Let’s Talk About the Chicago Cubs Bullpen: Roles, Limitations, Performances

cubs-bullpenIt was a great win last night, to be sure, but we’re going to have to talk about the bullpen a little bit.

While I know that the bullpen has been severely hampered by the simultaneous injuries to Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez (not to mention Jacob Turner, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Blake Parker), I’m not sure Joe Maddon can justify continuing to go with Brian Schlitter in high-leverage situations.

I understand the theoretical allure of Schlitter in close, runners-on situations – he’s got a high velocity, hard sinker, and he looks like a guy who could get you some groundballs in key spots and get you out of a jam. Thing is, he hasn’t really done that. Indeed, going all the way back to June 8 of last year, Schlitter has posted a 6.54 ERA, a 4.63 FIP, a 4.20 xFIP, a 12.0% K rate, and a 9.3% BB rate. I don’t care how many groundballs a guy gets, those are not the numbers of a reliable, late-inning, high-leverage reliever in today’s game. Those numbers are scary bad over a healthily-sized sample of the most recent results.

(As Sahadev Sharma recently wrote, Schlitter has been missing his spots so far this year, and, when you’re not a guy with overwhelming stuff as it is, that’s a recipe for problems. Schlitter is mostly getting groundballs, but he’s also given up the long ball when he’s been up in the zone.)

Setting aside Schlitter’s performance, specifically, I can’t help but wonder about the broader question: are we really sure the whole concept of trying to get groundballs with runners on base is the right late-inning approach? Groundballs – especially if they’re getting hit as hard as those Schlitter has been giving up – are much more likely to go for hits than fly balls, and, if you’re not getting any strikeouts, you’re allowing a ton of balls in play. Is that really the approach you want? I’m not asking that rhetorically, mind you – I’m really asking. Given the extreme lack of strikeouts Schlitter brings to the table (and since his walk rate is no longer in the 5% range), is his statistically the best option in those situations even if he gets you the groundballs you want? I think I’d rather have a strikeout guy in there, even if he gives up some fly balls.

… but that’s where the bullpen troubles come in, and why I’m not excoriating Maddon for going with Schlitter in that 6th inning spot last night. For one thing, Jason Motte also got hit around. For another thing, Pedro Strop has been used so heavily, and you can’t lean on him every single night in April. For another thing, Hector Rondon wasn’t going to go in that spot. For still another thing, Zac Rosscup had pitched three of the last four days, including the night before. For still another thing, Phil Coke may still be best suited to a lefty specialist role. So that left Maddon with Schlitter, newly-added Gonzalez Germen, and Edwin Jackson.

Should Maddon have gone with Jackson? I’ve thought so for a little while now – just give the guy a chance to be a true one-inning reliever and see what he can do (like last night in the 8th) – but I won’t blast Maddon just yet for not pulling the trigger, given it’s a new role for Jackson, and he obviously struggled the last couple years.

But the roles need to shift around a little bit in the bullpen, presuming the Cubs aren’t going to get reinforcements any time soon. The available arms in the minors right now all come with questions: Armando Rivero has been struggling, James Russell is probably a LOOGY (as might be Joe Ortiz, Drake Britton, and Hunter Cervenka), Donn Roach is Schlitter-like, Blake Cooper is an unknown quantity, and C.J. Edwards is only just getting used to the bullpen at AA.

Hopefully each of Grimm and Ramirez recover well, and we see them back dominating in the pen before too long. Until then, though, the bullpen has become something of a question mark for an otherwise intriguing team.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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