Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

fernando rodney cubsAt the beginning of the season, the Chicago Cubs had some of the best back-end starting pitching depth in baseball. No, none of it was top shelf, but if it was depth you were looking for, the Cubs had it in spades. Of course, as the season went on, that depth dwindled and dried up quickly. Be it by trades, ineffectiveness, injury or otherwise, the Cubs went through a lot of fifth starters, as the year went on.

Similarly, the Cubs bullpen heading into Spring Training looked formidable. After picking up Jason Motte and considering the stellar 2014 campaigns of Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez, the Cubs appeared to have a number of above average late game options. Of course, that too went the way of the dodo. Grimm and Ramirez were injured early in the season, Strop went through a period of wildness, Motte won the closer role from Rondon for a time, but ultimately faded as his heavy diet of fastballs induced too much contact for sustained success.

The Cubs, of course, did not lie down and let their pitching struggles cripple their season, though. Instead they did what all teams – good and bad – do in that situation: take flyers on the upside of some forgotten pitchers around the league. While several lottery tickets failed to pay out – Rafael Soriano, Yoervis Medina, Gonzalez Germen, for a few examples – several others have performed admirably and figure prominently into the Cubs’ postseason effort.

Consider just how impressively Clayton Richard, Fernando Rodney and Trevor Cahill have turned their seasons around on the Northside of Chicago in the second half of 2015.

Before coming to the Cubs by way of the Pittsburg Pirates, Clayton Richard, 32, was pitching out of Triple-A Indianapolis for just about all of 2015. While he had good ERA (1.89) through his first 10 starts, he was striking out just 11.5% of opposing batters and benefiting from a .257 BABIP. Indeed, his fielding independent pitching (FIP) was a nearly two runs higher (3.69), indicating that the little amount of success he was achieving was due for some negative regression. While Richard had pitched in MLB in the past, he never really found any consistency, bouncing between the White Sox, Padres, Diamondbacks and Pirates and spending time in the minors in each of the past three years due to a shoulder issue.

Nonetheless, the Cubs needed a fifth starter and unique contract clause allowed the Cubs to acquire the veteran from their division rival for cash alone. Although he made three starts for the Cubs, it was the move to the bullpen that unlocked Richard’s potential. Through 21.1 IP since August 12, Richard has a 3.38 ERA (2.95 FIP) with a minuscule 2.3% walk rate and an impressive 62.0% ground ball rate. He increased the velocity of his fastball by over 1.5 MPH and has come into his own as a multi-inning reliever, doing so six times in just under two months. I’m not sure that Richard is long for the Cubs after 2015, but he was helpful down the stretch and has a chance to help in the playoffs, as well.

Trevor Cahill’s story is not altogether unlike Richard’s. Before coming to the Cubs, Cahill, now 27, was a breakout righty for the A’s. That’s what he was considered back in 2011, when he was traded as part of a larger deal that netted the A’s, among others, pitching prospect Jarrod Parker.

While he had realized some success in his past, the first half of 2015 was not very productive for Cahill, who’d eventually wound up with the Braves as a salary dump. Through 26 MLB IPs in Atlanta, Cahill sported a 7.52 ERA with less than promising peripherals (4.43 FIP, 11.3 K%, 8.9 BB%). After the Braves let him go, Cahill jumped on with the Dodgers, pitching in their minor league system for just seven games. Through those 34.1 innings, things didn’t look much better – 5.24 ERA (4.48 FIP), 18.8K%, 10.4 BB%. Although he was striking more batters out, he was still walking too many guys and things looked dim as ever.

However, after coming to the Cubs at the end of August, Cahill worked his way to Chicago and has found a great deal of success in his first month pitching out of the bullpen. Through 15.1 innings, Cahill has managed to find some more control, lowering his walk rate to 7.3% while increasing his strike out rate to an outstanding 34.6%. He has managed to increase his fastball velocity from 90.6 to 93.0 MPH, while turning in a 1.76 ERA (2.49 FIP). Like Richard before him, Cahill has been able to draw on his history as a starter to turn multiple multi-inning appearances – six, to be exact. Given what we’ve seen in the minors, the Cubs are clearly targeting and developing pitchers that can go out for longer appearances, and, in at least a few occurrences, it has actually increased their performance.  While Richard remains tentatively on my post-season roster, I think Cahill, with his 30%+ strikeout rate, groundball tendencies, and multi-inning capabilities, has become a no-brainer.

While Fernando Rodney, 38, doesn’t have starting in his past, like Richard and Cahill do, he does share the pattern of success the previous two have found after entering into the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen in 2015. Before coming to the Cubs, Rodney was having a pretty awful year out in Seattle. Here’s what Brett had to say about Rodney’s 2015 campaign before coming to the Cubs:

I didn’t mention any of this, though, because what my quick scan revealed was frighteningly bad: 5.68 ERA, 5.26 FIP, 4.63 xFIP, 1.42 HR/9, .295 BABIP, 70.2% LOB, 18.9% K rate, 11.0% BB rate. Nothing in the batted ball data was encouraging, either. His velocity was about where it was last year (not bad, in the mid-90s), but that was down from his best years before that.

After being DFA’d at 38 years old, it was possible that Rodney was running into the final wall of his career. But then, the Cubs picked him up and he, like the two before this one, has had a great run out of the Cubs bullpen. In 10.1 innings pitched, Rodney is maintaining an unsustainable, but impressive 0.87 ERA (3.63 FIP). Even with the very low BABIP (.190), though, his peripherals are quite strong: 54.5% ground ball rate, 31.7% strikeout rate, 7.3% walk rate, 2.23 xFIP. At 38 years old, this may be the last the Cubs see of Fernando Rodney, but they will be happy to ride out his hot streak into the playoffs.

Of course, while each of these pitchers has experienced a good deal of success with the Cubs this year, it has all come in extremely small samples. To be fair, the Cubs’ coaching staff has had some well-documented success turning around some otherwise forgotten pitchers, so it might not all be smoke and mirrors. Indeed, each of these pitchers have had some success in the past and two of them are former starters able to crank it up in shorter spurts. So while these guys may not pitch for the Cubs again after 2015, their pick-ups have already played a pretty significant role in this team’s success. Not every move is splashy, but, when taken together, even down on their luck, cast-aside relievers can leave their mark.

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