The Cubs bullpen in 2018 was a tale of two halves – a strong unit in the first half gave way to a weakness in the second. Hey, that sounds a lot like the 2017 Cubs! Those Cubs relievers also started the year strong before fading and becoming a significant problem by playoff time.
One player has been a critical part of both of those bullpens and has mirrored the rise and fall experienced by the bullpen as a whole, so let’s start there.
Carl Edwards Jr. (58 G, 52 IP, 2.60 ERA, 1.308 WHIP, 166 ERA+, 2.93 fIP)
Where else to start? As Carl goes, the Cubs bullpen tends to go too. CJ’s strong first halves have given way to significantly weaker second halves in each of the last two years. A quick glance at ERA only reveals that Carl’s second half ERA (2.25) was actually better than his first half (2.89). That doesn’t come close to telling the story.
Carl’s month-to-month strikeout/walk ratios are revealing.
- March/April: 23:5
- May: 17:7
- July: 11:2
- August: 7:6
- September/October: 9:12
Those last 2 months… yikes! September/October was obviously the ugliest month of all. Hitters feasted, posting a pretty remarkable .474 OBP in that time. CJ still did a fairly good job preventing hits, but his LD% and hard contact rate suggest that might have been due to luck.
This is the second year in a row that the Cubs have seen a drop off from Carl towards the end of the season. He followed a similar trajectory in 2017 as he went from shutdown reliever to someone who made everyone nervous in the playoffs.
The Cubs clearly have envisioned Edwards being a big part of the bullpen, but it’s hard to know what to expect from him when he has demonstrated the ability to just completely fall apart at times like this. While his total body of work for the year remained impressive, I have to believe the Cubs will be planning for the possibility that CJ won’t be at the top of his games at times in 2019.
Brandon Morrow (35 G, 30.2 IP, 1.47 ERA, 1.076 WHIP, 295 ERA+, 2.97 FIP)
Morrow’s rate stats were absolutely eye popping this year. His performance with the eye test was similarly eye popping. The Cubs have had some impressive closers over the last few years between a prime Héctor Rondon, Aroldis Chapman, and Wade Davis. For the first half of 2018, Morrow looked like he might top the group.
That’s not how it worked out. The Cubs knew about Morrow’s injury history when they signed him and unfortunately, that injury history played a major role in Morrow’s 2018. Morrow pitched his last game on July 15, right before the All Star Break. Despite constant whispers that he would return, it never happened as Morrow dealt with a bone bruise.
One of the things the Cubs stressed going into the year was that Morrow should be handled with care. To some extent, that happened, but not enough. Morrow pitched on back to back days 6 times during the first half, something the Cubs had stated a desire to avoid completely. Whether that contributed to his injury can’t really be known, but I’d expect it won’t happen in 2019.
With that restriction in mind, I think it’s worth nothing Theo’s answer regarding what he hopes from Morrow in 2019 – that he’ll be a part of a “deep and excellent bullpen.” He declined to say Morrow will be the closer and I think you’d be right to read into that. With the restrictions around his usage, the Cubs will be better able to keep Morrow happy out of the closer role.
There’s pressure to put the closer in with a 1-2 run lead in the 9th inning whether it’s on back to back days or not – it allows people in the bullpen to stick to certain roles and know what’s expected of them. I strongly suspect Morrow will be shifted to a fireman type of role, pitching in high leverage situations regardless of the inning. This role will allow Joe Maddon to better adhere to the recommendations of the medical staff and will, hopefully, allow Morrow to produce a full season of excellent results.
Pedro Strop (60 G, 59.2 IP, 2.26 ERA, .989 WHIP, 240 ERA+, 3.43 FIP)
Hey, guess what! Pedro Strop was Pedro Strop again in 2018, just like he has been just about every year he’s been with the Cubs. Strop is the only reliever in the history of the Cubs to post ERAs under 3 in 5 separate seasons and he happens to have done it 5 seasons in a row. Strop has had a somewhat remarkable Cubs career and deserves all the praise and none of the scorn that’s often heaped upon him.
