The Chicago Cubs might go in a variety of directions this offseason/winter, but one of the most common refrains seems to have them set on improving the bullpen.
While I’d wager nearly all teams set out to improve the bullpen in one way or another over the offseason, the Cubs might be in particularly obvious need of some help.
The bullpen isn’t necessarily a problem, mind you, but with the loss of Aroldis Chapman and Travis Wood, the late-season injuries and ineffectiveness of Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, and the potential for Mike Montgomery to get a crack at joining the rotation, there is quite clearly a need for at least a couple of new arms, including one at the back-end of the bullpen.
Conventional wisdom (or should I say fan-fueled desire) has the Cubs targeting one of the high-priced trio of closers available this offseason – Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon – and the Cubs very well may decide to go that route, though they have started to signal otherwise.
But in the meantime, a new rumor has popped up, and it’s certainly interesting: former Royals closer Greg Holland.
Holland, who turns 31 later this month, was a formerly dominant closer with the Kansas City Royals before an injury (and subsequent Tommy John surgery) near the end of the 2015 season forced him to miss the entirety of 2016. Now that he’s back up and healthy, however, he’s looking to show off what he can still do.
Earlier this week, Holland held a showcase in Phoenix, Arizona and reports indicate up to twenty teams, including the Chicago Cubs, were in attendance. According to Jon Heyman, the Cubs, Giants, Red Sox, Rays, Indians, and Mariners were among the most interested parties. Gordon Wittenmyer echoed that sentiment, adding that the Cubs are more likely to be interested in Holland than any of the more expensive closers on the market.
(I’m not certain that pursuing Holland necessarily precludes the Cubs from pursuing one of the top free agent closers, not only because they might have some of the most available money to spend in baseball), but moreso because Holland could wind up a solid bullpen piece, rather than a sure-fire, shut-down closer.)
By all reports, the showcase went well, including a quality slider, and Holland eventually dialed his fastball up to 90-91 MPH by the end of the set.
To be sure, Holland used to work in the 95-96 MPH range from his debut in 2010 up to and through his last ultra-successful 2014 campaign, but lost a bit of velocity (and productivity) in the injury-impacted 2015 season that led to surgery. Wittenmyer seems to believe that Holland might work his way back up to the mid-90s by the time Spring Training rolls around. We have no way of knowing if that’s going to happen, of course, but I am starting to believe that it is extremely important.
Check out his ERA, FIP by season, with his average fastball velocity listed in parenthesis:
2011 (94.9 MPH): 1.80 ERA, 2.21 FIP
2012 (96.1 MPH): 2.96 ERA, 2.29 FIP
2013 (96.1 MPH): 1.21 ERA, 1.36 FIP
2014 (95.7 MPH): 1.44 ERA, 1.83 FIP
2015 (93.6 MPH): 3.83 ERA, 3.27 FIP
Now, obviously his production dipped immensely in his last season, coinciding with a stark drop in fastball velocity, but there are a couple things to note (before you crown him as a comeback, or dismiss him as a bust). First, plenty of pitchers get by with far lower velocity, even after experiencing a drop later in the career. The Cubs have many of them in their rotation. Having a lower velocity or losing velocity, in and of itself, is not a reason for panic. HOWEVA, and this is a big howeva, pitchers who have gotten by and/or succeeded primarily because of their velocity tend to deal with a drop in velocity worse than pitchers who’ve been forced to get batters out without blowing them away.
So which one is Holland? It might be impossible to know.
Holland did become less effective after losing a couple of ticks on his fastball in 2015, but he also began throwing it far less often, while relying more on his slider. The results, of course, didn’t follow. If not for the injury, I might be inclined to point to Holland’s 2015 as a clear example of a pitcher who will no longer be as effective post-velocity drop … but of course there was the injury, so it’s harder to be sure what happened. With the level of success pitchers have had returning from Tommy John surgery over the past several years, it’s not difficult to imagine Holland ramping his velocity back up, throwing his fastball more often, and once again becoming that utterly unhittable closer he was from a few seasons in a row. The opposite, however, is just as imaginable.
Luckily, it doesn’t sound like Holland will be capable of demanding much in his return. Wittenmyer heard from one executive that Holland projects to receive a two-year deal. And if Holland looks healthy and requires just a two-year commitment, it’s even easier to see why the Cubs might be interested.
These sort of deals don’t always work out, but when they do, they can be like winning the lotto. Holland was once a dominant closer and is only one injury-missed season removed from an otherwise fine final campaign. And at just 31 years old, it’s not like he’s headed for the fishing hole anytime soon. If the Cubs decide to take a gamble, I think you’d have to be pretty excited about what Holland might have to offer.
But, as noted, a lot of teams are interested.