Chicago Cubs have plenty of bullpen options heading into 2018 season

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Despite popular opinion, the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen was far from a glaring weakness last season.

The hot stove has been anything but this winter. The only major moves came via trade in the Yankees’ acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton and the Cardinals’ pickup of Marcel Ozuna. As for the Chicago Cubs, things have been quiet for quite some time.

Of course, Chicago opened the offseason by signing Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $39 million deal to shore up the rotation. As I type this on January 15, it’s hard to believe that it’s still the biggest move Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have made.

Fortunately, the entire league is having the same problem signing the top names on the market, likely because of the big names featured in the 2019 free agent class (and the inherent spending restrictions in the latest CBA).

While the Colorado Rockies invested over $100 million on their bullpen this offseason, the Cubs have spent significantly less on theirs. Given Chicago doesn’t play at Coors Field for half their games, there’s confidence the Cubs will be up near the top with the Rockies in bullpen ERA next season. Theo and Jed have added several new assets to a core that already showed growth in recent years.

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There are flaws in the Cubs bullpen, I’ll admit. But many forget the bullpen was a major reason why the Cubs were only five games back at the All-Star Break last season instead of more.

Bringing in reinforcements

The new bullpen additions: Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek are solid arms on short-term deals. They join the likes of Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, Justin Wilson and most likely Mike Montgomery.

I suspect a combination of these players will be used if the Cubs have a lead in games. Manager Joe Maddon is the king of playing matchups, so it’s anybody’s guess who will get action on any given day. The Cubs are banking on Wilson rebounding from a terrible second half and also hopeful Justin Grimm can get back to his 2014 form, or at least somewhere near it.

Wilson had a 2.68 ERA with Detroit last season and saw it rise to 5.09 with the Cubs. His main issues, like many of the relievers, was the high walk rate. Going into a contract year, I expect a better version of him.

Edwards pitched a career-high in innings last season (66 1/3). With a full year under the belt, I expect to see more consistency. He was arguably the best pitcher in the bullpen, but also struggles with walks.

Strop, despite his tendency to hang a breaking pitch, was very good in the 2017 postseason. He’s also much better when starting a clean inning (0.61 ERA in 29 1/3 innings) compared to coming in with runners on (4.94 ERA).

Who closes?

Morrow looks like the closer right now, but I don’t think the Cubs are done with their bullpen, yet. There are several names still out there on the market, including former Cub Brian Duensing, former Rockies closer Greg Holland and lefty Tony Watson.

Cishek looks like a nice late inning, situational pitcher. He had a .147 opponents batting average against righties compared to a .208 average against lefties. Either way, those are solid numbers from the former Miami closer.

Overall, the success of this bullpen depends on the starting pitching staff consistently eating innings. That was the key to success in 2016 that led to a World Series championship.

Montgomery could see more opportunities as a starter. He could be a back-end option if the Cubs fail to sign a free agent starting pitcher. I prefer him in the versatile role as a long reliever or middle relief inning pitcher. Numbers indicate he’s actually better in that role than in the rotation.

Next: Looking at the highlights of Theo's reign

For right now, as the pitchers prepare to report next month, it’s looking how the Cubs want. I’m still wondering about Duensing and his market. He was the biggest surprise in the bullpen last season for the Cubs. He went from only being used in blowouts to high-intensity spots, especially in the postseason.

He could be a good arm to have as well as Dillon Maples. Will Drew Smyly be a factor in the  bullpen after the All-Star Break? We’ll see.