A year ago, the Chicago Cubs bullpen was a weak point. That's saying something. Slowly but surely, the unit got better in the second half of the season, and now with some new additions to the 'pen, it looks like the team actually might be able to secure some wins for its starting pitchers.
Trades and player development last season along with free-agent signings this offseason have helped completely turn around the bullpen. Key additions in the past year include Pedro Strop, Wesley Wright and Jose Veras.
Hector Rondon (Long Relief)
Rondon, who made his major league debut last season, had an ERA of 4.77 in 2013, but he will be asked to eat up innings when a starter struggles. In addition to his ballooned ERA, another concerning point for Rondon was his subpar 44-25 K-BB ratio in 2013. If he expects to stay with the big league team, he will have to find better control of his pitches.
At only 25 years old, Rondon provides upside and has plenty of time to refine his pitches. With his average four-seam fastball coming in at 93 mph and two-seam fastball coming in at 95 mph, per FanGraphs, Rondon has a solid base to miss bats; however, it seems that Rondon doesn't get ahead in the count enough to strike out as many batters as he should.
Counting his cutter, Rondon uses his fastball more than 82 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. What that says is that while his heater is effective, he is falling behind in counts and has to rely on his "get-me-over fastball" to get back into counts.
If Rondon can use his fastball more effectively early in counts, then he can use his slider more to finish batters off, thus making his K-BB ratio look a lot better.
Blake Parker (Middle Relief)
While he made his Cubs debut in 2012, Parker burst onto the scene for the North Siders in 2013. The 28-year-old posted an impressive 2.72 ERA a year ago and had a crazy-good 3.67-1 K-BB ratio. Seemingly just entering his prime, Parker has a chance to be really effective in this bullpen.
Likely to pitch in the sixth or possibly seventh inning, Parker will be tasked with getting the ball to the team's late-inning guys while keeping the Cubs in games. If he continues to make strides like he did a year ago, he should be effective in that role.
Featuring a diverse arsenal, when Parker is able to get ahead of hitters, it's pretty difficult for them to guess what's coming. In addition to his fastball, Parker has a curveball, changeup and splitter. Previously Parker had thrown a slider, but that slowly developed into what is now his curveball.
2014 is a big season for Parker, one where he can either continue to grow into an above-average bullpen pitcher or regress.
Wesley Wright (Middle Relief/Lefty Specialist)
The first bullpen addition this offseason, Wright provides an important second lefty to the Cubs bullpen. In addition to Wright being a solid mid-to-late-innings guy, he gives Cubs manager Rick Renteria more versatility than Dale Sveum had. Now with two lefties, James Russell doesn't just have to be a lefty specialist, he can be a setup man when the eighth inning is full of lefties.
Between the Astros and Rays last season, Wright had a combined 3.69 ERA, something that can be improved with the Cubs. The strange thing about Wright's high ERA is that he doesn't walk a lot of batters, so his stuff may never be good enough to be a shutdown guy.
Nonetheless, Wright has proven to be an effective lefty, which is a coveted position in any bullpen.
Pitching just 53.2 innings in 70 appearances in 2013 shows that Wright is most effective when pitching in a situation where he has to get one or two lefties out. That's the case with most lefty relievers, but unlike Russell, it seems like Wright may be used almost exclusively on lefties in the sixth and seventh innings.
Carlos Villanueva (Middle Relief)
One of the Cubs' most effective starters for the first few months of 2013, Villanueva was pushed to the bullpen when Matt Garza returned from injury. Once the 30-year-old, who developed a Rollie Fingers-esque mustache, went to the bullpen, his ERA ballooned to 4.02.
Perhaps because he wasn't used to being deployed out of the bullpen, Villanueva struggled. Knowing that he's going into this season as a reliever, Villanueva may be able to mentally prepare as a reliever better than he was able to do a year ago.
Even if his ERA remains in the high 3.00s or low 4.00s, he can be a key contributor to the Cubs by eating up innings when starters have a rough day or get their pitch counts up early. Additionally, Villanueva can be used as a spot starter when there's an injury or a pitcher in the rotation needs an extra day of rest.
Especially if Jeff Samardzija is traded either before the season or midseason, Villanueva can easily switch between the rotation and bullpen. Even though he's not a shutdown pitcher by any means, his value comes in the innings he can give the Cubs in long relief or in the starting rotation.
