Allen Webster, Bullpen Construction, Minor League Options, and Opportunity Cost

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Allen Webster, Bullpen Construction, Minor League Options, and Opportunity Cost

Chicago Cubs

Last September, when Pedro Strop strained his hamstring running out a grounder in Washington, the Cubs had no choice but to call on AAA reliever Allen Webster … who hadn’t pitched in 17 days.

Webster was already signed to a 2019 minor league contract, and the Cubs surely knew calling him up and onto the 40-man roster would lead to a non-tender in the offseason. But the bullpen was so thin coming out of that Washington make-up game, the Cubs had to risk that their time with Webster might just be a few late September games. It was worth it.

Lucky for the Cubs, when Webster was eventually non-tendered, he agreed to sign another minor league contract with the organization. This Spring, Webster has been among the revelations at camp. Brett wrote about watching him on TV last week, and Arizona Phil at The Cub Reporter had an effusive comment when Webster touched 98 in one outing. Brett and I were on hand Tuesday night for Webster’s latest Spring Training appearance … and of course, we jinxed him. Webster walked the first batter, hit the second, and gave up a single to the fourth before wiggling out of his own jam. His Spring numbers are down to: 8 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 9 K.

The interesting thing to me about Webster is the Cubs are facing a similar decision now that they did last September. And, again, it is Strop’s hammy doing the prompting. Might it be worth adding Webster to the 25- (and 40-) man roster for Opening Day, if that means losing someone (him or another guy) sooner than you’d otherwise have to?

The reason for this question is twofold. First, Webster is out of minor league option years, so unlike guys like Alec Mills or Dillon Maples or Dakota Mekkes, once added to the 40-man, Webster can’t be sent to Iowa without passing through waivers. Second, the Cubs bullpen is already stocked with non-flexible options: only Carl Edwards Jr. can be sent cleanly to Iowa, and heck, he might be the closer out of the gate!

Let’s say, for arguments sake, that the Cubs really found a diamond in the rough in Webster. He could, theoretically, be under team control through the 2025 season. Is that asset worth losing to cover 10 days of a Pedro Strop injury in April, rather than rolling the dice on what Maples will show up? Or, does the combination of annual contention and Webster’s lack of options essentially ensure that eventually you’ll have to cut bait on him as an asset anyway, in which case you should squeeze what you can as soon as possible?

That’s an Opportunity Cost math problem that demands a rock solid internal evaluation on Webster – especially your internal confidence that, if he’s on the big league roster, he’s going to have a very good chance to stick on it all year.

The good news: Webster’s slider was a revelation in person on Tuesday. He drew five swings and misses from it, which he threw from 88-92 mph (the 92 was the flattest of the bunch). It is, I say without hyperbole, one of the best singular pitches in the Cubs organization right now.

The fastball was the issue. Webster’s velocity was the lowest it has been all spring, sitting 94-95 mph on the stadium gun. He had trouble commanding it, particularly leaving it up. Jesse Winker had no problem barreling 95 mph up the middle for the one-run single. The thin line between 94 and 97 miles per hour seems particularly important for Webster, as silly as that is to say.

Webster’s pitch mix from his three September appearances with the Cubs tell a similar story. He threw 55 pitches in total: 18 fastballs, 19 changeups, 18 sliders. The fastball was to blame when things went south: Webster’s home run allowed was a grooved fastball to Jeff Mathis, his walk and 2 HBPs both have fastballs to blame. One single against his slider was the lone damage done against an off-speed pitch.

As meaningless as Spring Training statistics and evaluations can be, it’s fascinating when an injury here and a hot couple weeks there can change a man’s career.

The Cubs have some big decisions ahead with the bullpen, and it’s clearly not just as simple as “Take the Best Eight to Dallas”.

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Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.