In Morrow’s absence, Strop stepped in admirably as a fill-in closer before injuring himself running the bases in the season’s final month. I think there’s at least some chance that Strop will be at least given a legitimate chance to be the team’s full time closer in 2019. Either way, the 2019 Cubs will be counting on Strop to do what he’s always done – be consistently excellent and consistently fun.
Steve Cishek (80 G, 70.1 IP, 2.18 ERA, 1.038 WHIP, 197 ERA+, 3.45 FIP)
Cishek was used early and often by the Cubs. In the start of the season, he often came in after short stints by Cubs starters and later on he would consistently be the go to option for midge high leverage situations. Joe Maddon didn’t hesitate to deploy Cishek in basically any situation. It seemed like Cishek had a rubber arm basically up until the point that he didn’t.
Cishek’s September/October was not a good stretch – he posted a 4.15 ERA putting on exactly 1.5 runners per inning with a strikeout to walk ratio of only 1.50. That represents his worst month of the year by a very significant margin. It’s hard not to assume that a heavy workload throughout the year caught up to Cishek in the end.
The Cubs will be counting on a lot from Cishek in 2019, but if they want him to pitch effectively in October baseball they’ll almost certainly have to limit his usage relative to 2018. That can only be accomplish by surrounding him with more reliable pieces.
Justin Wilson (71 G, 54.2 IP, 3.46 ERA, 1.427 WHIP, 124 ERA+, 3.64 FIP)
Wilson’s followup season as a Cub was a significant improvement on his disastrous 2017 debut. In some ways, he got lucky given how many baserunners he tended to put on but much of that came from a consistent ability to get strikeouts. Wilson had an impressive 11.4 K/9 and while he walked too many, he struck out a ton too, to the tune of a 2.09 K/BB ratio. Those impressive K numbers are the main reason that Wilson’s ERA and FIP are more or less in line with each other despite higher walk totals than you’d want from a reliever.
Wilson’s will be a free agent during the offseason, and it’s really anybody’s guess as to whether the Cubs will make a real effort to retain his services. My guess is that he’s pitching elsewhere in 2019, but without any other reliable left handed options in the bullpen the Cubs could easily surprise me.
Jesse Chavez (as a Cub: 32 G, 39 IP, 1.15 ERA, .795 WHIP, 374 ERA+, 2.39 FIP; total: 62 G, 95.1 IP, 2.55 ERA, 1.059 WHIP, 182 ERA+, 3.54 FIP)
When the Cubs got Jesse Chavez, they hoped that he would find success getting to pitch somewhere besides the launching pad in Arlington. Similar logic to Tyler Chatwood. Unlike Tyler Chatwood, Chavez worked out brilliantly.
There’s not much you can say about Jesse Chavez as a Cub. He was absolutely outstanding, and he got a touch lucky at times but generally he just pitched well, putting up an impressive FIP, stringing out more than a batter per inning, and limiting walks all year but especially as a Cub. Chavez absolutely saved the Cubs bullpen at the end of the year – as Edwards and Cishek faded down the stretch, Chavez seemed to get better as the season went on. He even put up great performance in both the tiebreaker game 163 and the Wild Card game.
Chavez is a free agent as well, but I’d be shocked if the Cubs don’t make every effort to retain him. He’s also made it clear that he’s interested in returning, and I expect they’ll find a way to make it work.
As with all bullpens, a rag tag cast of characters ate up a bunch of innings not pitched by the main group.
Brian Duensing: Difficult season for someone who seems like a good dude. There was no point in the year that the Cubs could count on Duensing and they’d be foolish to expect anything differently going forward.
Alec Mills: Some excellent work in limited duty to the tune of a 2.49 FIP in 18 innings. He could be a piece of the Cubs bullpen going forward.
Randy Rosario: The GOAT, but a GOAT that got lucky at times and won’t be counted on to be the primary lefty out of the pen.
Dillon Maples: About a walk per inning neutralizes his good raw “stuff.”
Jorge De La Rosa: A fairly good veteran performance could lead the Cubs to retain De La Rosa as a decent left handed option out of the pen.
Brandon Kintzler: He was bad.