James Russell (Setup Man/Lefty Specialist)
A hot topic of trade rumors at last season's deadline, Russell has clearly shown other teams his value. Whether it was because they couldn't get the right package of prospects or not, the fact the Cubs didn't deal him shows the value they see in him as well.
Russell, who will be 28 by the start of the season, may be used in a more pivotal role this year now that the team has an additional lefty in Wright. Instead of pitching against lefties in situations where the bullpen is needed, Russell can now pitch in a setup capacity when there are lefties due up in the eighth.
As a result, a combination of Russell and Strop/Veras (whoever doesn't win the closer job) can combine as setup men to provide matchup problems for opposing lineups.
Pedro Strop (Setup Man)
Acquired from the Orioles last season, Strop was phenomenal for the Cubs in 2013. As soon as he came over to Chicago, management informed him that he was tipping his slider. When he corrected that, he was almost lights out.
His bounce-back performance is part of the reason why he will have a chance to win the closer job this spring. In Baltimore last year, Strop had a 7.25 ERA and had a K-BB ratio of about 1.5-1. Compare that to Chicago, where he posted a 2.83 ERA and a K-BB ratio of nearly 4-1.
Clearly something clicked for Strop, and he could really burst onto the national scene in 2014.
While he features a splitter rarely, Strop relies heavily on his fastball and slider. Cubs fans are familiar with late-inning relievers that throw a fastball and slider, but Strop doesn't seem like he's headed for the Carlos Marmol career arc. That's because while his slider isn't as devastating as Marmol's, Strop can throw his slider for a strike when he needs to.
For that reason, Strop should look like the Marmol that made hitters look silly several years ago.
Jose Veras (Closer)
The latest addition to the Cubs bullpen, Veras figures to have the inside track on the closer spot because of his experience. Between Houston and Detroit, Veras had an impressive combined ERA of 3.02.
At 33, Veras is by far the most experienced member of the Cubs bullpen. For that reason, unless Strop impresses majorly in spring training, Veras is likely to be the Cubs' Opening Day closer. Not that his experience is the only reason Veras is likely to be the team's closer, as the veteran posted a WHIP barely above 1.00 last year.
By not putting runners on base, Veras naturally didn't give up many runs. Not giving up many runs is a pretty key quality in a closer. It's very possible that Veras pushes this Cubs bullpen over the top into being a very formidable group.
Others Who Could Get in the Picture
There are a couple other pitchers who could make their way into the bullpen throughout 2014 if they recover from injury and/or impress in the minor leagues.
A key acquisition last offseason, Fujikawa was rarely on the field, and when he was, he was ineffective. Still recovering from his Tommy John surgery, Fujikawa doesn't seem like he will be ready to pitch again until at least June. When that time comes, though, he will likely make his way back into the bullpen. How he pitches once there will determine whether he pitches in middle relief or in the back end of the bullpen.
Acquired from the Braves in the Paul Maholm trade in 2011, Vizcaino hasn't pitched yet for the Cubs. When they made the trade, the Cubs knew it would take a while for Vizcaino to recover from arm injuries.
The positive is that Vizcaino is just 23 years old, and if he can recover from injury and pitch effectively, he can be a key member of the Cubs bullpen. In fact, if Vizcaino pitches effectively in spring training, there's a small chance he could be the closer.
Anytime a pitcher's average fastball velocity is 96 mph, there are going to be murmurs that he should be the closer at some point.
Recently signed to a minor league contract, Sanchez is a project for the Cubs. Pitching ineffectively after tossing a no-hitter for the Giants a couple of years ago, Sanchez is looking for a second chance.
Depending on how he does in Triple-A, that chance could come in the major league bullpen. It's still possible that Sanchez could wind up in the rotation, depending on moves the club makes during the season, but Sanchez's development as well as the performance of the players in front of him will also determine when and if he will be up with the big league club.
As a team, the Cubs aren't likely to compete this season, but their bullpen has been solidified during the offseason. The few games that the relief corps has to save should be pinned down in 2014. It's a small step long term, but the base they're building is pushing them closer to contention as their hitting prospects slowly work their way through the minors.