The 2017 Chicago Cubs roster will, for the most part, look a whole lot like the 2016 group. That is, with one notable exception, besides center field: the bullpen.
– Exiting the bullpen are Aroldis Chapman, Travis Wood, and Trevor Cahill (free agency), as well as Mike Montgomery (possibly ticketed for the rotation).
– Entering are newly-acquired closer Wade Davis, newly-signed reliever Koji Uehara, and a smattering of other options looking to secure one of the final spots (Caleb Smith and Brian Duensing for two examples).
Together with the holdovers from 2016 then, the 2017 bullpen will likely include the following names: Wade Davis, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Koji Uehara, Justin Grimm, and Carl Edwards Jr., with up to two spots remaining (and rumors that the Cubs haven’t stopped considering reliever additions).
Not bad at all.
Despite how dominant that bullpen might look on paper, however, there is certainly more than a fair share of risk (even for a bullpen, which inherently comes with added risk/variability because of the very nature of relievers).
Indeed, Craig Edwards wrote about exactly that at FanGraphs. Let’s take a look.
Edwards writes that the Chicago Cubs have remade their risky bullpen by adding more risk, and, for the most part he’s right. Let’s consider those six names we (more or less) know to be a part of the 2017 bullpen, and determine why they’re a particularly risky group, before checking in on the upside (both individually and as a whole).
Starting at the top, closer Wade Davis is coming off a season in which he was injured (and on the disabled list) twice. I have a full getting-to-know style piece coming out on Davis soon, but that much of the story there has been widely-discussed. He’s an elite closer, and has been one of the very best in the game since he started relieving full-time, but injuries are injuries and relievers are relievers. He will most likely be great next season, but something less than great is certainly possible.
Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have the same story, so we’ll talk about them together. By now, you should be familiar with both 1) Rondon’s and Strop’s upsides and 2) what happened to them at the end of the season. In short, both pitchers experienced injuries in August and never regained their footing throughout the rest of the season or playoffs. After being Maddon’s most relied upon 1-2 punch, they were both used less frequently than Chapman, Montgomery, Wood, and Edwards in the postseason. Heading into 2017, they may be unbelievably great options for the seventh and eighth inning, or they might struggle to reestablish themselves.
Like Davis, I have a full getting-to-know style post on Koji Uehara coming out soon, but the short version of his risk is easy to explain, too. Uehara was injured in both 2015 (suffered a season-ending injury when a batted ball struck his wrist) and 2016 (spent some time on the disabled list with a pectoral strain) leading to multiple, consecutive drops in velocity. His production hasn’t slipped in any of the past few seasons (outside of the HR/FB ratio in 2016), but he is a 42-year-old reliever. The balance between upside and downside on the Cubs might not be more unknown than it is with Uehara.
Justin Grimm is one of the more tantalizing, but sometimes frustrating, relievers for Cubs fans, given the obvious ability and the annual swings between dominance and struggles over the course of a season. In all likelihood, Grimm will give the Cubs 50-60 innings out of the pen and something between 0.5-1.0 fWAR, but something much lower and much higher is conceivable. In other words, if sticks in one of the peaks or valleys for longer than usual, the resulting swing could be enormous.
And finally there’s Carl Edwards Jr. In Edwards, the Cubs might have their closer of the future, or they might have the guy who walked 15.5% of the batters in Triple-A at the start of the 2016 season. I believe greatly in Edwards and his ability to succeed, but anyone familiar with his story is well aware of the risks, which also includes a lot of missed time in 2014 with a shoulder injury.
So then, where does this leave the Cubs?
According to Craig Edwards, by taking on a bunch of risks, “the Cubs have increased their chances of having an elite reliever without paying the price of the big free agents who were on the market.” In other words, it would be extremely unlikely (and unfortunate) if not one of Davis, Uehara, Rondon, Strop, Grimm, and/or Edwards reached his full potential in 2017 and pitched like a truly dominant reliever. They should, in all likelihood, have someone step up and turn into that lockdown guy for October.
But more importantly, by adding Davis and Uehara, the Cubs have gone from one of the worst on-paper bullpens heading into 2017 (by the statistical projections, alone, before transactions) to the third best in baseball.
Indeed Davis (1.7 fWAR) and Uehara (1.2 fWAR) are projected to be the two most valuable relievers on the Cubs by quite a bit. If they can hold true to their projections, while one or more of the Cubs’ risky/upside relievers steps up, the bullpen can truly be a strength for both the regular season and (hopefully) the postseason.