Our review of the 2019 Cubs season began with a look at a starting rotation that was solid, if far from spectacular. While in need of some minor upgrades, the starting staff was probably the team’s best asset. The same could not be said of the bullpen, a group which never fully stabilized after a poor start to the season.
Most of the attention goes to the back end, rightfully so, but Cubs relievers were actually quite effective in low- and medium-leverage situations. As Tony Andracki of NBC Sports Chicago notes, their 3.19 team ERA in those situations was tied for second best in baseball. In those high-leverage situations in which they were holding a narrow lead late in the game, however, Chicago’s 7.92 ERA was ranked 24th according to FanGraphs.
Despite the doom and gloom surrounding the relief corps, a few flickers of hope emerged in 2019 as unexpected contributors from the minors showed the ability to anchor the 2020 ‘pen. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look back at last season and forward to how the Cubs can build a better relief corps.
As many of the more established pieces of the bullpen faltered early in 2019, opportunities emerged for others to take on more important roles. Rowan Wick was called up in the middle of the season and quickly earned a high-leverage role by posting an excellent 2.43 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 33.1 innings. Control was a bit of an issue with 16 walks, but overall he was a real bright spot.
Lefty Kyle Ryan earned a more prominent role due to a unique delivery that he tweaked very slightly partway through the season to great effect. He had a 3.54 ERA in 61.1 frames in 2019, good for 1.1 WAR. Brandon Kintzler had a bounce-back season with a 2.68 ERA in 57 innings, though late injury issues slowed the 34-year old down the stretch.
Tyler Chatwood pitched quality innings in a swingman role, putting up a 3.76 ERA across 76 innings and showing more velocity and control than in 2018. David Phelps came over in a trade from the Blue Jays and had a 3.18 ERA in 17 mostly low-leverage innings. Despite some high-leverage slip-ups and injuries, Steve Cishek had a 2.95 ERA in 64 innings pitched.
What didn’t work
Pedro Strop had been the Cubs’ best reliever since he came from the Orioles in 2014, but an April hamstring injury derailed his season and he struggled to a 4.97 ERA in just 41.2 innings. Strop was far from alone in his struggles last season, as Carl Edwards Jr. was so bad in just 15.1 frames he was shipped to the Padres in July. World Series hero Mike Montgomery was likewise traded to the Royals after his poor performance.
Brandon Morrow was never able to return from his 2018 elbow injury and missed all of 2019. New addition Brad Brach had a ghastly 6.13 ERA in 39.2 innings before being released. Among their other second-chance candidates and trial balloons, Dillon Maples, Allen Webster, Derek Holland, and Randy Rosario all flopped in small sample sizes.
The front office tried a bold mid-season move to solidify the bullpen, signing free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel in June. A qualifying offer recipient, Kimbrel went without a team for the first two-plus months of the season waiting for the draft-pick compensation tied to his signing to expire. After finally landing a three-year, $43 million dollar deal in Chicago, he stumbled to a 6.53 ERA that included 12 walked and a whopping nine homers allowed in just 30.1 innings.
Kimbrel will likely be the Cubs closer in 2020, so they have to hope a full spring training will lead to more positive results. The rest of the bullpen is in pretty rough shape and finding arms for high-leverage spots is going to be vitally important. The middle innings weren’t an issue, but a lack of hard throwers who can miss bats without missing the strike zone has long been a problem for the Cubs.
Finding high-velocity arms should be a priority heading into this season, with proven strike-throwers coming in right behind. The Cubs can’t afford to simply cross their fingers and hope that a guy returns to health or suddenly starts pitching well again after clearly proving he’s lost it.
Would the Cubs consider bringing back Strop, Cishek, or Kintzler on one-year deals? All three are free agents and would likely have to take a pay cut to remain in Chicago. Can Wick and Ryan build on their quality seasons and become bullpen mainstays? Could Chatwood’s electric stuff play in more of a late-inning role? Another area to look closely at is the minor league system. Adbert Alzolay got his feet wet in 2019 and could be more suited to a relief role long-term.
The Cubs’ bullpen was a disaster that blew 28 saves, an unacceptable number even if we were talking about a team that wasn’t expected to contend. The relief corps is the most unpredictable facet of an unpredictable sport and the small-sample-size world of relievers is prone to wild swings in performance from season to season. As such, the only guarantee we can make for 2020 is that we can’t make any guarantees at all.
So while Chicago having a significantly different looking ‘pen in 2020 doesn’t necessarily augur a better outcome, at least we know a few fresh faces may earn a little more benefit of the doubt.