Going by the bottom lines, the Chicago Cubs bullpen may have technically finished 2019 in the middle of the pack — with a 1.3 fWAR that ranked 8th in the National League and 20th overall — but ask any Cubs fan about the performance of the relief corps and you’ll likely get a very different answer. They might bring up that Chicago’s 28 blown saves tied them for the fourth-most in baseball, or the fact that the relief crew couldn’t manage to hit the broadside of the barn last season, as their 11.2% walk rate was the highest in the major leagues.
Or perhaps their general malaise and low-grade narcolepsy will simply cause them to make outrageous claims like they invented the question mark or that deep dish pizza is anything but a calzone that’s harder to eat. Regardless, in 2020 the Cubs bullpen is currently filled with a collection of cheap arms and what amounted to a $10 million diamond-encrusted gas can in 2019. Let’s head over to the friendly confines and take a look at what the Northsiders will be trotting out in 2020 to put out fires and lock down wins.
|Craig Kimbrel||Rowan Wick||Kyle Ryan||Ryan Tepera||Brad Wieck||Duane Underwood Jr./Trevor Megill|
Closer – Craig Kimbrel
Release the Kra-! … Wait, are you still allowed to be called The Kraken after the shortened 2019 season Kimbrel just finished in Chicago? More like the Wack-en; am I right, Cubs fans? After signing with the Cubs in June following an eight-month game of free agency chicken, Kimbrel came back to burn it right down for his new team, putting up a 6.53 ERA in 20.2 innings, with a career-high 1.60 WHIP and a career-low 31.3% strikeout rate. His 14.8% swinging-strike rate was his lowest since 2013, while his fastball velocity dropped for the third straight year and finished averaging 96.2 mph — a depth of speed he hadn’t dipped to since 2011.
Optimists are right to bring up that Kimbrel was a home run bingo machine in 2019, allowing 3.92 HR/9 after entering the year with a 0.59 HR/9 for his career, and point to an outrageous 36.0% HR/FB rate as the biggest culprit behind Kimbrel’s doom. However, it’d be disingenuous to think it’s only batted-ball luck that drove Kimbrel’s decline, as the one-time elite closer got hit hard, with his 47.1% hard hit rate a career high in the Statcast era, not to mention that Kimbrel was handing out barrels like Donkey Kong rolling them down to Mario. Kimbrel allowed a 21.2% barrel rate in 2019 after never allowing a mark higher than 11.8%. All in all, Kimbrel ended up with a 6.53 ERA over 20.2 innings, with little hope being found in the evaluators, as an 8.00 FIP, 4.75 xFIP, and 3.91 SIERA don’t exactly scream positive regression.
With Chicago still on the hook with Kimbrel for two years and $32 million in 2020-21 (with another $16 million option that vests if he finishes 110 games in those two years, and 55 games in 2021), the Cubs better hope that, with a normal spring training, they get the perennial All-Star they thought they were signing.
Setup – Rowan Wick
One of Chicago’s best pickups last offseason, Wick was acquired from the Padres for minor leaguer Jason Vosler following the 2018 season. Not seen as an impressive piece at the time, Wick has had an eventful career, not moving to being a full-time pitcher until 2015 — three years after being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals as a catcher. His success had been up-and-down since then, and prior to being traded to the Cubs, he had posted a 6.48 ERA in an 8.1-inning taste of the big leagues in 2018. However, Wick was a revelation upon the move to Chicago, first by putting up a 1.80 ERA across 35 innings and striking out 31.9% of batters he faced in Triple-A (Iowa), before being called up to the big club in late May. In his 33 innings, Wick had a 2.43 ERA and 25.0% K rate and was particularly effective in high-leverage situations, allowing just a .048 AVG to opposing batters.
While he had a solid year, there are plenty of warning signs as to whether or not Wick will again be as effective in 2020. His 2.43 ERA was backed up solidly by a 2.82 FIP, but a 4.38 xFIP and 4.21 SIERA don’t exactly speak in his favor. Maybe it had something to do with a 0.0% HR/FB rate? Or maybe it’s because Wick induces worm-burners with the best of them — posting a 54.1% ground ball rate. Either way, Chicago is playing a dangerous game by counting on a second-year reliever to carry so much of the load.
Setup – Kyle Ryan
The big, 6-foot-5 lefty was another surprising workhorse for the Cubs in 2019, signing as a minor league free agent in 2018 after spending eight years in Detroit’s system. Ryan pitched well in the minors after signing — putting up a 2.86 ERA over 66 innings at Triple-A (Iowa) — before being called upon to do it for the big club in 2019. Ryan was unsurprisingly stellar against fellow left-handers, holding them to a .226 AVG and .571 OPS, with a 23.3% K rate over 25.1 innings.
