Yesterday I did an overview of the Cubs 2014 starting rotation. Now we transition to taking a look at the refreshed bullpen of the Cubs. With a 96-loss season in 2013 that began with the continued struggles of then-Cubs closer Carlos Marmol, it is easy to overlook some of the bright spots that will look to only grab more attention in 2014. That is despite the fact that the Cubs pen does not return arguably the brightest piece from last year’s relievers: veteran Kevin Gregg and his 33 saves that came after replacing Marmol.
The current relief crew has a few returning arms and, as a unit, the bullpen will look to provide marked improvement from last year’s patchwork pen squad that included appearances by Shawn Camp, Michael Bowden, Blake Parker, and Carlos Villanueva. Below is a rundown of the members of the bullpen and the level of production that will need to be seen for the Cubs to a) improve on 2013 and b) be considered an honest contender.
1) Jose Veras
The closer is typically the last man out of the bullpen during a game, but he is also generally the first to get attention for both the success and failures of a bullpen. Coming out of the game in 2014, that role belongs to Veras. The new Cub was essentially named the save man when he was signed in the offseason for $3.85 million with a club option. The closer comes off of a 21-save 2013 season while splitting time with the Astros and Tigers. As bad as the Cubs were last year, there were still plenty of save opportunities. Veras figures to get his share this season considering Gregg ended up with 33 saves in 2013. Despite a rocky spring, look for the right-handed Veras to at least tally 20 plus saves with a minimum of a 85% conversion rate. If that save total seems low to you, that is only because the 34-year-old could be trade bait come July if he can replicate his 2013 season and the Cubs are sellers.
The projected save total can easily eclipse the 30 mark should the Cubs be contending and thus Veras sticking around to the end of the season. The veteran reliever has a career ratio of two strikeouts per walk that he will need to maintain in 2014, if not best.
2) Pedro Strop
One of the arms in the return package for Scott Feldman, Strop not only is one of the returning relievers from last year, but also one of the bright spots from 2013. In 37 appearances he went 2-2 with a 2.83 ERA while striking out more than one hitter per inning and limiting his walk ratio to under three per nine frames pitched. Even more impressive was his WHIP of 0.943. Even falling just short of those numbers in 2014 would be considered a success, as those numbers blow away his so far young career averages. It remains to be seen whether he can translate that success over the course of a full season of work, but the set up job is basically his to lose to start 2014.
Matching is break out 2013 campaign would show that the 28-year-old is finally putting it together. With a succesful Veras, the former Oriole could end up being part of a nasty one two punch to pull up the rear end of the Cubs pen. More importantly he would represent a key piece to the long-term bullpen picture beyond 2014.
The Cubs first choice lefty out of the pen took a step back in 2013 after a career year in 2012. He went from a 7-1 record to a 1-6 win loss total and his ERA increased despite his WHIP dropping to a career best 1.215. Russell struggled against right-handed hitters, as they hit at a .321 clip compared to just a .183 average for left-handed batters. Regardless, his 2013 campaign was a respectable one and a repeat effort would be acceptable this season.
Russell can do his part to help the Cubs overachieve by returning to 2012 form or better. The lefty has developed a slower and sharper curveball that may remind North Siders of Sean Marshall‘s nasty Uncle Charlie. The hope is that the pitch will help Russell keep right-handed hitters in check. Marshall had developed into one of the best left-handed relievers in the game and the son of Jeff Russell could be on that same path.
The new addition to the Cubs pen represents a luxury as the second left-handed arm. Wright over his career has kept left-handed hitters at a .231 clip and would allow manager Rick Renteria to play match ups and save the above mentioned Russell for the later innings. Wright will need to keep his walks down, as he otherwise has the ability to strike out an average of one hitter per frame. An ERA under 4.00 and a WHIP of around 1.200 would be a reasonable effort out of Wright this season.
The lefty really took off after being dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays to finish out the 2013 campaign and if Wright can carry that over into 2014 and beyond, the Cubs are well on their way to building an intimidating bullpen. Although a small sample size, in 16 games Wright dropped his WHIP to 0.973 and saw his walks per nine dip to 2.2. A change of scenery from the last place Astros to the playoff contending Rays may have done the trick and a overacheiving 2014 Cubs squad could rub off on Wright and continue his up swing of productivity.
5) Justin Grimm
Despite a respectable 7-7 record with the Texas Rangers in 2013 before coming over to the North Side as part of the exchange for Matt Garza, Grimm finished the year strictly out of the bullpen. He certainly impressed in his September call up, not allowing a run in eight out of his 10 appearances. A back of the rotation candidate coming into Spring Training this year, Grimm breaks camp with a return to the bullpen. Look for the move to be short-lived, as Grimm is an injury, ineffectiveness, or Jeff Samardzija trade away from being shuttled into the rotation at some point this season.
A contending Cubs team could see Grimm being productive in either role. Regardless, the 25-year-old right-hander is in position to be a long-term piece of the Cubs pitching staff puzzle.
The former Indians top prospect that the Cubs plucked via the Rule 5 Draft had an up and down 2013 campaign as the North Siders made sure to keep him on the 25 man roster all year-long. Rondon was more than a stash job though, as he finished the season strong in September. The talent is certainly there as long as he can remain healthy, marking him to be yet another solid piece to a well developing bullpen.
For a contending Cubs squad, Rondon would joining Veras, Strop, and Russell as the formidable core of the bullpen at Wrigley Field. A decrease in walks could see a subsequent increase in strikeouts and in turn improvements in both his ERA and WHIP.
The local product out of Maine South High School was the last man in for the bullpen. After a cup of coffee in 2010, Schlitter makes a return to the Majors. However his window to impress may be short, as he figures to have to make way for Kyuji Fujikawa when the Japanese veteran is set to return from the disabled list. At the very least, he has the pitch selection to be a part of the Cubs future bullpen plans.
A contending Cubs team would most likely only see contribution from Schlitter should any of the above arms falter or become sidelined by injury.
While playoff contention is a bit of a stretch at this point, as evidenced by the 60 to 1 odds I got in Vegas when placing a $5 bet for the Cubs to win the 2014 NL Central title, what Cubs fans will want to keep an eye on is the new depth of young quality arms appearing in the bullpen. These relievers have the opportunity and talent to cement their jobs for beyond 2014. This year’s ballclub will certainly fall somewhere between being short of a true contender and taking a noticeable step in the right direction of distancing themselves from two terrible campaigns in 2012 and 2013, but as I have repeated in the past, Cubs fans must keep the big picture in mind.