Chicago Cubs’ rebuilt bullpen, but still worrisome

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

Each of the last two years, the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen needed mid-season bolstering for the playoffs. Should 2018 be any different? And what contingency planning might be underway?

One pervasively positive storyline this spring has been how “deep” the Chicago Cubs’ rebuilt bullpen is. I’ll admit: I’ve been skeptical. They replaced Wade Davis and Hector Rondon with Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. Argue whether this is an upgrade, but replacing two for two doesn’t add depth.

That said, I’m not in panic mode. The Cubs have been here each of the last two years. Heading into both seasons, the Cubs’ front office took a wait-and-see approach with their bullpen. Will any relief arms surprise? Disappoint? What injuries occur? Then bolster at the July 31 trade deadline.

2016 came at a cost

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In 2016, the approach ultimately worked, though with a price. Trading for Aroldis Chapman and eventual playoff set-up man Mike Montgomery cost four prospects and swingman Adam Warren. But together Chapman and Monty shouldered most high-leverage playoff relief innings. Result: a title.

Before 2017, Theo/Jed rolled the dice early and traded low for Davis, a surgically recovering but potentially dominant closer. That worked, but when they needed to add a late-inning bridge arm, Justin Wilson floundered. Result: no World Series appearance.

This year, the front office again bought low hoping Morrow can be an injury-free dominant closer. They also signed Drew Smyly who, depending on rehab progress from Tommy John surgery, could be a late-season bullpen addition.

Under the luxury tax

Smartly, the front office also created about $13 million of payroll flexibility under the luxury tax. This allows for adding a couple of larger prorated contracts at the trade deadline. This includes if Morrow falters and no reliable internal replacement emerges (see Nicholas Blazek’s candidate overview).

However, the trade cost could be a young bat from the major-league roster. It’s well-known how reluctant Theo/Jed are to part with their young bats. So in their forward-thinking game planning, you can bet they are watching free agent Greg Holland’s situation with interest.

I’m not suggesting the Cubs will add Holland before Opening Day. No, if Holland and his agent Scott Boras were open to a discounted Lance Lynn-type $10 million one-year deal, they’d have already signed it.

Still talking about Boras

But just as teams take a wait-and-see bullpen approach, it’s now Holland and Boras’ advantage to do the same.  That seems their best option to get close to a Wade Davis-like long-term deal (3 years, $52 million guaranteed).

For one, if they wait until mid-May, the draft compensation attached to Holland expires. This makes him a less costly long-term signing. Then Holland takes a minor-league assignment to tune up, and he becomes that mid-season acquisition without costing any trade or draft assets.

Two, as the season wears on, injuries will occur, and some relievers fail. (See the Nationals bullpen bind in 2017.) Holland then becomes a very quick, quality alternative, including for the Cubs.

But even if the Cubs can’t accommodate Holland’s salary demands, Holland’s availability increases the supply of back-end relievers and lowers what out-of-contention teams like the Rays and Pittsburgh can demand for an Alex Colome or Felipe Rivero.

Next: Internal backup closer options

Of course, with this much waiting-and-seeing going on, it’s impossible to predict what will actually happen. But it’s interesting to imagine some of the Plan B contingency planning going on in the Cubs’ front office.