During his 2.5-year reign as the Cubs closer, Hector Rondon was downright dominant on the mound (73 saves, 1.97 ERA). Halfway through the 2016 season, he was succeeded by an even better pitcher in Aroldis Chapman (16 saves, 1.01 ERA), who was then, himself, replaced by Wade Davis in 2017 (32 saves, 2.30 ERA).
Why do I bring this up? Well, to remind you that for the last four seasons, despite how it may have felt, the Cubs have had very few unanswered questions at the end of ballgames. But what about next year?
Hector Rondon is still around (assuming the Cubs tender him a contract), and there’s plenty of fire power available in free agency and trade, but a recent article from Sam Miller (ESPN) got me thinking: “Who, me?! Why your team’s next closer will probably be a total surprise – even to him.”
Basically, Miller uses an old study, recent stats, and some general logic to remind us that very few closers have been their team’s ninth-inning guy for long. And that means that they both sprout from “unexpected” sources (failed/converted starters) or were simply relievers who stepped up half-way through the year. In any case, the guy closing out games in April may not be the guy doing it in September, and it may not be the person you’d necessarily guess here in November.
For our purposes today, I thought we could use it as a jumping-off-point in the discussion of the Cubs 2018 closer … if he *had* to come from inside the organization. There’s a really strong chance they bring some in from outside, but let’s just take a quick look around the team, starting with the most obvious …
I have a feeling many of you would’ve guessed that Carl Edwards Jr. was the most obvious choice for closer, given his prominent bullpen role last season and the clear talent, but Wilson is the guy with the experience. Before he made his way to the Cubs last July, Wilson saved 13 games for the Tigers with a 2.68 ERA. In all likelihood, the front office thought they were trading for relief help down the stretch and a possible closer in 2018 when they added Wilson to the roster. It obviously hasn’t worked out that way so far, but the train can always get back on track.
Carl Edwards Jr.
But, yes, if the Cubs couldn’t add anyone to the roster and all things were equal, I think we might see Edwards out there in the ninth, at least to start out the year. He has plenty of late-inning, high-leverage experience (even if it’s not really closing) and the sort of elite strikeout rate you love to see from the guy finishing off games (35.9% in 2017).
Unfortunately, Edwards’ 14.5% walk rate left A LOT to be desired and periodically reminded us that he’s not yet the steady, dependable guy you’d want closing out every single game (even if the talent is IMMENSE).
Pedro Strop is probably among the most undervalued Cubs in recent memory. During his four full years in Chicago, Strop has earned a 2.70 ERA and 3.8 WAR out of the bullpen. On top of that, every single one of his seasons, individually, ranks among the top 100 Cub relief seasons of all-time. That’s really, really good.
But it’s also the reason I wouldn’t sprint to move him around. I try not to put too much stock in the mental side of the game, but Strop has succeeded exceedingly well in a set-up role for a long time now. Maybe it’s best not to change that, especially given the two years remaining on his extension.
I’ll keep this one brief: despite some of his really significant success lingering in our recent memory, Rondon’s triceps injury near the end of the 2016 season (and subsequent struggles in 2017) has made him unreliable. I could envision a world wherein he gets it back and is closing games for someone (including the Cubs) in 2018, but I could also see the Cubs non-tendering him this year (saving the $6-7M he’d likely earn via arbitration). Let’s leave it there, for now.
With the obvious in-house guys in mind, what about some outside-of-the box options? The guys Miller’s article suggests often wind up in the role, and are very difficult to project?
Drafted as an over-slot guy back in 2012, Maples lingered on the scene as a high-ceiling, high-risk prospect for a few years. Unfortunately, injuries and ineffectiveness dropped him off our radar until he broke back out this past season.
In 2017, Maples, now a full-time reliever, sprinted from High-A (2.01 ERA), to Double-A (3.29 ERA), to Triple-A (1.96 ERA), before getting a cup of coffee at the Major League level. He didn’t have a ton of immediate success in results (very small sample size in any case), but he has so much promise. Unfortunately, like many of the Cubs relievers, he pairs a KILLER strikeout rate with a far-too-high walk rate:
High-A (2017): 34.4 K%, 11.7 BB%
Double-A (2017): 43.1 K%, 16.9 BB%
Triple-A (2017): 34.6 K%, 13.6 BB%
MLB (2017): 40.7 K%, 22.2 BB%
How about the guy who got the final out of the 2016 World Series for Cubs closer 2018? There’s not a more high-pressure spot than that and he’s come through many times in the past. Well, despite what I believe to be enough talent to succeed as a closer (who wouldn’t like a near-60% ground ball rate at the end of ball games?), Montgomery’s value is arguably much higher elsewhere.
With the ability to face both righties and lefties, pitch multiple innings, start, or simply get a single out, Montgomery’s role will probably always be Javy-Baez-like. And that’s OK.
For our final in-house candidate, let’s once-again go outside of the box with Adbert Alzolay. Alzolay is usually listed among the Cubs top 3-5 prospects and reached Double-A Tennessee this season. As a starter there, he earned a 3.03 ERA with an even better 2.56 FIP. He didn’t strike a ton of guys out in that role (22.2%), but was hard to hit and, as importantly, he kept the walks somewhat under control (8.9%).
And here’s the side-benefit: even if you believe Alzolay’s best future remains in the rotation, there’s no harm in getting him acquainted to the Majors out of the bullpen (the Cardinals have done this with their young pitchers successfully for many years). And if he’s able to dial things up a bit while simplifying his repertoire out of the pen (remember, this is a young righty who already approaches triple digits with his fastball), you might even expect his strikeout rate to rise and his walk rate to fall. I doubt very much this Cubs team relies on a rookie like Alzolay to close out games, but it has happened before.
In the end, given the numerous, but imperfect, in-house options, I suspect the Cubs will go outside of the organization for their closer in 2018. But, as Sam Miller pointed out at ESPN, even that doesn’t mean the guy closing games in April will be the same one come September.