With Jason Motte, Fernando Rodney, Tommy Hunter, and Trevor Cahill all electing free agency, the middle and long relief roles will change a lot for the Cubs in 2016. Only the following pitchers are on the Cubs’ roster as bullpen arms: Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Jr., Neil Ramirez, Jason Grimm, Clayton Richard, Zac Rosscup, and Travis Wood. You can also add in another arm if the Cubs sign or trade for another starter, given them 6.
When at full strength, most of these arms are very good. To me, Carl Edwards is the most intriguing, as he came up very late in the year, but was not really put in any high pressure situations. I think his development in spring training could go a long way to strengthening the pen. When you can throw 95-96 mph with a devastating curve, you can be a dominant reliever. His problem is just his command and avoiding walks.
The problem in 2015 was they were run down by the middle of August. No one saw Maddon suddenly going to Wood, Richard, Rodney, and Cahill down the stretch because Grimm was tired, Ramirez was still dinged, and Strop was a little unpredictable. The Cubs need build them back up to full strength while reducing their workload. That’s where acquiring some 200 inning starters this offseason is so important. Depending on what happens here in the next few weeks, the Cubs bullpen of 2016 will look quite different, and that is by design.
In recent weeks, the Cubs have been restocking the bullpen and AAA with relievers such as: Edgar Olmos (L), Spencer Patton (R), Drew Rucinski (R), Andury Acevedo (L), Luis Parra (L), and Rex Brothers (L). It is doubtful that any of them stay on the 25-man roster next spring besides Brothers. The Cubs are said to be in pursuit of Fernando Rodney to bolster the pen even more. What the Cubs are doing is building up depth to fight off the effects of a long season.
The Cubs do have several relief pitchers who could help the big league club here in the next two years. The problem the Cubs have with the relief pitching is that it is mostly right-handed. Aside from Zac Rosscup, there was no lefthander at AAA until the Cubs signed Acevedo, Parra, and Olmos.
PJ Francescon, Michael Jensen, Stephen Perakslis, and Matt Brazis all have big arms with high velocity (up to 95), but all are right handed and a little injury prone. Some of them might be able to help the Cubs in 2016. The problem is not one of them is protected in next week’s Rule 5 draft. We could be having this same exact conversation a week from now.
A great collection of relief pitchers will be at South Bend in 2016. They don’t have their heart set on pitching in relief, though, as they will all try to earn starting spots in the very crowded South Bend rotation in spring training. They include Adbert Alzolay, Greyfer Eregua, Jose Paulino (L), and Pedro Araujo. Add in Luis Hernandez (L), Craig Brooks, Trey Masek, and Scott Effross; that is an outstanding bullpen!
Fireman on the Way
The Cubs number one reliever in the minors is PJ Francescon who was lights out at AA in 2015. PJ Francescon had the best year of his career in the Cubs’ organization in 2015. He had a 1.69 ERA in 42 appearances and had 22 saves in 25 save opportunities while pitching 53 1/3 innings. He’s been in the Cubs organization since 2011. He will be at AAA Iowa with all the new relievers to start out the year. He could be in Chicago, if needed, by the middle of summer. I liked PJ a lot. In fact, I named him the Cubs minor league pitcher of the month in June.
Second is David Garner, who is coming on quickly. In 2015 he went from South Bend to Myrtle Beach and was dangerous at high A. Garner earned a spot on the Cubs Arizona fall league team in Mesa so the Cubs could see what he could do against advanced competition. I loved the move because I think Garner could be a fast riser next year. In 16 appearances at Myrtle Beach, Garner had a 2.37 ERA in 30.1 innings where he struck out 36. Opponents batted a measly .162 off Garner. If not for one poor game in early September where he gave up three runs, his ERA would have been 1.50 at high A. In the Arizona Fall League, he had 10 appearances where he pitched 12 innings and struck out 12 with a 3.00 ERA. He will have to continue to make adjustments as he moves up in the system. His arm action is clean and he threw an easy 95-96 most of the summer.
For me Stephen Perakslis is an interesting prospect. In the first half of any year, he is not very good. He has done that at every level so far. Then something happens. In the second half of the year he turns it up. His fastball livens up at 95-96 and he begins to dominate. He has done it at Kane County, Daytona, and last year, he was injured at Tennessee after a 4.22 ERA in the first half. He will likely be at Tennessee to start out 2016. I would like to see him, at least once, come out in the first half firing bullets.
In the first half of last year, Michael Jensen was off to another superb year. He had a 1.16 ERA in 16 appearances. Then the injury bug took hold and he pitched in only six games in the second half. Jensen and Francescon have been tied together the past two years. After missing all of 2013, Jensen has advanced level by level and seen his ERA drop level by level. The issue for him is whether he can stay healthy. He has good command but does not have overwhelming stuff. He has a solid curve and can generate heat between 92-94 most nights. Being able to control those two pitches is his biggest asset.
Converting to a Reliever
The name I think of and hear most often about converting to a reliever is Daury Torrez, who started at Myrtle Beach last year. I saw Torrez pitch several times for Kane County in 2014. Torres might be the best bet because he has a fastball that sits around 93-94 mph. Then he comes in with a hard breaking slider around 83 to 86. He could be a 2 pitch pitcher as a reliever. His fastball could go up to 96 and he might be better suited to move up in the Cubs organization the same way.
Dave Berg and Josh Conway – Both had interesting and good years at high A Myrtle Beach in 2015. Both will be at Tennessee in 2016 and are within shooting distance of Chicago. Berg, who was darfted in 2015, has an unconventional, and very deceptive, sidearm delivery with 4 pitches he can throw for strikes yet the ball never exceeds 84-85 mph. Conway, after missing most of two years, had his first full season of baseball last year with no pitching limits. After a rough April, he was very good the rest of the year at Myrtle Beach where he a 1.35 ERA in 17 second half appearances, striking out 30 in 26.2 innings. Throwing mostly 93-95, his second full year as a Cub at Tennessee should be better than his first!
Other Guys to Keep Eyes On in 2016
AA Tennessee –Michael Heesch, Starling Peralta, Tayler Scott, Juan Paniagua, and James Pugliese.
High A Myrtle Beach – Daniel Lewis, Corbin Hoffner, and Ryan McNeil.
December should be an interesting month as I think the Cubs will clean out a lot of organizational type players in Iowa, and replace them with more prospects as their 2012 and 13 draft classes make it to Tennessee and Iowa respectively. As more and more of Theo’s draftees move up in the system, it gets very interesting as to who will be around to help.