Chicago Cubs: A look at the new bullpen additions

Feb 29, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs pitcher Felix Pena poses for a portrait during photo day at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 29, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs pitcher Felix Pena poses for a portrait during photo day at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Chicago Cubs pitching youth on display as John Lackey, Hector Rondon head to the DL.

The Chicago Cubs recently sent starting pitcher John Lackey and set-up man Hector Rondon to the 15-day DL, leaving room in the bullpen ahead of Friday’s series opener against the Colorado Rockies. In a somewhat surprising move, the club filled the positions with players not currently on the 40-man roster: Felix Pena and Rob Zastryzny. Here’s what you’ll need to know about them before they land in Denver.

Zastryzny (Za-Striz-Knee) has spent most of 2016 between double-A Tennessee and triple-A Iowa, recording a 10-5 record with a 4.30 ERA in 135.2 innings. The 6’3” lefty has earned a reputation as a command and control pitcher, though some analyst argue that he hasn’t earned that yet.

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Arriving as the 41st pick in the 2013 draft from the University of Missouri, Zastryzny pitched just 24 innings between low and mid-A ball before getting a full season of work in the 2014 campaign with high-A Daytona. The results were encouraging with a high K/9 (10.05) and 0 HR/9. His success was counter balanced by a two-year stretch where his ERA was a full point higher than his FIP.  During his first year in double-A in 2015, Zastryzny struggled mightily. His ERA ballooned to 6.23 and recorded a career high in BB/9 (4.15).

With an average fastball velocity around 87-89 MPH, Zastryzny doesn’t seem like the kind of pitcher that the Cubs would utilize in their bullpen, his curveball, however, changes that perspective. In years past, Zastryzny looked as though he couldn’t tell where the pitch would end up. This season, he sacrificed movement for command—something that could be the deciding factor on whether or not he is a starter or long reliever in the Majors. Even though he needs to add more control to the entirety of his arsenal, his fastball-changeup-curve combination gives him a solid foundation to build from.

Different Paths

Zastryzny has battled the injury bug throughout his career in the minors as well. He took three trips to the disabled list in 2015, including a stint with a broken ankle. He has also dealt with the dreaded forearm tightness in 2014 while with Daytona, though he has avoided any serious arm or shoulder injuries.

Pena’s trip to the Big Leagues has been a much different story, however. He signed as a 19-year-old out of San Pedro in the Dominican Republic. Pena pitched primarily out of the bullpen at the beginning of his career. Though he did have stints as a starter for both Kane County and Daytona. Last year, the Cubs fully expected Pena to be poached by teams around the league during the Rule 5 draft, yet he was surprisingly passed over.

This year, Pena pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for the Triple-A affiliate Iowa Cubs. In previous years, he had never recorded more than 9.5 K/9, but that number spiked to 11.52 this season, complimented by a solid 3.29 BB/9.

Unfortunately, the scouting report doesn’t match Pena’s success, though there is much to be hopeful about with him. His fastball hits in the mid-90s consistently, and he backs it up with a big breaking ball in the high 70’s to low 80’s similar to that of Justin Grimm’s.  His curve isn’t a true 12-6 like Grimm’s—more of a 12-7 with a little sweep—but it breaks in two different ways, making it a difficult pitch to predict. Like Zastrynzy, Pena struggles with control, which can make for big problems in the Majors. Neither Pena nor Zastrynzy has recorded outlandish BB/9 ratios, though that is a facet of his game that should be monitored closely.

Pena has routinely dominated left-handed batters, something the Cubs pitchers have struggled with this year. Lefties are only hitting .180 against Pena while posting a .263 against the big league club as a whole. Pena has yet to give up a home run to lefties as well.

Cubs fans shouldn’t expect anything spectacular from these pitchers, either. Each of them has earned this opportunity, but they’re a long way away from being reliable parts of the team. Should their services be needed in 2017 and beyond, this trip could very well plant seeds with the coaching staff.

Next: Disabled list a good move for pitchers

For now, let’s be content with the fact that the Cubs have consistently been able to call-up replacement arms from Iowa with relative success coming along with them.