Cubs Offseason Grades: Bullpen
The Cubs acquired a plethora of low-risk arms this winter in an attempt to revamp the ‘pen on the cheap. The success (or failure) of the new guys will have a significant impact on the 2020 season.
With Cubs pitchers and catchers set to report to Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona on February 12th, we’re just under a month away from this frustrating winter ceding ground to the promise of baseball.
We’ll be breaking down offseason moves on a position-by-position basis for both the Cubs and the White Sox. Up first for the Cubbies is the bullpen.
The ‘pen is perhaps the only position group in which the Cubs made concerted, if not significant, moves. As such, the position is likely set — not necessarily in terms of who’ll break camp with the big-league club, but we probably know every name that will be competing for a roster spot in Spring Training.
The Cubs focused almost exclusively on acquiring low-cost, high-upside relief arms with remaining minor league options. Split Major League contracts were commonplace where available, a creative measure that helped limit spending while casting a wide net for ‘pen depth. The Cubs maintain significant flexibility in assembling the big league unit come Spring Training. Time will tell if the flurry of moves they’ve made coupled with returning members will round out into an effective core.
Signed in early December to a split contract, Winkler is an intriguing arm that also carries significant caveats, both in terms of health and effectiveness. After an injury-shortened 2017 season, Winkler had a solid campaign in 2018, posting a 3.43 ERA (2.76 FIP), complete with an above-average 27.1 percent strikeout rate and a paltry 0.45 home runs per nine innings.
He spent much of 2019 in AAA with both Atlanta and San Francisco, combining for 30.2 innings and a sturdy 2.93 ERA. Walks were an issue, however, and that problem carried over to his time in Atlanta. Walking 11 batters in just 21.2 innings last season, Winkler also found himself susceptible to the long ball (2.08 HR/9) in his abbreviated time in the bigs.
Never much of a ground ball pitcher (career 36.9 ground ball percentage), Winkler relies primarily on a cut fastball that sits around 90 MPH, off-setting his main offering with the expected slider and four-seam combination. Should he prove healthy, he has a chance to break camp with the big league squad and could be a complimentary, middle-innings arm for the Cubs in 2020.
Tepera represents another veteran arm the Cubs nabbed on the cheap with a split contract. Freshly 32, Tepera has been a career Blue Jay, posting a respectable 3.64 ERA (with a less-than-inspiring 4.41 FIP) in parts of five seasons in Toronto.
An impingement in his elbow last season limited both the durability and effectiveness Tepera promised in 2017 (77.2 innings, 3.59 ERA) and 2018 (64.2 innings 3.62 ERA). A decrease in fastball velocity followed the injury, and his strikeout rate dropped considerably (5.82 K/9) while his home run rate skyrocketed (2.08 HR/9), ending the year with a disappointing 4.98 ERA (6.03 FIP) in just 21.2 innings.
Tepera still featured a sinker and four-seam fastball last year that could touch the mid 90’s, joined by frequent use of a cutter. His slider and changeup were used more sparingly but help round out an impressive array of pitches that might feature as a multi-inning arm should health favor him in 2020.
Selected in the Rule 5 Draft from San Diego, Megill is a younger but also less polished arm than Tepera and Winkler. He does carry significant upside, however, which I touched on last month.
As a Rule 5 selection, Megill has an inside track to the Cubs Opening Day roster. Should he not crack the 26-man roster, the Cubs will have to place him on waivers. Even if he clears waivers, the Padres could yet buy back his services for half of what the Cubs paid ($100k) upon drafting him.
In terms of pure relievers, Megill is perhaps the most intriguing new weapon to monitor in Arizona.
Pelham represents the sole left-handed arm the Cubs have acquired this winter. Claimed off of waivers from the Rangers, Pelham boasts an upper 90’s fastball without the slightest clue how to harness it. After a cup of coffee with Texas in the bigs in 2018, he threw just 32.1 innings between the top two levels of the minors last year, walking an alarming 40 batters (while also striking out 37).
The good news here is that the Cubs can stash Pelham in AAA, even if doing so requires a 40-man roster spot. Should the Cubs Pitching Lab help Pelham discover mechanical consistency, he could be an absolute steal for a ‘pen sorely needing a big boost.
Cotton’s role with Chicago will be interesting to follow. Acquired in late November from Oakland for cash considerations, Cotton is a former top pitching prospect that could be utilized as a starter or reliever. After struggling in 2017 in the A’s rotation, Cotton underwent Tommy John surgery the following year before experiencing a setback with this hamstring last season.
