Last season, I felt that one of the most underrated facets of the Chicago Cubs was their relief corps.
While most of the attention of relief pitching-lovers was focused on the American League pennant-winning Kansas City Royals, the bunch of misfits on the North Side of Chicago were nothing to shake your head at.
Now, that success was under a different manager – Rick Renteria – who was fired this offseason in lieu of the availability and eventual signing of former Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon. However, with Maddon bringing a familiar bench coach in Dave Martinez with him and the incumbent pitching coach Chris Bosio in tow – this season should prove no different for the Cubs relievers.
There are a lot of familiar names sitting on the bench down the left field line: closer Hector Rondon returns after notching a career-high 29 saves and 64 appearances last season. The hard-throwing setup man Pedro Strop is also back for 2015 after the best season of his professional career last year when he made 65 appearances for the Cubs.
Strop, who came to the Cubs in the trade that also netted ace Jake Arrieta a few seasons’ back, has an up-and-down history during his time in the big league. He broke onto the season in 2009 as a member of the Texas Rangers – staying in the Lone Star State until he joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2011 – where he posted a 0.73 ERA down the stretch in 12 outings.
From there, it was a see-saw battle for the right-hander. He was great again in 2012 for Baltimore, making a career-high 70 appearances – but some peripherals suggested he was lucky to perform as well as he did. His strikeout-to-walk ratio fell from 2.10 in 2011 between Texas and Baltimore to 1.57 the next year with the O’s. His strikeouts-per-nine fell, while his walks-per-nine rose.
It was these types of numbers that likely contributed to the willingness of the Baltimore front office to deal the right-hander to Chicago in 2013.
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Since joining the Cubs, Strop has averaged 10.7 strikeouts-per-nine, a 1.021 WHIP and 2.41 earned run average across 103 appearances. He’s emerged as one of the more dominant setup options in the league – despite playing for a sub-par team. While these two net most of the attention, several other young, hard-throwing options are at Maddon’s fingertips in Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm – not to mention offseason acquisitions Phil Coke and Jason Motte – a former St. Louis Cardinals closer.
So far this season, the Chicago relief corps has been lights-out, tossing 6 2/3 shutout innings, scattering just two hits in the process. Rondon accounts for two of those frames, one of which netted him his first save of the season. Coke, Strop and Ramirez have all made a pair of appearances in the first two games of 2015 – although each contributed just 1/3 of an inning in Wednesday’s win over St. Louis.
With the mix of old and new arms in the bullpen, this year’s staff has more depth than ever before. There are several viable options waiting in the wings at the minor league level, as well – not to mention the Wednesday signing of former Cubs’ southpaw James Russell to a minor league deal.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from just two games this season, it’s that Maddon uses his bullpen differently than Renteria did in 2014. Despite the different approach, there’s no reason to expect anything but similar results this season – which is a good thing for Cubs fans everywhere.