Chicago Cubs: If all else fails, who could close games in 2018?

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 09: Pedro Strop
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 09: Pedro Strop /

Recent trade speculation regarding potential closers got me thinking–who could fill in as Chicago Cubs closer on an emergency basis?

There’s been talk about a potential trade involving Jason Heyward for Mark Melancon and Jeff Samardzija between the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs.

That’s very unlikely to happen. Heyward has to waive his no-trade clause, to begin with. (Not to mention the other reasons this deal seems unlikely).

If the Cubs re-sign Wade Davis or bring in an outside closer, that basically kills said trade-notion. But in thinking about the possibility of bringing in Melancon to close games, we’ve discussed his name before.

The track-record – 2015 NL Saves Leader - speaks for itself.

There are plenty of reasons San Francisco may entertain unloading the right-hander. First, getting his steep $38 million contract off the books. Throw in the team’s horrendous 2017 performance and Melancon’s injury and resulting surgery and you get the picture pretty clearly.

Let’s jump ahead in this scenario to next season.

Suppose Melancon is the Cubs’ closer. Wade Davis headed somewhere else – let’s say Houston – during the offseason. Melancon struggles or falls victim to injury. What does Chicago do now?

Two quarterbacks means no quarterbacks

Just like when your favorite team loses its quarterback, how well-equipped are you with your backup?

You can expect a typical drop-off in production but they should be capable of getting you wins, or at least put you in the situation to get said victories.

The Cubs’ best relievers in 2017 were Davis, unsung hero Brian Duensing - also a free agent – and Pedro Strop, who has been a Cubs bullpen fixture since 2013.

Carl Edwards might be closer for the future but he has kinks to work out entering a second full season. He showed plenty of signs of fatigue late in the year – especially in October.

So now we look at Strop, who is on the roster and might slot in as the next-in-line. We’re not going to touch Hector Rondon who was at one point more than serviceable in the ninth inning, but nothing close since.

This is not an ideal situation. Strop is already very effective in middle-to-late relief, so who would take his spot? That’s another question for another time. Back to Strop in the ninth.

Maybe the hard-throwing right-hander could make the necessary mental and physical adjustments of being in the ninth inning for the long-term.

But it’s not happening anyway, and nothing to suggest it should, in any long-term scenario.

One thing is for certain, he would need to improve his walk rate (3.88 BB/9). His 2016 season was the only season of his career in which he has been under 3.00. For comparison’s sake, the top 30 relievers in 2017 were under 2.30 BB/9.

Rondon was very good in 2015 (1.93) but that rose to 3.14 in 2017. For what it’s worth, in the history of the Cubs franchise, Strop ranks sixth and Rondon eighth, all-time in relief fWAR.

Overvaluing the save

The role of closer is a flawed concept in and of itself, in that you position your best, but not necessarily, with the most critical outs at stake. Likely the ninth inning, unless the closer comes in for a five-out save, or it’s extra innings.

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But what about up 3-2, seventh inning, in a game you absolutely have to have?

A September pennant chase.

No manager would go to their closer in the seventh. A playoff game is a whole different story.

Every decision, play and situation is that much more scrutinized in October. As much as the child’s game of baseball has evolved within the multi-billion dollar sports industry, there are still simple concepts that the game abides by.

Regular season games are managed night and day from postseason games, and managers are not afraid to go to their bullpen as soon as they feel they should. The 2016 postseason almost felt like an overreaction, yet necessary, to Buck Showalter not using his best in Zach Britton, even in an extra-inning winner-take-all postseason affair.

Just as the media will crucify a manager for not using a guy in a specific role in October, the same applies, albeit differently, in September.

What are you doing? You need your bullpen for October!

Food for thought

So for Chicago, in the event their best reliever is sidelined, does that change the way they apply said closer?

Likely not.

A trade, assuming a suitable match presented itself, could always pop up like for the Nationals last season. But knowing how quirky Maddon is, and after being burned by using John Lackey in a playoff ninth inning, who knows.

A closer-by-committee is typically as painstakingly awful as relying upon two quarterbacks. If you have two you have none is the old adage. Baseball likes routine, pitchers like assigned roles. Continuity.

If teams devalue the act of compiling save statistics, and the best pitcher on the roster is used at the highest leverage of the game…

Next: Trading Ian Happ is still a possibility

Baseball tends to work through trends. We’ve seen managing in the postseason the last two seasons, bullpen evolution–there’s always a new wave of radical thinking.