The Optimistic Case for the 2019 Chicago Cubs Bullpen

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The Optimistic Case for the 2019 Chicago Cubs Bullpen

Chicago Cubs

While I have no doubt the Cubs front office is, in fact, scouring the relief market to try to at least bring in some additional, competitive depth, the message from the organization this week was an almost uniform: hey man, what’s the big deal?

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer and Chairmain Tom Ricketts each expressed confidence in the bullpen as it stands now, conceding that there could/should still be additions, but certainly not demonstrating the level of concern that – for example – we have been around here. And a day prior, Joe Maddon had even stronger words about his group of relievers, telling Mark Gonzales, “The bullpen is going to be fine …. I think the bullpen is going to be a strength.”

OK. Can we try to take a look at the optimistic case in the Cubs bullpen – credit the words of the men in charge for a moment – to stack it against the panicky way I routinely describe the pen? Maybe if we take a breath, things don’t look as bad?

First, here’s that panicky look I often post about the current 40-man roster relievers:

  • Brandon Morrow (34, didn’t pitch after July, November elbow cleanup, litany of past injuries)
  • Pedro Strop (33, season ended with a hamstring injury)
  • Carl Edwards Jr. (27, erratic season in performance, had a shoulder injury and a forearm injury)
  • Steve Cishek (32, wore down late in the year after heavy usage)
  • Mike Montgomery (29, might be needed in the rotation, was quietly fairly poor as a reliever last year)
  • Brandon Kintzler (34, was terrible with the Cubs, is an aging high-contact pitcher)
  • Tyler Chatwood (29, lost all semblance of control last year)
  • Brian Duensing (35, was terrible and injured last year)
  • Randy Rosario (24, scary peripherals all year)
  • Kyle Ryan (27, was good at AAA last year but did not earn call-up)
  • Dillon Maples (26, so much talent but hasn’t shown big league command)
  • James Norwood (25, good stuff but not established)
  • Rowan Wick (26, decent minor league production but not established)

I’ve framed it in a certain way, no doubt. But I swear I’m not *trying* to induce terror. That’s just the way I see things from a strategic planning perspective, where you *have* to anticipate the downside risks.

But, to be fair, bullpens are necessarily fickle, and – as Jed Hoyer said yesterday – you will pretty much always be able to point to downside risk in your crew. Unless you can pull a Yankees and load an entire bullpen with shutdown guys, you’re going to have to balance that downside risk with the realistic upside, and the available dollars.

So, let me now offer up the same kind of thing, but with a flip-side view:

  • Brandon Morrow (was once again dominant when he pitched – 1.47 ERA, good peripherals, good velo – used limited bullets last year, had a cleanup procedure that could help him be even healthier for most of 2019)
  • Pedro Strop (is healthy, is consistently excellent, wears his hat the right way, probably won’t pinch hit again)
  • Carl Edwards Jr. (has top 10% stuff in all of baseball, including a fastball will incredible spin, velo, and movement; when he commands it and pairs it with a killer curveball, he’s elite)
  • Steve Cishek (gave the Cubs 70.1 innings of 2.18 ERA ball last year, and if he’s healthy, he doesn’t even have to repeat quite that level or volume to be extremely valuable)
  • Mike Montgomery (although it was a down year for him in relief, he was solid in the rotation … and, to some extent, a pitcher is a pitcher – historically with the Cubs, he’s been quite useful as a reliever in a variety of roles)
  • Brandon Kintzler (things just didn’t work for him in a transition after a trade, but we’ve seen that before; quietly very good reliever, consistently (when healthy) for his entire career before that)
  • Tyler Chatwood (has pitched out of the bullpen before, and maybe a transition to that role will help simplify things for him – the stuff is obviously good enough)
  • Brian Duensing (maybe last year’s struggles were health-related, as he did spend a lot of time on the DL for this and that)
  • Randy Rosario (still only 24, and the front office clearly believes in his ability, despite the rough peripherals; only 22.2 innings of experience at AAA, so there could be some growth potential thanks to last year’s experience)
  • Kyle Ryan (only 27, has already had big league success as a reliever with the Tigers, and started to look very good down the stretch at Iowa last year)
  • Dillon Maples (comically talented, and the stuff is right there with Carl Edwards Jr.; when he commands the fastball juuuust a little bit, the slider becomes devastating)
  • James Norwood (steady climber through the system with very good stuff, flashed usability at the big league level last year despite only 17.2 innings of AAA experience)
  • Rowan Wick (front office targeted him from the Padres, so they must like what he’s got – very fast-climber in the minors despite so-so results/peripherals for a pure relief prospect, which usually means he’s well-liked by the scouts)

I don’t know what that exercise does for you, but it does smooth out the edges for me a little. Yes, of course I can see how this group could become a good bullpen. That stuff happens *every* year for multiple teams with a collection like this. Throw in some pitching prospects who surprisingly come up and succeed in relief (Adbert Alzolay in the second half to manage innings and get exposure? Dakota Mekkes gets a shot? Trevor Clifton a conversion?), and the Cubs could totally have a good bullpen again. Totally. I mean it. It’s possible.

… but there’s space on the 40-man roster for an addition, and you always want to give yourself more arms than you need for the early part of the season as utility shakes out and you figure out best who is going to be able to contribute in various roles.

There are still some useful and/or interesting relievers out there. The Cubs are gonna get one or two. But maybe we don’t have to be *quite* as panicky as we’ve been.

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Author: Brett Taylor

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