Righties were a different story, however, as Ryan allowed a .736 OPS to them in 35.2 innings, with a 1.51 WHIP and a 12.7% walk rate, four points higher than against lefties. Where Ryan excels against both sides of the plate is in the ground ball department, with his 59% ground ball rate against right-handers actual two points higher than against the other side. Ryan finished 2019 with a 3.54 ERA, with Steamer projecting him for a 4.14 ERA in 2020 that’s more in line with his 4.28 SIERA from his last campaign.
Like with Rowan Wick above, the Cubs are putting a lot on a pitcher with only one year of (relative) success under his belt, especially with lefties like Ryan sure to be impacted the most by MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule. At least Ryan has a difficult throwing motion for batters to deal with, as his height and extension must make it seem like the ball is being released from first base.
Now it’s time to get funky:
Middle – Ryan Tepera
Any time your struggling bullpen has a chance to sign a middle reliever coming off of a season in which he posted a 4.98 ERA and missed two months with an elbow injury, you have to do it, right? The answer to that question was a resounding yes for the Cubs, who signed Tepera after he spent the previous five seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays. To be fair, Tepera returned from his elbow impingement — and after a 6.51 ERA in April/May — to post a 3.38 ERA in 11 September appearances, but that also came with a 4.06 FIP, 4.52 xFIP, and just a 12.5% K rate.
Tepera has a split contract in 2020 — earning $900,000 at the major-league level and $300,000 in the minor leagues — and has a minor league option remaining, making it likely that Tepera will see time at Triple-A (Iowa). Best-case scenario, he posts around a 3.60 ERA in 60 or so innings in middle relief, striking out about a batter an inning. Worst case, he pitches as he did in 2019 and gets shuffled on over to corn country. These are not a great range of outcomes for a team supposedly trying to improve their bullpen.
Middle – Brad Wieck
Apparently trying to corner the market on giant left-handers, the Cubs acquired the 6-foot-8 lefty from the Padres at the trade deadline for Carl Edwards Jr. and international pool money. Wieck had a bloated 5.71 ERA over his 34.2 innings in 2019, but had a 3.26 SIERA and a 33.1% K rate that were much more palatable. And Wieck didn’t have any issues with his splits, with a .183 AVG and a .293 wOBA against righties versus a .231 AVG and a .354 wOBA versus lefties.
Getting incredible extension from his big frame, Wieck started working on a new spiked curveball and began getting impressive results towards the end of the year. His 3.60 ERA in September wasn’t overly impressive, but a .063 AVG, .194 wOBA, and .399 OPS certainly were. Wieck sits 94-96 mph and can touch 99 mph, velocity that plays up even more due to his plus-plus extension, and with further development of the curveball, he could turn himself into a high-impact reliever. But — stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Cubs are putting a lot of faith in a player with little experience and only 42 innings pitched in the majors.
Before moving on, let’s take a before and after look at Wieck going from a more classic curveball as a Padre:
To the new spiked variety he developed as a Cub:
Paired with 99 mph cheese and a 6-foot-8 frame, that might just play.
“Who and who?,” you might be asking yourself. Underwood is a former starter who has toiled in the Cubs’ minor leagues since signing for $1,000,000 all the way back in 2012, before being moved to the bullpen this past season after going 2-5 with a 6.46 ERA through his first 10 starts in the minors.
More successful after the change in roles, Underwood put up a 3.15 ERA in 34.1 innings, with a 30.6% K rate. The taste of the big leagues he got in September wasn’t exactly savory, with the rookie posting a 5.40 ERA in his 11.2 innings, but Underwood is still thought to be the mix for a 2020 role in the majors.
Unfortunately for Underwood’s 2020 prospects, the Cubs selected Trevor Megill in December’s Rule 5 draft, making him a near certainty to have a role in Chicago’s bullpen, at least to start. Not satisfied with the 6-foot-8 Wieck and the 6-foot-5 Ryan, the Cubs added to their bullpen towers collection, selecting the 6-foot-8 Megill after he posted a 32.3% K rate over 50.1 innings in Triple-A. Megill sits 95-96 mph with his fastball — that can play up a few ticks due to the extension he gets from his size — and pairs it with a wipe-out slider. He’s had injury risks in the past, but Megill could end up being an excellent piece for Chicago, especially considering the low cost of acquisition.
The Cubs continue to be cash-strapped in 2020 — in part because they’ll pay out $54 million to Jason Heyward, Jon Lester, and Tyler Chatwood — and are unlikely to bring anyone in to reinforce the bullpen, barring a trade. That means there will be plenty of jobs for the taking if the aforementioned pitchers are unable to be impactful. This includes the likes of Adbert Azolay if he’s unable to make the starting rotation, as well as feel-good story Danny Hultzen. Hultzen finally made it to the big leagues last season after having multiple arm issues since being drafted number two overall all the way back in 2011* and actually being out of baseball in 2017. Besides that, there’s little coming down the pipeline and Chicago’s best bet may be to resign 34-year-old Pedro Strop. These options are not great, to say the least.
* If you ever want to make a Mariners fan sad, just remind them who else they could’ve taken with the #2 pick in 2011.
Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)