Justin Grimm’s release yesterday was not entirely unexpected, given that we knew he was not locked into a bullpen job, and releasing him when the Cubs did would allow them to save just under $2 million in salary. If Grimm did not look ready to really contribute this year, what happened was going to happen. He didn’t, and it happened. Hopefully he latches on with another organization (outside the NL Central) and gets it back.
But, even as the decision was note entirely unexpected, it does re-frame the state of the bullpen competition.
At present, there are six guys locked into the expected eight-man bullpen when the season opens: Brandon Morrow, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, and Justin Wilson.
The seventh spot will go to Pedro Strop if he’s healthy enough to start the season on the 25-man roster, but he’s been delayed by a calf injury and then an illness. I’d say the start of the season for him is not guaranteed at this point.
So, at least to start the year, the Cubs may have two spots available in the bullpen to choose from among the follow pitchers still in camp, whose status in parenthesis could impact the decision:
- Anthony Bass (on minor league contract)
- Eddie Butler (40-man roster, out of minor league options – must pass through waivers before he could be sent to the minor leagues)
- Justin Hancock (on minor league contract)
- Dillon Maples (40-man, options)
- Randy Rosario (40-man, options)
- Kyle Ryan (on minor league contract)
- Shae Simmons (40-man, options)
All else equal, I probably would have pegged Maples and Simmons as the favorites for that final spot, behind Grimm. But Maples has really struggled this Spring (and has options, so he could continue to work at AAA), and Simmons left an outing with a shoulder issue.
Rosario has pitched well and got a shout out from Theo Epstein. Ryan has put up some good numbers this spring and has had a good deal of big league success with the Tigers. Both are lefties, however, and the Cubs may not want to go with four lefties in the bullpen.
Butler, nominally a starting pitcher, is out of options, so if the Cubs want to hang onto him, they may have to carry him out of Spring Training. And who knows, maybe he could emerge as a reasonably effective bullpen arm? The stuff is certainly there. Sometimes the command tightens up for guys upon a move to the bullpen.
Sahadev Sharma writes about Grimm’s release here at the Athletic – he was very well-liked – and notes that Butler’s chances of making the bullpen may not be as strong as you think, thanks in large part to not having shown the ability to miss big league bats over a relatively long opportunity to do so with the Rockies and Cubs.
Instead, if there’s only one spot open, Sharma appears to be betting that it goes to non-roster invitee Anthony Bass, who is returning from Japan. Not unlike we discussed this morning about the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure, the team believes they’ve seen something in Bass’s repertoire that can be tweaked – get the fastball up and in, use the slider more – to bring out more effectiveness. There’s a ton more in Sharma’s piece about Bass’s unique journey, and why the 30-year-old righty might be a good bet right now for the Cubs. To that I say, hey, if the Cubs believe he can outperform Butler, then go for it. Maybe you find one of those guys who wandered a bit, figured it out, and then landed with the right organization to put it all together. With relievers, we’ve seen that story play out before.
I think, as we sit here today, it’s still pretty wide open among almost all of those guys on the list. It might take someone really showing something in these final two weeks of the spring to separate himself. And if Pedro Strop starts on the DL, the Cubs might be able to hang onto two of these guys for a bit. Generally speaking, I hope the Cubs just pick the guy(s) they believe will have the best impact in a middle relief role, with a little bit of upside to contribute in more meaningful spots.
Note, though: unless the minor league deal guys like Bass have an early opt out, then the only pitcher the Cubs risk losing with whatever decision they make is Butler. Unless the Cubs have decided it’s never going to happen with them for Butler, my default if you need a tiebreaker is: don’t lose potentially useful pieces for nothing.