It wasn’t splashy, but the Cubs did exactly what they’ve said they were going to do by signing an inexpensive lefty reliever, Brian Duensing, Friday night. First things first, let’s make sure you’re pronouncing his name right. Think of it like telling someone the game is over and it’s time for Go, Cubs, Go: Done, sing.
Now that we’ve dispensed with that matter, let’s look at the signing and what it means for the Cubs. My immediate reaction is that picking up any veteran pitcher for only $2 million is very economically sound and provides significant leeway for said player’s performance. Which is to say that Duensing doesn’t need to be lights-out in order to be worth the money and the Cubs aren’t on the hook for much even if he craters completely.
Neither of those outcomes is very likely, though, as Duensing figures to be a depth guy who slots in there like a lefty Trevor Cahill. I’d say he’s a Travis Wood replacement, but I don’t think he’s got the hitting and fielding chops we saw from the shirtless Arkansan. Duensing really doesn’t offer much of the same LOOG-ability the Cubs lose with Wood’s departure, either.
A high third-round pick by the Twins in the 2005 draft, the former Cornhusker moved quickly through the lower levels of the minors as a starter. Though he began the 2006 season at low-A, Duensing ended his first professional campaign with 9 AA starts. He stayed at that level to open 2007, making another 9 starts before being promoted again. Things kind of stalled from there, as he spent all of 2008 at AAA.
An injury to Scott Baker — remember him? — opened the door for Duensing to make the Twins’ opening day roster in 2009 as a reliever. He ended up splitting time between AAA and the majors, posting a 3.64 ERA (4.13 FIP) over 84 innings pitched in 24 appearances (9 starts, which is becoming a common number). The following season was probably his best to date, as Duensing pitched to a 2.62 ERA (3.85 FIP) over 130.2 innings in 53 appearances (13 starts).
He made 28 starts in 2011 but then started in only 11 of his 55 appearances the following season. Since 2013, Duensing has been used strictly in a relief role, logging 73, 62, and 55 appearances, respectively, through 2015. That latter season represented the end of his Twins tenure, following which he agreed to a minor-league deal with the Royals. After being released and re-signed to a new deal, Duensing opted out in May and joined the Orioles on yet another minor-league contract.
Buck Showalter used the veteran southpaw sparingly out of the pen, giving him only 13.1 innings in 14 games, though he did show some faith in Duensing in the biggest — and perhaps the most infamous — game of the Orioles’ season. As you may recall, Duensing threw 5 pitches and registered a strikeout to open the 11th inning before giving way to Ubaldo Jimenez, who did not fare well. One way to look at it is to say Showalter screwed up by not pitching his Cy Young-candidate closer. Another would be to say that ol’ Buck just trusted Duensing more than Zach Britton.
While the latter is certainly not true, Duensing was in to LOOG in a tie game in the 11th inning on the road, so that’s not nothing. 2016 didn’t provide enough of a sample from which to draw any conclusions, but the newest Cub has generally fared well against like-handed hitters. He’s held lefties to a .614 OPS over the course of his career, while righties have put up a total that’s exactly 200 points higher.
When we limit the numbers to relief, Duensing has actually fared slightly worse (.622 OPS) against LHH and and significantly better against RHH (.755). Of course, that includes all those early seasons, so maybe we should narrow it to those seasons in which he worked strictly out of the pen. Since 2013, Duensing has allowed a .757 OPS to righties and a .713 OPS to lefties. Huh. Well, that’s not awesome. But does it really need to be?
There’s nothing about this guy that screams positive regression or that bears the markers of previous diamonds the Cubs have unearthed from the rough. Duensing’s career ERA (4.13) and FIP (4.08) are nearly identical and his K/9 (5.95) and BB/9 (2.87) marks are anything but exemplary. He’s not an extreme ground ball pitcher, but he’s done a decent job of keeping the ball in the park and has gotten better when it comes to generating soft contact. All in all, he’s a perfectly mediocre pitcher.
Exciting? Not in the least. But the Cubs don’t really need a guy to light up the radar gun and wow crowds with the sick movement on his slider. He’s going to eat up some low-leverage innings and be a lefty presence in the pen. Oh, and he’s doing it for what amounts to peanuts in the grand scheme of things. I assume the Cubs will go after a few more guys like this and just let attrition take place over the course of the season. Kinda meh, but that’s what they’ve done in the past with the pen and it’s what they said they’d do this year.