’t mean anything if you can’t pitch in high-leverage situations," Epstein said. "But I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well, 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."

A lot of that will come down to Craig Kimbrel, the embattled closer who is coming off by far the worst season of his career — a year filled with starts and stops due to his delayed free agency pursuit and then injuries and ineffectiveness once he got on the field for the Cubs. 

In addition to his issues with home runs and walks, Kimbrel recorded the lowest strikeout percentage of his career. Still, whiffing 31.3 percent of batters faced is nothing to sneeze at and, in fact, is the same rate at which Yu Darvish struck out batters in 2019 and would've ranked just outside the Top 30 relievers if Kimbrel had pitched enough innings to qualify.

Beyond that, the Cubs were really encouraged by what they saw in Brad Wieck and Rowan Wick late in the season and Kyle Ryan was a staple in the bullpen all season. In small sample sizes, Alec Mills and Duane Underwood Jr. also flashed the ability to miss bats while limiting free passes.

The trick now will be for Epstein's front office to augment that base group of relievers via free agency or trade, adding guys with proven track records in high-leverage moments and an ability to get a whiff in key spots.

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo 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 — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-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."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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