Last season, the relief corps of the Chicago Cubs blew 21 saves.
Say the team converted – for example – half of those opportunities. Instead of the 73-89 mark the team finished the 2014 season with, the Cubs would have come in four games over .500 at 83-79 – which feel quite different heading into a year filled to the brim with high expectations.
The starting rotation has been shored up with the additions of coveted left-hander Jon Lester, who signed the richest free agent deal in team history, and former Cubs righty Jason Hammel, who after starting the season in Chicago last year, was dealt to the Oakland Athletics along with Jeff Samardzija in a mid-year blockbuster trade.
With those names added to the already-solid likes of Jake Arrieta, who blossomed into an ace last year, Kyle Hendricks, whose name was regularly in the talks surrounding the National League Rookie of the Year – the Cubs have put together a staff that is amongst the best in the division if everything goes according to plan. With several options, including Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, Jacob Turner – to fill out the fifth spot, the team appears set moving forward.
With the improved rotation, a reliable back end of the bullpen becomes a must for first-year manager Joe Maddon and his coaching staff – especially if this Cubs team wants to contend in a loaded National League Central.
Last season, hard-throwing right-hander Hector Rondon led the charge, notching 29 saves for the Cubs in just his first campaign as a big league closer. Given it was just his second season in Major League Baseball, it gave the team plenty of reason for optimism moving forward.
Rondon averaged a career-best nine strikeouts per nine innings pitched, while also posting an even more impressive 4.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 relief appearances. He improved his FIP by nearly two runs from the year prior – while also dropping his WHIP by nearly half a run. Needless to say, Chicago has a quality closing pitcher heading into Spring Training in Arizona.
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Despite this highly-attractive in-house option, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer went out and added former St. Louis Cardinals reliever Jason Motte this winter. After dealing with injuries of late, the Cubs are hoping he can revert to the form he showcased back in 2012 when he led the league with 42 saves.
Last season with the Cardinals, Motte struggled mightily, pitching to a 4.68 ERA in 29 appearances – a far cry from his dominance back in 2012. However, a change of scenery – and a chance to work with Chicago pitching coach Chris Bosio, who has helped turn around the careers of several big leaguers in his time with the Cubs, could prove fruitful.
With Rondon and Motte in tow and quickly-emerging right-hander Pedro Strop waiting in the wings as a set-up man, there’s no reason to think the Cubs will struggle late in games again. If they can close games out – this could be a very different team in 2015.