The High-Volume Approach to the Bullpen – Yes, the Cubs Have a Crapload of Theoretical Options

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The High-Volume Approach to the Bullpen – Yes, the Cubs Have a Crapload of Theoretical Options

Analysis and Commentary

Maybe I’ve struck a more sour note on the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen than necessary or justified this offseason. I’m open to considering it.

I mean, yes, I do see the potential for a decent bullpen – I wrote a post on it! – and I also do like the Cubs’ Brad Brach and Tony Barnette signings. This front office has had tremendous success with guys like that, and if those were the buy-low types the Cubs specifically targeted this offseason, then I am de facto enthused about their chances to succeed in 2019. The Cubs have quite a bit of credibility when it comes to those types.

That said, and we’ve been over it at length, you simply cannot look at the collection of Cubs relievers and wave your hand at the very real injury and performance risks. The offseason is not only for making upgrades to the roster; it is for being honest about where the most plausible risks exist, and doing everything you can to prophylactically prepare for the dam to burst.

In fairness, the bullpen is always going to be place where you can perceive risks. That’s the nature of any collection of big league relievers. Annually, some of the best on-paper bullpens crash, some of the who-the-hell-is-that-guy bullpens rise, and then none of those stories stay the same the next year. In that respect, I do understand that I’ve probably been overly negative on the Cubs’ bullpen this offseason. I just think it’s reasonable to sound some alarms. Like, maybe a really loud kazoo, rather than an air raid siren.

To that end, the Cubs are – at least publicly – not as alarmed as I seem to be:

The Cubs *do* see the risks in the bullpen, but it seems that, without the resources available to go after a couple sure-fire options, the Cubs have done their best to go with more of a high-volume approach, providing whatever comfort that can.

From a volume perspective, sure, the Cubs are doing extremely well in the bullpen. Consider all the arms they have available who *could conceivably* show up as big league middle relievers or better in 2019:

Brandon Morrow
Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Brad Brach
Mike Montgomery
Carl Edwards Jr.
Tony Barnette
Brian Duensing
Brandon Kintzler
Tyler Chatwood
Dillon Maples
James Norwood
Adbert Alzolay
Randy Rosario
Kyle Ryan
George Kontos
Junichi Tazawa
Rob Scahill
Alec Mills
Allen Webster
Christian Bergman
Matt Carasiti
Jerry Vasto
Mike Zagurski
Luke Hagerty
Rowan Wick
Ian Clarkin
Dakota Mekkes
Duane Underwood
Conor Lillis-White
Rob Zastryzny
Trevor Clifton
Craig Brooks
Danny Hultzen

That’s a crapload of options, and that’s not even every single guy who could show up. That, as compared with too few options, is a good thing to have, especially when you know that many of the middle reliever types will be rotated throughout the season.

But even if you agree with the notion that, in any given season, a couple of guys from a group like that will shock you as breakout performers, the problem is in isolating those guys quickly enough for it to matter. To really identify which guys are gonna have “it” this year, you have to provide them with meaningful innings to demonstrate their ability. But doing so – if the innings are meaningful enough – risks losing actual regular season games in the process.

So that’s the balance the Cubs have to strike as they evaluate the overflowing bullpen pantry. Some guys are simply not even going to be able to get Spring Training innings. Others may not even have a chance to prove themselves at AAA Iowa early in the year. There are too many. And for the few who remain and get a chance to show what they’ve got in the big leagues in April, man, they better look good very quickly, because the Cubs can’t afford to give a guy three or four chances to show that he isn’t going to tighten up every time he goes out there.

Good luck, then, to the guys who show up down on the list there. You’re gonna have to look incredibly sharp from your very first bullpen session next week in order to even get enough on the coaching staff’s radar to get additional looks as Spring Training goes on.

Maybe this extreme volume approach will work out for the Cubs this season. You don’t have to have “stars” to have a good bullpen. But you do have to be very good at getting the right guys in the right roles as quickly as possible, and then rotating guys throughout the season to optimize success.


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Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.