Cubs Happy with Bullpen Depth Despite Questions Surrounding Top Relievers

I have a confession to make: I’m sort of concerned about the Cubs bullpen. A unique worry shared by no one else, I’m sure. We’re not talking about full-blown freaking out, but there’s some definite disquiet.

The causes for my concern are many, with the following items heading the list:

  • Brad Brach, who is projected to be the most valuable Cubs reliever, is only throwing in the high 80’s as he recovers his strength following a bout with mono.
  • Pedro Strop has another hamstring injury.
  • Xavier Cedeño’s wrist is hurt.
  • Brandon Morrow’s recovery is apparently ahead of schedule but his return is still unclear.
  • Carl Edwards Jr. has command issues and had shoulder fatigue throughout last year.
  • Tony Barnette is being eased back from last season’s shoulder injury.

These six relievers are projected to be the most valuable for the Cubs next year, according to ZiPS.

Name FIP ERA IP WAR
Tony Barnette 3.23 3.35 43 0.5
Xavier Cedeno 3.4 3.33 46 0.4
Brad Brach 3.45 3.41 63.3 0.7
Brandon Morrow 3.62 3.38 37.3 0.3
Carl Edwards Jr. 3.68 3.67 56.3 0.5
Pedro Strop 3.74 3.48 51.7 0.4

On a more positive note, the number of internal bullpen options available from the minors is encouraging. Current starters Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Duane Underwood Jr., and Duncan Robinson could be utilized out of the ‘pen in Chicago. Relievers like Dakota Mekkes, James Norwood, Dillon Maples, and Rowan Wick, plus veterans George Kontos and Junichi Tazawa, could have opportunities to cement roles in the bullpen by the end of 2019.

“I think we have better overall ‘pen depth this year than we’ve had in the past,” Theo Epstein told the media prior to Thursday’s game in Mesa. “Some of the arms that we’re going to be able to have in the Triple-A bullpen are guys that we’ll be really comfortable calling up. So, I think that depth will help us get through, if a couple guys [are sidelined].”

As undeniable as that depth is, the Cubs are nonetheless unreliable as presently constructed. And since the NL Central is poised to be one of the best divisions in MLB, the Cubs cannot afford to wait for their pieces to develop. They need a deep, reliable bullpen by the time the games start to count. But if you’re holding your breath for the splashy move many have been hoping for, Epstein isn’t about to hand you an oxygen tank.

“As far as how we look at possibly bringing in someone from the outside, it’s just the same as always,” Epstein said. “We’re always looking to improve if we can, but…I don’t foresee anything significant at all at this time.”

The baseball boss sounds confident enough, but I don’t know how he can say with real conviction that the Cubs have a formidable bullpen when most of their top relievers are surrounded by serious questions. Then again, maybe Epstein has some answers we’re not yet privy to.

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Brendan Miller

Brendan Miller is part of the Cubs Related Podcast duo with Corey Freedman. Brendan, who has twice as many Twitter followers as Corey, often writes about baseball analytics and scouting for Cubs Insider.

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6 Comments

  1. Big concern bc we don’t have many, if any, healthy elite BP pieces. We’re gonna need more from starters this year (Yu), and fewer offensive droughts. But maybe some of the AAA guys turn out to be diamonds in the rough.

    1. There are some potential bright spots as well however, such as Duensing being healthy and pitching well, and Mekkes (maybe) emerging as a piece that can help them this year. Cishek hasn’t pitched much, but hasn’t given up a run yet, and if Edwards stays healthy – I like the upside there. Brach and Morrow need to get healthy, but if they do, and the above stays positive – they could end up with a darn good pen.

      1. As a whole, I like the group, but it just doesn’t compare w/ MIL or NYY, or other elite BP’s. Maybe this group is top 10, if entirely healthy, but w/ the inevitable injuries, it’s really just MLB avg. But, I’m also a little higher than most on our SP staff. This season feels like bigger AAA contributions coming from Mekkes, Maples, Norwood, and some DFA’s for Kinzler, Duesing, and Chatwood. Maybe I’ll be surprised, but I think it’s our weakest link and Theo is wishful thinking b/c the checkbook is closed.

        1. All fair and possible. It’s just so, so difficult to project how good any given bullpen will be any given year. Not only do injuries wreak havoc (for all teams), but performances go up and down for so many players. So at least the Cubs have a shot at having a good pen. At least we’re not giving a roster spot to Grimm this year…

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