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State of the Cubs: Bullpen

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the second installment on the bullpen.

Two years in a row, the Cubs bullpen faded at the most crucial point in the season. Much of that was due to overuse earlier in the season — something they hope to address by letting their starters go deeper into games in the first few months of 2019.

But 2018’s fade was more complicated than that. Sure, there was overuse (Steve Cishek), but there were also injuries (Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop) and the mixture of physical, mental and mechanical issues that led to Carl Edwards Jr.’s collapse. By the time the National League Wild-Card Game rolled into Wrigley Field, the bullpen consisted of Strop pitching through “severe pain,” Jesse Chavez, Cishek coming off back-to-back-to-back appearances and then a slew of starting pitchers.

Needless to say, that’s not how the Cubs drew it up and it’s why the bullpen is a major area of focus for Theo Epstein’s front office this winter.

Here’s how the bullpen looks at the moment:

Depth chart

1. Brandon Morrow
2. Pedro Strop
3. Carl Edwards Jr.
4. Steve Cishek
5. Mike Montgomery
6. Brandon Kintzler
7. Alec Mills
8. Randy Rosario
9. Brian Duensing
10. Justin Hancock
11. Tyler Chatwood?
12. Allen Webster
13. Dillon Maples
14. James Norwood
15. Jerry Vasto

The Cubs have more than $30 million committed to this bullpen, and that’s not including the arbitration raises for Montgomery and Edwards (which is estimated at a combined $4.4 million). If Chatwood actually makes a move to the bullpen due to a crowded rotation, that number adds another $12.5 million.

The Cubs are in a tough spot financially and have resources tied up in Kintzler ($5 million) and Duensing ($3.5 million) — a pair of veterans coming off down 2018 seasons but have a long track record of success and could be prime bounceback candidates in 2019 (which would certainly bode well for the Cubs). 

Strop remains one of the greatest relief pitchers in Cubs history and picking up his $6.25 million option was a no-brainer. Cishek was the MVP of the bullpen (and possibly the entire pitching staff) before fading down the stretch and he should again be a reliable option with a more realistic workload in 2019.

Morrow and Edwards are the X-factors, but for different reasons. 

Morrow is a legitimate stud in any relief role and his attacking style of pitching sets a great example for Edwards and others. When he was serving as closer, the Cubs bullpen ranked as the best in baseball, allowing Maddon a plethora of options for the middle innings to bridge the gap from starting pitchers to Morrow. 

Edwards possesses some of the best pure stuff (or “shit” as Morrow puts it) of any reliever in baseball, but he also has work to do on the mechanical and mental side of the game to ensure the late-season collapses become a thing of the past. Things got so bad for Edwards in 2018, he wasn’t even active for the Wild-Card game — the reason cited was a forearm issue, but he also struggled the entire month of September (12 walks, 5.14 ERA in 7 innings). 

If the Cubs could somehow harness Edwards’ incredible natural ability for a full season, it would change the entire complexion of the bullpen all year, but especially in September and October. 

What’s next?

Even if Edwards, Kintzler and Duensing find their way back into Joe Maddon’s circle of trust, the Cubs have a clear need for another high-leverage reliever or two this winter.

With the dearth of quality left-handed options (remember: Montgomery may wind up in the rotation at some point again), it would be a natural fit to see the Cubs add another southpaw with some closing experience, but GM Jed Hoyer said earlier this month he’s more worried about quality than which arm they throw with.

“Certainly [a lefty] is ideal,” Hoyer said at the GM Meetings. “I’d probably more focus on good relievers than handedness, honestly. The key is not only to have a good bullpen all year, you gotta have that bullpen pitching well down the stretch. Part of that, I think, is having the depth to not overuse guys. So that’s certainly a focus for us. 

“We have a good rotation, our bullpen performed exceptionally well last year — it really did. But we have to make sure it does that again by adding enough depth or get to that point in the season. I’m actually impressed our bullpen held up as well as it did given our short starts early in the season that they actually held up pretty well. But we have to be aware of the impact that can have on us next year.”

The bottom line

There’s no shortage of reliable relievers available on the free agent — from Craig Kimbrel to Andrew Miller to Cody Allen to Zach Britton. It’s possible the Cubs would want to outbid other teams for the services of Miller or Britton but Epstein historically shies away from shelling out big money for closers, so don’t expect them to be among the top suitors for Kimbrel. Even Morrow’s deal was only $21 million guaranteed over two years.

It’s more likely we’ll see the Cubs make some smaller moves in free agency (maybe bringing back Jesse Chavez?) and potentially acquire an impact reliever via trade (a la Wade Davis for Jorge Soler two years back).

Either way, the Cubs will add another guy who can pitch in the late innings (possibly even at closer) and probably another lefty or two to serve as depth and competition with Duensing/Rosario/Vasto.

It would help if the Cubs had potential impact relievers coming up through the farm system, but they can’t count on that given they’ve had zero luck in that area over the past few years.

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