Chicago Cubs: Justin Wilson could be huge difference-maker in 2018

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs can’t expect the best from Justin Wilson after his 2017 performance. But if he figures things out, he could change everything.

At the July trade deadline, the Chicago Cubs supposedly fixed the bullpen when they acquired left-hander Justin Wilson from the Detroit Tigers. But down the stretch, Wilson put up some of the worst numbers of his career, leaving us all scratching our heads.

It’s not too often Theo Epstein and this front office get one wrong. Edwin Jackson looms large, of course. Ian Stewart didn’t really pan out. But in their big-time deals, things have worked out pretty well. After last season, it would be easy to lump Wilson into that category – but he has a big opportunity ahead of him in 2018.

Before we get into that, let’s acknowledge what transpired in 2017.

Prior to the trade, Wilson was one of the best left-handed relievers in the American League. He put up a 2.68 ERA across 42 appearances to go along with a 0.942 WHIP. His 3.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio (to that point) would have been one of the best marks of his career.

Then, he came over in the deal that brought Alex Avila to town and sent Jeimer Candelario to the Tigers. And the wheels promptly fell off.

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Down the stretch, Wilson made 23 appearances for the Cubs, spanning just 17 2/3 innings. The southpaw walked more than a batter per inning, leading to a 1.32 strikeout-to-walk mark that left fans with a bad taste in their mouths. His WHIP during this stretch more than doubled from what he posted in Detroit, peaking to 2.094.

Come October, when Wilson was supposed to be the difference-maker, he pitched just two-thirds of an inning. He faced two batters, retiring both Washington Nationals hitters. That spelled the entirety of his postseason resume in 2017.

So what now? After laying an egg in the regular season, Joe Maddon clearly had no trust in Wilson. And, to be frank, the lefty gave him little reason for faith. That being said, the beauty of baseball is a fresh start every spring.

A fresh start in 2018

Under new pitching coach Jim Hickey, Wilson may flourish. There’s no way we can tell before Opening Day 2018. But if he turns things around, Justin Wilson could be not just a great reliever for Maddon – he could even answer the ninth-inning question.

In his career, Wilson averages just under 10 strikeouts per nine. As noted above, the only difference in 2017? He could not throw strikes. It didn’t seem to matter what he did – he missed the zone time and time again for the Cubs.

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The likely course of action? You expect nothing. You go into 2018 expecting Wilson to struggle – and when (hopefully) he delivers, your bullpen gets a big boost. Bring back Wade Davis to address the ninth; throw in a guy like Brandon Morrow for the eighth and, if Wilson gets back to what made him successful, the Cubs may have one of the best bullpens in all of baseball.