Chicago Cubs: Projecting the bullpen as it now stands

(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs went into this offseason apparently determined to add to their bullpen.  But to-date, they’ve done nothing. How does this group stack up?

In 2018, the Chicago Cubs bullpen was one of the most effective in the league, despite losing its closer and its best left-handed long man to the starting rotation following the injury to Yu Darvish.

Resilient if not brilliant in 2018

At the beginning of the 2018 campaign, MLB ranked the Cubs bullpen as the eighth-best in baseball. Brandon Morrow was added to fill the closer role, Mike Montgomery locked down the role of long reliever, and the combination of Carl Edwards Jr.Pedro StropSteve Cishek and Justin Wilson were the options as set up men.  Brandon Kintzler and Jesse Chavez came into the picture later in the season.

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By season’s end, the bullpen ranked second in MLB in ERA at 3.35, ranked tops in fewest homers allowed and seventh-best at stranding runners.  Not bad given they lost their closer in July, endured struggles from Carl Edwards, Jr., and Brandon Kintzler never got on track after he was acquired from the Nationals.  Strop filled in ably in the closer role, and Jesse Chavez arrived in July and pitched to an unthinkable 1.15 ERA and 0.795 WHIP.

There were weaknesses.  The Cubs bullpen was about the worst allowing walks and below average in striking out opposing batters.  Nonetheless, the bullpen kept the Cubs in the hunt for the division lead as the bats sputtered in late August and September.

Same setup for 2019 – almost

Heading into the 2018 offseason, the Cubs had decisions to make around some key bullpen pieces.   They decided to let Chavez go, Justin Wilson remains a free agent, and as of yet, no major additions have been made to bolster the bullpen for next season.

Not that there isn’t some need.  Morrow likely won’t be on a big league mound until the end of May, leaving the closer role to Strop.  And that could be fine, but it shortens the bullpen, especially with Chavez gone and Wilson off the roster.  Edwards and Cishek remain in the setup role, but a couple of relievers would strengthen pen and give Maddon more options in late innings.

And if, for whatever reason, Yu Darvish is unable to start the 2019 season in the rotation as planned, then most likely Mike Montgomery will take his spot in the rotation.  This would again subtract a long reliever from the ‘pen and add yet another spot to fill.

There’s not much to rely on for the rest of the roster in terms of the setup role.  Duane Underwood, Jen-Ho Tseng, Dillon Maples, and the other host of possible young options remain underwhelming.  More experienced options like Brian Duensing and Kintzler have not proven they can fill the setup role consistently either.  And Tyler Chatwood? Let’s just not go there.

So the bottom line question, can the current roster of Cubs relievers deliver a reprise of their 2018 selves?  I don’t think so.

A lot of options

A host of options remain for the Cubs in terms filling the setup role.  Over 50 free agent relievers remain on the market, including Craig Kimbrel whom we’ll discard for this conversation since he’s asking for six years and between $80 and $100 million.  As mentioned, Justin Wilson remains available, as does former Cub Jorge De La Rosa.

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It’s not a pressure situation unless the Cubs wait too long.  No doubt they’ll kick the tires on a lot of options and see who best fills the bill.  I don’t expect a big-time acquisition but filling these spots in the staff isn’t a light touch either.  It’s another frustrating case of wait-and-see.