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One more day, we can do it, Cubs fans! We’re so close! Okay, so in our First Half Review, we’ve covered the outfield, the infield and the starting pitching. What’s that leave us? The bullpen. Let’s take a look.

Who We’ve Seen So Far:

Jason Motte, Phil Coke, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, Travis Wood, Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez, Edwin Jackson, Brian Schlitter, Zac Rosscup, Gonzalez Germen, James Russell, Anthony Varvaro, Yoervis Medina, Clayton Richard

What We’ve Seen So Far:

Perhaps the bumpiest spot for the Cubs so far in the 2015 season has been its bullpen. It started out strong, faltered for a little while and recovered in the past couple months. For the vast majority of the season, the Cubs have gone with an eight-man bullpen, carrying one more reliever than the majority of teams in baseball.

The most maligned member of that pen has been Pedro Strop, whose 2 Blown Saves (both against the hated Cardinals) have earned him tons of criticism, some deserved, some undeserved. Strop comes into the break with a 3.04 ERA/3.77 FIP/3.44 xFIP. His 29.1% strikeout rate is identical to his 2014 number but his 11.3% walk rate is higher – albeit lower than his fairly high career rate. I’ve written on Strop recently, and came away with the conclusion that although he has not been quite as good this season as he was last, he has performed pretty well in typically high leverage situations where his triumphs are taken as givens and his failures are disproportionately overblown.

Strop was also used a ton, appearing in 43 games before the break, good for eighth most in all of baseball. The reason Strop was used so much was mainly because of injuries to Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez, two standouts from the 2014 bullpen who went down early in the season. Grimm has returned to the bullpen in mostly lower leverage situations and has boasted a great 1.19 ERA/1.93 FIP/1.19 xFIP although of concern is his 11.8% walk rate which is way higher than his career line.

Ramirez, meanwhile, has looked adequate since his return and has not been used in high leverage situations, either. Ramirez’ velocity has been down and he has seemed rather uncomfortable on the mound.

Hector Rondon came into the season as the Closer, but even with his 12 saves, after a few blown ones and high stress 9th innings, Rondon fell out of the role in favor of Jason Motte. Nonetheless, Rondon sports a 2.17 ERA/2.78 FIP/3.17 xFIP and has thrown nicely in high leverage 7th or 8th inning situations.

Motte performed better than expected. The former Cardinal Closer has converted all 5 of his save opportunities since unofficially taking over the spot from Rondon. Motte’s velocity has ticked up throughout the season and he has been fortunate in a .235 BABIP, 30 points lower than his career .265.

2010-2014-era Cub James Russell was picked up off the scrapheap early in the season and has emerged as a valuable lefty out of the pen, especially following Phil Coke’s ineffectiveness and Zac Rosscup’s inconsistency and shoulder injury. Russell has worked mostly as a LOOGY in high leverage situations and snagged 7 holds already, albeit with a so-so line of 1.71 ERA/3.22 FIP/3.86 xFIP.

Travis Wood, who was booted from the rotation after a few weak starts, has actually looked pretty good in relief, sporting a 2.59 ERA/3.04 FIP/3.87 xFIP. If you exclude his one really rough performance in the June 27 blowout in St. Louis, his ERA drops to an excellent 1.25. Another starter, Edwin Jackson, was relegated to relief duty as well. Jackson has been fine in this role but that’s mostly virtue of him almost only appearing in the lowest of low leverage situations.

During the rough month of May, one culprit received the brunt of the blame. That would be Brian Schlitter, who did not fare well in his multiple stints on the club, surrendering some significant hits when used in big situations and coming away with a 7.36 ERA/6.35 FIP/3.75 xFIP. Maddon’s interest in using Schlitter in high leverage spots stood to reason due to his groundball tendencies, but the production just did not show up. But, don’t weep for Bearded Brian, though, because he has excelled with a .69 ERA in Iowa.

What To Expect in the Second Half:

The bullpen is particularly hard to project the future from since the sample sizes are so small from the first half. But, one thing we could safely say is that we can expect Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm both to strive to bring their walk rates down. Accomplishing that would especially enhance Grimm’s usage in the pen and get him into more 7th and 8th inning spots.

James Russell and Travis Wood figure to remain the lefties out of the pen with Russell serving the LOOGY role and Wood a long-man role, although he may be ready for some infrequent one-inning spots. Starters Tsuyoshi Wada or Clayton Richard may also get moved to the long-man job if the Cubs make a deal for another Starting Pitcher. Zac Rosscup will also be available pretty soon once he recovers from his shoulder injury.

One area of concern would be Jason Motte. Though he’s been good as the Closer so far, his peripherals suggest he’s a prime regression candidate. Motte has a 50% flyball rate which is higher than his career 43.2% and way higher than his 38.7% rate in 2012 when he collected 42 saves. Motte’s strikeout rate, at 16.1%, is also quite a bit lower than his career rate of 24.3%. Thus, it would not shock me to see Motte’s magic begin to diminish and Hector Rondon appear occasionally back in the 9th.

I’d keep an eye on Neil Ramirez’ velocity, too. If that doesn’t begin to tick up a little higher, it would not be unreasonable to consider giving him a little more time in AAA to regain it and get more comfortable on the mound. Once things are turned around, hopefully Ramirez can return to a comparable form of his 2014 self.

Another candidate to be bumped from the bullpen would be Edwin Jackson, who may finally be approaching his Waterloo. Although he is still owed around $20 million, Jackson will almost certainly not remain on the roster down the stretch if there are capable relievers who need big league spots.

One reliever who will make a case for a bullpen job is Rafael Soriano, the former Nationals Closer who was signed to a Minor League deal in June. Soriano has been going through a personal Spring Training process to get his velocity up with stops in Tennessee and Iowa and figures to be added to the Major League roster in the next few weeks.

The Cubs could also dip into the Iowa pen to take a look at arms like Yoervis Medina, who was acquired for Welington Castillo earlier this year and performed pretty nicely for the Cubs in a short stint. They also could call upon two of the most exciting young arms in the Cubs’ system, Armando Rivero and Carl Edwards Jr. (formerly known as C.J. Edwards). Both have struggled with control in AAA but appear to be turning a corner. Edwards, in particular, will likely make some sort of appearance at the big league level considering he already is on the 40-Man Roster. Finally, don’t throw things at me when I say there is still a possibility we see Brian Schlitter again before the season is up.

If the Cubs were to pursue a reliever via trade, I wouldn’t think it would be a big name like Jonathan Papelbon unless they can avoid sending a big prospect in a potential deal. Though they may consider a bullpen move, I would look for the Cubs to attempt to use the relievers in Iowa as their primary reinforcements.

Though they have had their ups and downs, the Cubs’ bullpen regained its form toward the end of the first half and will attempt to capitalize on that in a second half playoff push.

Photo by The Daily Herald.

 

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