The bullpen was a strength for the Cubs before fading down the stretch as the rest of the team followed suit. Much of that came as the result of injury, but relievers are notoriously fickle and don’t typically operate under the same long-term deals as position players or starters. So while Theo Epstein spoke about devoting all of his energy to fixing a broken offense, it’s obvious that they’ll need to bolster the ‘pen as well.
Lefty relievers are more valuable than their righty counterparts, and the Cubs will be in the market for at least one southpaw with Justin Wilson and Jorge De La Rosa hitting free agency. Brian Duensing is still under contract, but was totally ineffective bordering on unusable last season. Mike Montgomery should transition back from the rotation, although it’s unclear exactly what his role will be if the primary starters remain mostly healthy.
There are a lot of intriguing possibilities out there for the Cubs, so let’s take a closer look at a few of the most interesting options.
Starting close to home, would bringing back De La Rosa or Wilson be worth it? Wilson had a decent, if somewhat uneven, year in 2018 with a 3.46 ERA, 69 nice strikeouts, and 33 walks in 54.2 innings. On the surface, it was an obvious improvement over the former Tiger’s awful 2017. He’s still capable of the kind of performance that made him such a big trade target and the Cubs are familiar with him, so it’s easy to see how he could return.
Frustration with Wilson stemmed from his erratic performance and the way he came unglued after his trade from Detroit, but the opposite is true of De La Rosa. He had a remarkable 1.29 ERA in 21 innings for the Cubs, even earning his first career save in September, after being released by the Diamondbacks in early August. On the other hand, he is going to be 38 and was available for the Cubs after posting an ERA north of 5.00 in the first half. So not exactly a safe bet.
The priciest available southpaw is likely to be former Orioles closer Zach Britton, who finished 2018 with the Yankees and is predicted to land a three-year, $33 million deal (all predictions listed come via MLB Trade Rumors). Britton had perhaps the best season ever for a reliever when he posted an 0.54 ERA and 47 saves in 2016. Buck Showalter famously left his ace closer in the bullpen when the Jays walked off the Wild Card game that year.
Injury problems have been an issue the last two seasons for the soon-to-be 31-year-old, who was limited by forearm tightness in 2017 before blowing his Achilles tendon in a offseason workout. He returned soon enough in 2018 to be traded to New York in July, where he posted a 2.88 ERA in 25 innings. The Cubs have been linked strongly to Britton at each of the last two trade deadlines, so the connection is there.
Another dominant reliever from 2016 was Andrew Miller, another man to whom the Cubs were tied in trade rumors a couple years ago. That season featured a 1.51 ERA and a jaw-dropping 123 strikeouts with only nine walks in 74.1 innings pitched (13.76 K/BB ratio). Of course, Cubs fans may best remember Miller for being on the wrong end of that glorious David Ross home run in Game 7 of the World Series (which the Cubs won, people forget that).
Miller’s tallied only 95 strikeouts against 21 walks in 2017, but his ERA was actually down to 1.44 over 62 innings. The following season was a disaster that saw Miller battle through right knee tendinitis and left shoulder pain, pitching only 34 innings with a 4.24 ERA.
Miller’s agent claims he has gotten a clean bill of health, but it was the Mets’ team doctor who examined him, so make of that what you will. A truly healthy Miller could still be one of the best relievers in the game but his age and recent injury history are both conspiring against him quite heartily. He’s predicted to land a three-year deal for $27 million or so.
A more cost-effective option for the Cubs might be Tony Sipp, who posted a 1.88 ERA over 34 innings as a lefty specialist for the Astros. The last two seasons tell a much different story, with a 5.79 ERA in 2017 a 6.19 FIP the year before. That is a big risk for a pitcher entering his age-35 season.
Zach Duke, another veteran who feels like he has been around forever, split last year between the Twins and Mariners. He compares very similarly to De La Rosa and had a 4.15 ERA in 52 innings in 2018. Both he and Sipp are risky, but certainly wouldn’t impact the payroll as much if they flopped.
The Cubs clearly need to upgrade their bullpen in 2019 after the late-season fade in 2018 and the simple reality of age and inconsistency. It’s just a matter of how big an investment they want to make to bolster it. Will they go for a bigger splash with Britton or Miller? Or more of a value move like Wilson, Sipp, or De La Rosa?
Honestly, I think the Cubs may try to catch lightning in a bottle with Miller. They tried the same thing with Brandon Morrow last season and it worked for a while. Until it didn’t. Miller’s health, and faith in his ability to maintain it, will be key to any potential decision. Same goes for anyone the Cubs bring in. You can never guarantee anything in baseball, but Epstein’s going to do his best to give Joe Maddon as many backup plans as possible.