Chicago Cubs: Jeremy Jeffress looks like a good pickup

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs’ Jeremy Jeffress had a reasonably quick decline from being one of the most effective closers in baseball to signing a one-year, $850,000 deal with the Cubs.

The Chicago Cubs inked Jeremy Jeffress–who had a 5.02 ERA in 52 innings with the Milwaukee Brewers last season before he was designated for assignment in September–in the hopes he could join the ranks of bullpen arms looking to revitalize their careers in Chicago.

Just under two years ago, it seemed Jeffress’ career was at its very peak. He emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball in 2018, posting a 1.29 ERA and 15 saves in 76 2/3 innings of work. Jeffress and Hader formed an unstoppable duo that anchored Milwaukee’s bullpen and helped them to within a game of the World Series in 2018.

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But things got off to a tenuous start in 2019. Jeffress dealt with shoulder soreness that kept him on the shelf for nearly all of Spring Training. Despite rounding into shape the first few months of the year, a hip injury hampered Jeffress last summer, eventually leading to his release.

But why did things go wrong in such a hurry? Put, Jeffress’ velocity was way down this past season. The right-hander routinely averaged close to 96 mph on his four-seamer and 95 mph on his sinker in 2018. But in 2019, Jeffress averaged just 94 mph on his four-seamer and 93.7 mph with the sinker, according to Baseball Savant.

The left hip injury likely had plenty to do with the decline. After all, it is hard for a pitcher to generate velocity or spin if they cannot correctly rotate through that front side.

Well, early indications suggest Jeffress is healthy, and his velocity has been there this Spring.

Jeffress has made two appearances, throwing a pair of scoreless innings and allowing just one hit. More importantly, the fastball was routinely hitting 97 mph, and he was having success locating to both sides of the plate.

Perhaps health is all Jeffress needs to have a successful outlook in 2020. He said he is focused on “Fine-tuning” (subscription required) before the regular season, which is suggestive of the confidence he has in his stuff and what he is capable of when he feels right.

Of course, Cubs fans are probably pretty tired of playing the “if” game after everything that has happened with Brandon Morrow.

In any case, the velocity is something to watch throughout the duration of camp. Jeffress averaged closer to 96 mph on the fastball during his three best years (2015, 2016 and 2018), but he lost at least a tick on the heater in two of his worst seasons (2017 and 2019).

Other metrics–such as average exit velocity against and barrels–suggest Jeffress can be an elite pitcher if he can miss bats. His secondary pitches should also benefit from the ability to challenge hitters with hard stuff in any count. Jeffress has one of the most devastating breaking balls of any reliever in the game, which makes it all the more imperative he gets swinging strikes with fastballs.

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Should Jeffress maintain good health and retain that flamethrower, he could be a bargain pickup for a Cubs bullpen in desperate need of reliable power arms.