The Cubs’ bullpen has been their achilles heal most of the season, but Theo Epstein, Joe Maddon, and Co. have shown a commitment to fixing it at any cost.
The Chicago Cubs bullpen had its struggles early in the season, but you have to hand it to the Cubs front office; they aren’t just rolling out a bunch of scrubs and hoping for the best. After posting a 4.37 ERA in the month of May, the Cubs bullpen has been reshaped through welcoming back Justin Grimm, Travis Wood moving out of the starting rotation, and through an overall better performance from Jason Motte.
The Cubs have also made a move from outside the organization, signing Rafael Soriano to a minor league deal in the hope that he would be able to step in as either the closer or a set-up man. Of course, no good thing comes without a price, and it looks like they aren’t expecting him to join the club anytime soon. It’s likely that he should be ready after the All-Star break.
In other Cubs bullpen rumors, they’ve been heavily tied to Jonathan Papelbon of the Philadelphia Phillies. Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation wrote some good stuff about the link between Papelbon and the Cubs, and even touched on how Papelbon has made it clear he’d like to pitch for the Northsiders. It makes a lot of sense; he was drafted by the Cubs front office when they were in Boston and saw some of his biggest career highlights while pitching there.
Papelbon is 34 years old, and has a $13 million option next year that vests if he has 26 more games finished this year. It’s a lot of money to pay for a closer, which is something this Cubs front office has tried to stay away from doing. The other thing that complicates a potential deal is the Phillies themselves. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is pretty delusional about what his players can bring back in trades, and before you try to guess what he might want for Papelbon, think about what he asked for in return for Ben Revere.
It’s worth mentioning that, while no trade for Papelbon is imminent, the rumors have been floating around for a bit that this deal was close. It all started when a blogger claimed to have insider knowledge of a big deal (not necessarily Papelbon) going down with the Cubs. Skepticism rules the internet, and with good reason. It’s tough to trust a fairly anonymous guy without credentials who writes on the internet (I do feel his pain, though).
Eventually, he began to backtrack slightly and admit that he made a mistake in assuming the deal was going to be completed soon, but he has yet to say that he’s heard the deal is off. No matter whether this guy is right, wrong, or just pulling all of our legs, it’s still big that the Cubs are going hard after a legitimate closer like Jonathan Papelbon.
So what does the near future of the Cubs bullpen look like? Barring injuries, I think it’s fair to assume that Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Jason Motte, and James Russell are going to have roles in the pen. That, essentially, leaves two spots open if the Cubs are rolling with 12 pitchers. They’ve gone with 13 for a decent chunk of the season, though, mostly due to the early inability of Cubs pitchers to pitch beyond the fifth inning.
So let’s go ahead and assume the Cubs have three open spots. Currently, those three spots are occupied by Zac Rosscup, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson. Rosscup has been up-and-down in his time with the Cubs this year, posting a 4.29 ERA and 4.59 FIP in 21 innings pitched. It’s sort of unfair, however, because Rosscup has the ability to get left-handed batters out. On the season, he’s allowed an insane 1.012 OPS to right-handed batters while holding lefties to a fantastic .347 OPS.
The problem is, Maddon has used Rosscup for entire innings and not in the LOOGY role, and Rosscup has faced over twice as many righties as lefties. Maddon’s other left-hander, Travis Wood, is a failed starter trying to figure things out in the pen. After an initial struggle after the change, he’s been pretty good lately. He has only allowed two earned runs in 9.2 innings pitched out of the pen, allowing seven hits, four walks, and striking out 11.
Jackson has been used as a long-reliever, and has been hit and miss this year. He has a 2.79 ERA and a 2.70 FIP in 19.1 innings pitched, which looks pretty good on the surface. But this tweet explains everything you need to know about how Jackson has pitched this season, and makes a strong case for him to not do anything but pitch in mop-up duty. It’s rough carrying a $11 million reliever that can’t be trusted in high leverage situations, but it’s reality.
It’s tough figuring out where things go from here. If you designate Jackson for assignment, you pay him the money, lose an able bodied long-reliever who has performed well in that role, and all you get out of it is an open spot. Wood makes less money, but is probably more valuable. You may not be able to get much in a trade, but a trade is possible.
Rosscup can still be sent to Triple-A, but with Russell’s ability to pitch to both righties and lefties, Rosscup makes sense as the LOOGY. That means, we’re down to deciding between Jackson and Wood for a single spot to open one up for Soriano in a month (or another pitcher sooner, if a trade happens). That choice makes me uncomfortable, in a bad way. A very bad way.
The reality of it is that if the Cubs are going to continue to improve their pen, one of the two guys is going to either have to go back to the rotation (gag!) or go somewhere else. Don’t forget that the Cubs have Neil Ramirez recovering from an injury that they’ll need to make room for at some point, as well as a slew of others at Triple-A, such as Yoervis Medina, Joe Ortiz, Drake Britton, Don Roach, and Carl Edwards Jr.
So the good news for Cubs fans is that the team seem pretty committed to figuring this thing out. They’ve made one move so far, with rumors of another potentially happening soon. It remains to be seen how that will all work out, but my bet is the front office will get it right. And if they don’t, they’ll try something else.