Every postseason, it feels like the amount of discussion on bullpens gets more and more. It’s the reason teams are still playing, or it’s the reason they’re not. It’s the main focus of an offseason, or this is the offseason where a team is going to try something new with their pen. And we go through it over and over.
The Cubs pen certainly wasn’t good this postseason, and it really danced with the devil all year because it couldn’t find the zone consistently. And now we do this dance where we try and figure out what the Cubs will and should do. And they’re not always the same.
The thing about bullpens that a lot of people forget is that by their definition, they’re weird. They’re always going to be volatile. They are, in certain terms the worst players on your team. Most of them are failed starters. If they were better than they were, they very likely would be in a different role. Some are raised as relievers through the system, but only after they’ve proven they can’t start.
So with a lot of pens, you can bring the same exact cast back the next year and get completely different results simply because it’s a bullpen. Which is why I’m not sure massive upheaval in the Cubs pen, while spending an unusual amount of money on relievers is something I’d want to see.
Because some of the problem arms in the pen have a track record of success. It’s hard to remember now, but it was only a year ago that Hector Rondon was rocking a 7-to-1 K/BB ratio. He could rebound to that if fully healthy. He could not. He might discover a new pitch. Jim Hickey could find something with his grip and suddenly he’s back.
The same goes for Justin Wilson, who is only a year removed from a 3-to-1. In the end, he only threw 17 innings with the Cubs. Is that enough to conclude he’s never going to find it again?
Carl Edwards Jr. has never actually found the plate consistently, but we’ve all seen the stuff. He’s at the crux of his career, but someone likely is going to figure out to get him to throw that cutter over the plate all the time and suddenly you’ve got a real weapon.
It’s a lot to go right in one season, but it certainly could because you’re asking two pitchers to get back to something they’ve already done before. That gives you four relievers you’d want to bring out of the pen in Strop, Rondon, Wilson, and Edwards. You still have Montgomery around for other assignments, who’s never going to roll through a season but will usually be effective enough.
Does Dillon Maples figure into it later? Maybe. There will be other names that we don’t even know about now.
That brings us to Wade Davis. He’s going to get a lot of money. Mark Melancon’s contract seems a good barometer. But that seems a bridge too far for a reliever over 30 who had control problems. He struck out more hitters than he had in four seasons, and this seems to be a theme of the Cubs pen this past season. Rondon’s K/9 was highest of his career, but so were his walks. So were Edwards’s. Wilson spent more of the year in Detroit but it was the same story. The only pitcher to see a decline in both strikeouts and walks per 9 was Pedro Strop. Was this a team thing? Chasing K’s and missing and ending up with walks? Is the cure as simply as just being more aggressive?
Looking over it, among Cubs relievers who made 30 appearances or more, only one had a sub-3,00 BB/9. That was Brian Duensing. The Rays had four both this year and last, and four in ’15. And again in ’14. This may just be the pitchers the Rays had, but at least it’s a trend.
Perhaps I’m in the minority, and I’m fairly sure it would be a small one, but I’d be for Theo Epstein going back to the pen he really wants to, and he tried in his first year in Boston in ’03. That’s a closer-less one. Just assemble a bunch of arms and throw them as the matchups dictate. We’re getting closer to that more and more. If you don’t have a Jansen or Kimbrel or Chapman, why force it? With Wilson and Rondon, assuming any kind of revival from both, they’d have closing experience. Strop has pitched big innings. They’ll have to get between C.J.’s ears a bit.
There’s already been talk of Brendan Morrow. Though as we saw with Chapman, extensive use in the postseason through the World Series can carry over into the next season, at least for a while. But there are plenty of Morrows to be found. Guys who find a new release point and suddenly have a year or two where no one can touch them. You’re essentially just trying to herd cats.
And if it doesn’t work when the season starts, you go and find others midseason for not all that much. The Nationals got Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle in the middle of the season for only a couple middling prospects. Relievers are basically everywhere.
You’ll never have a truly locked in bullpen, unless you’re the Yankees (and they’ll have players to re-sign and a Betances to rebuild). The Royals couldn’t keep theirs together for more than a couple years. It’s the an