Now 27, it’s not too late for Jharel to resurrect his career. He boasts a rather large arsenal (four-seam, sinker, cutter, curve, change), and his four-seam velocity sat around 93 MPH in his only lengthy season in the majors.
It’s more likely than not Cotton builds up his durability as a starter in Iowa to begin 2020, but there’s an outside chance he 1) makes the Opening Day ‘pen (especially as a swingman) or 2) surprises everyone and bests Tyler Chatwood / Alec Mills / Adbert Alzolay for the fifth spot in the rotation.
Regardless, Cotton was yet another low-risk signing that could pay dividends for the Cubs in 2020.
(For the sake of brevity, I’ve only included departures that ended the season on the Cubs roster while also appearing in at least ten games.)
There aren’t enough superlatives in the Cubs universe for Stropy. Oft-maligned for the way he wears his hat or the misguided notion he walked too many batters, Strop’s abysmal 2019 (4.97 ERA, 4.53 FIP) belied an otherwise outstanding career on the North Side.
From 2014-2018, Strop pitched five consecutive seasons of sub-3 ERA. Averaging those seasons out, Strop maintained a 2.61 ERA (3.10 FIP), 10.1 K/9, 0.6 HR/9, and .181 BAA. These are elite numbers, cementing Strop’s legacy as one of the great relievers in Cubs history.
Everyone tip their cap to the left for Pedro.
Cishek was a force out of Maddon’s bullpen for two seasons, pitching in virtually every type of situation with aplomb. The side-arm delivery and heavy slider approach limited hard contact as Cishek often escaped jams, nailed down a late inning as a setup man, or finished the game as a fill-in closer.
Cishek pitched to the tune of a sub-3 ERA in both seasons as a Cub, averaging 75 appearances in both seasons. While his control sometimes eluded him (his walk percentage in both seasons were above league average), he was a dependable, calming presence for a Cubs ‘pen that was often shaky.
Now a member of the White Sox, Cishek will continue his solid career in Chicago. Replacing an arm as reliable as his will be no easy task.
Kintzler arrived in Chicago via trade in the summer of 2018 and pitched to regrettable results down the stretch (7.00 ERA in 25 appearances). 2019, however, was a career year for the veteran reliever.
Knowing an abysmal 2018 would make for a difficult free agency journey, Kintzler exercised his $5 million player option for 2019. And what a turnaround season he had.
Kintzler was one of the few dependable arms last season, ending the year with a 2.68 ERA (3.51 FIP) while generating ground balls at a terrific clip (54.7 percent). He appeared in 62 games, and like Cishek, pitched in a variety of roles to augment a shaky unit.
Now 35, Kintzler remains on the free agent market.
The Cubs traded for Phelps prior to last year’s deadline, and he was an effective arm for the ‘pen even as the Cubs season slowly fell apart. In 17 innings, he put up a respectable 3.18 ERA, and while his peripherals suggested some good luck, Phelps nonetheless proved to be a successful low-risk trade.
Escalating bonuses pushed Phelp’s club option to $5 million for the 2020 season, and that number was too rich for the Cubs given their directive to dip under the Luxury Tax. Phelps remains in free-agent limbo.
A journeyman reliever, Webster logged the most appearances (12) of his career in 2019 to mixed results. A mid 90’s fastball wasn’t consistent enough to make Webster a season-long member of the ‘pen, and while he showed promise at times, he didn’t make enough of a mark to avoid free agency.
Webster remains a free agent and will be entering his age-30 season in 2020.
A bit of a desperate pick-up, the Cubs hoped the starter-turned-LOOGY could help add a left-handed presence to the bullpen. In his brief tenure with the Cubs, he was decent, if not spectacular, turning in a 3.29 ERA in 13.1 innings as a reliever. While FIP (4.89) wasn’t excited about his overall work in that stretch, and while he ended his Cubs career with an ERA north of six thanks to an ugly emergency start to end the season, Holland pitched about as well as expected given the trajectory of his career and the needs the Cubs had.
Holland, like several other ‘pen departures, remains a free agent.
The Cubs bullpen finished 2019 with the eighth-best ERA in the majors (3.98) despite shaky performances, several injuries, and a carousel for a cast of players. While advanced metrics such as FIP (4.54) and WAR (1.3) painted the unit as average, the ‘pen nonetheless performed at an acceptable level in 2019.
As for 2020, your guess is as good as mine. The front office is relying on an assortment of bargain bin finds to replace quality veterans, the continued development of Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick, and Brad Wieck, a healthy Brandon Morrow, and a return to form for Craig Kimbrel.
As we sit in mid-January, the Cubs bullpen has more questions than answers. Time will tell if any of the low-risk moves turn into high-reward.