Cubs Offseason Overhaul: Bullpen Needs Strike-Throwers

The idea of walk-up music took on a whole different tone for hitters facing the Cubs bullpen this postseason, as we watched Cubs relievers avoid the strike zone with alarming frequency. It wasn’t just against the Nationals and Dodgers, either, as Chicago’s ‘pen walked an MLB-high 11.2 percent of the batters they faced during the regular season.

Handing out more than four free passes every nine innings isn’t going to work and it’s an issue Theo Epstein plans to correct this winter.

“[The walks are] sort of systemic across the board,” Epstein told 670 The Score’s Bernstein and Goff prior to Thursday’s loss. “So we have to find a way to address that going forward, and we will. Some of it is obviously personnel based, and it will be important for us to bring in some reliable strike-throwers going forward out of the pen.

“I know our pitching infrastructure is awesome, and I love them and we do so many things right. But I think the fact that it’s been two years in a row where we haven’t really thrown strikes and that most of our relievers have taken a step back with their strike throwing, that falls on me. We gotta find a way to fix it through personnel and also looking at our approach a little bit.”

Though perhaps not as sexy as the idea of signing and trading for new arms, working with relievers to adjust their approach could yield solid results. Epstein gave the example of being more aggressive in 2-1 counts, and I’d imagine not throwing four straight balls to an opposing pitcher with the bases loaded would also help.

Even with those internal improvements, the biggest impact is clearly going to come from bringing in those strike-throwing relievers Epstein talked about in both his radio hit and his postmortem press conference on Friday. But who are they and how exactly do the Cubs go about adding them?

We saw from the NLCS how dominant Brandon Morrow can be, and it just so happens that he’s a free agent after this season. However, the 33-year-old righty will be looking to capitalize on his recent performance with a contract that should offer a significant raise over the $1.25 million he earned this season.

There’s also Anthony Swarzak, who is familiar with both Chicago and the Cubs from his time with the White Sox and Brewers this past season (I mean, his name even sounds like he’s from Chicago). Like Morrow, Swarzak is a righty and a former starter who took several years to round into form. Also like Morrow, he’s a couple years into his 30’s and will surely be able to command a good bit more than the $900,000 he has earned over the last few seasons.

While both are certainly options, it hasn’t been the Cubs’ MO to spend big on relief pitchers, particularly knowing how volatile bullpen performance can be. So the real task may not be signing Morrow or Swarzak or someone along those lines, but to identify the next stud reliever from among the failed starters or other such castoffs around the league. Andrew Miller, anyone?

We’ve seen the Cubs load up on low-profile arms each season in the hopes that one of them will actually pan out in a new role or with different tutelage. Perhaps it’ll pay off this season. Or perhaps the answer lies with someone already in their system, like Dillon Maples. He doesn’t fit the “strike-thrower” mold, but has the nasty stuff to make you comfortable giving him the chance to figure it out.

Then there’s Adbert Alzolay, a 22-year-old righty starter who may project better as a reliever and who has been acquitting himself quite well in the Arizona Fall League. It’s hard to imagine him being ready to join the big club until maybe mid-season at the earliest, though, so he’s more of an ancillary option.

Along those lines, Brian Duensing was a very pleasant surprise and would be welcomed back should he not press for a massive raise to his $2 million salary. Though he’s not necessarily a high-leverage pitcher, he’s the type of steady presence you need in the bullpen.

The Cubs will also have to count on the continued maturation of Carl Edwards Jr. and the return to form of Justin Wilson, at least to some extent. Both had a tendency to lose all command of the zone at times, thus complicating the Cubs’ plans during the season and now. Though I can’t speak to it from direct knowledge, one can easily assume that the hope had been for one of those two to ascend into the closer’s role after this season. Which brings us to Wade Davis.

It’s unlikely Davis will get the type of time and money we saw handed out to Kenley Jansen (5 years, $80 million) and Aroldis Chapman (5 years, $86 million), but Mark Melancon (4 years, $62 million) feels like a safe comp. Even as good as he’s been, that kind of money for Davis could be viewed as a luxury given all the other areas the Cubs need to shore up. Then again, his presence at the back end of the pen solidifies everything down the line.

Some of this may come down to what the Cubs are able to do with their rotation, as that cost would determine their appetite for spending on the ‘pen. But when it’s all said and done, I do believe they’ll put some legit money into a reliever. If Davis is cool with a deal of no more than four years, I’d love to see him back in the closer’s role. That just makes it so much easier to put the other pieces in place.

I’d also be very down with Swarzak, who’s a little tougher on lefties and who shouldn’t have quite the price tag we’ll see with Morrow. Speaking of, that market should really start to come into focus in a couple weeks when the World Series has concluded and the Winter Meetings open.

Regardless of exactly how it comes together, you can be certain that the Cubs’ bullpen will look significantly different in 2018.

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3 Comments

  1. With all that Theo has said about the fungibility and unpredictability of bullpens, I’d still be surprised to see the Cubs sign Wade Davis to 4/$62M money. And I’m a big Wade Davis fan. It will be fascinating this winter to learn which pitchers the Cubs sign or trade for.

  2. I remember when Lester came off the mound in his final appearance before he went on the DL and got in Bosio’s face in the dugout. He shook his head as he walked away. That was the day Bosio lost backing with the staff and, ultimately, Maddon. IMHO.

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