Building a Bullpen From Within – Which Cubs Minor Leaguers Could Arrive with an Impact?

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Building a Bullpen From Within – Which Cubs Minor Leaguers Could Arrive with an Impact?

Cubs Minor Leagues and Prospects

Gold is expensive. As I type this, it is sitting at about $42/gram.

Saffron is expensive (and tasty). My usual supplier retails saffron by the gram for about twenty bucks. Granted, that amount would last me for months, but on a price per unit ratio, it isn’t cheap.

And then we have high-leverage relief pitching. Late inning arms might be the most expensive asset a team is going to acquire when the cost is measured on a per-inning basis. For example, the Cubs have famously traded for three significant late-inning relief pitchers in recent years: Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, and Justin Wilson. Counting the playoffs, those three have combined to pitch fewer than 130 innings for the Cubs. And that was spread over a season and a half.

And to get those 130 innings the Cubs had to give up Jorge Soler, Jeimer Candelario, Gleyber Torres, Isaac Paredes, Billy McKinney, Rashad Crawford, and Adam Warren. All of those players (except for Crawford and Warren) had been or would have been rated among the top three prospects in the Cubs’ system at some point (Paredes would have been second on my list in August had he not been dealt in July).

(By the way, if I included the trade for the guy who was on the mound when the most famous late inning out in franchise history was recorded (Mike Montgomery), then we need to add Paul Blackburn and Dan Vogelbach to the traded list.)

While the realities of the Major League situation made those deals a necessity, there is no question that the Cubs drained away a mountain of talent in exchange late-inning relief help.

And the kicker is that they entered the Winter of 2017 still looking for late inning relief help. Either they will paid an impact reliever or two a lot of money, or the list of players that the Cubs have dealt for late inning relief help will simply get longer. Or both.

This is unsustainable. No organization can trade keep trading young players for late inning arms every six months without significantly restricting the team’s flexibility to address other areas of the team. Even the deepest farm system is going to deplete rapidly under that method of bullpen building.

And, as we’ve seen, making those trades isn’t any guarantee of bullpen success.

If the Cubs are going to keep their competitive window open as long as possible, they just about have to find a way to develop significant bullpen arms from within their own farm system.  That means finding and nurturing impact relievers needs to become – and I suspect has already become – a higher priority than it has been for much of the tenure of this front office.

This sounds like an obvious thing, but, for a lot of teams, it isn’t. The typical farm system places the best pitchers in the rotation and only sends them to the bullpen when either they’ve shown they aren’t going to make it as a starter, or when they are obviously ready for the majors but there are no openings in the rotation. For a long time the Cubs operated that way as well, but I think that mindset has changed, at least in the upper minors. At the very least, I think the Cubs could be converting starters to relievers earlier than they have in the past, and are likely on the lookout for candidates who could excel in late inning roles.

There are a few candidates in house already who could, depending on things go over the next few years, fit that bill. If one or two of these guys emerge as impact Major League relievers, the Cubs will probably be ecstatic. If three or four do, they could find themselves in a position where they can afford to trade from the bullpen to strengthen other areas of the team.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There are a number of candidates in the lower minors I’m not including here, but if you wanted to keep an eye on potential future pitchers from the farm system who could perhaps have impact reliever potential one day, this list is a good place to start.

Dillon Maples definitely has the plus stuff – plus plus in the case of his super excellent fastball, and hard, biting slider – to be a very good back of the bullpen guy. He gets grounders, he gets strikeouts, but sometimes he doesn’t get strikes. If Maples can keep the walks down, he could be a future closer. If he can’t, he could still be valuable middle relief arm.

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jake Stinnett is all about the projection. His stuff has been solid since he was drafted, but never played well as a starter in the minors. After a long injury layoff to open 2017, though, the Cubs moved him to the bullpen and he responded with a FIP of 2.84 in 14.2 innings of Double A. His fastball/slider combo will need to take a step forward, as will his command, in pure relief work in 2018, but if it does he could be a future setup candidate.

Brendon Little has three pitches he can throw for strikes from the left side now, and that could lean the Cubs towards keeping him in the rotation as long as possible. If they move him to the bullpen, though, he could move quickly and emerge as a left-handed weapon a couple of years earlier than we’d expect as a starter. An early move to the bullpen for Little will definitely indicate that the Cubs are taking a much more aggressive approach to developing impact relievers.

Alex Lange is a right-hander I really want to stay in the rotation, but he has already had some injury issues (the mystery one that dropped his signing bonus down a bit), and his curveball gives him a true elite pitch that could be effective against both sides of the plate. Factor in the standard bullpen MPH bump on the fastball, and Lange could morph into a fastball/curveball shut down reliever in a hurry. As with Little, an early move to the bullpen will speak volumes about the Cubs’ shifting philosophy.

Duane Underwood has good stuff, but an inability to stay healthy has slowed his development and could point to a future in the bullpen. His 138 innings in Tennessee last year was a career high, but none of his season stats are really impressive. He did turn in some impressive work late in the season, though, including seven innings of one hit ball in August, and that could be enough for the Cubs to decide to try him in the rotation one more year. More likely, I think, he heads to the bullpen and we see whether there is enough life in his fastball/slider combo to turn him into a homegrown setup guy.

Dakota Mekkes excites a lot of fans with his very impressive minor league results, but the jury is out as to how much of those results are due to deception and polish against inferior competition, and how much are due to the quality of his stuff. Further tests against more advanced hitters will tell us, probably by midseason of this year. If the results hold up, Mekkes could be breaking down the door to the Cubs bullpen by September with a ceiling of a future closer. The highish walk rates and lowish groundball rates have me skeptical, though. Still, any list of potential impact relievers in the system should include him.

Matt Carasiti would have been on this list had he not been released by the Cubs to sign a deal in Japan. He doesn’t have the elite stuff of Maples, but he does induce a decent amount of grounders (47.8% groundball rate in Iowa) and plenty of strikeouts (11.64 K/9) while limiting the long balls (0.47 HR/9). I’m not sure how much more projectability there is in Carasiti, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he emerges as one of the best bullpen arms in Japan and comes back to the United States on a nice contract in a few years.

And then we have Oscar De La Cruz. Everything about Cruz, except his inability to stay on the mound, says he should stay in the rotation. He has the pitches to be a very good No. 2 starter if things break right, but a move to the bullpen could allow him to focus on just his plus fastball and plus curve. The bullpen MPH bump could push that fastball into the upper 90s, and De La Cruz already has decent command. So what do you call a guy with a high 90s fastball, a plus curve, and good command? You might call him a future closer with elite potential. Moving De La Cruz to the pen in 2018 would be a little surprising, even if the organization has decided to develop relievers more aggressively, but for the 2019 and 2020 Cubs it could prove to be absolutely the right move.


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Author: Luke Blaize

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.