Opening Day 2018 – Two Titles in Three Years Wouldn’t Be Bad

By Todd Johnson

The Cubs begin their pursuit of their second World Series title in three years this morning in Miami. I’m a little excited about what’s going to happen. I am even more excited to see October get here. But in between there’s a lot of baseball to be played and a few questions to answer. A lot of things can happen between now and October. Hopefully, most will be for the good.

This is a team that has been built to win in October. But there’s a catch – it’s not quite done being built yet. While the rotation is set in stone, along with most of the position players, there still are a couple of concerns heading into the season. On the other hand, the Cubs have plenty of strengths that should carry them into the postseason for the fourth straight year.

Season Prediction

I’m going with 95 wins. Originally, I wanted to do a range somewhere between 93 and 97, but 95 works for me. To be honest, that might be a little on the low side. I could see them winning 100 games again just based on the starting rotation and their powerful daily lineup.

Strengths

Starting Pitching – I would put the Cubs number 1-4 starters up against any team in major league baseball. They may not have that dominant #1 starter like a Scherzer or a Kershaw, but the Cubs’ key is their depth. Their #4 starter is just as good as other team’s #2. This should also be the year where Quintana and Hendricks begin pitching into the primes of their careers. 

Position players – From the first guy in the lineup to the 12th man on the bench, there is no other team, except for maybe Houston, that comes close. The Cubs could have 7 guys hit more than 25 home runs this year. I find that just to be an amazing statistic.

With new hitting coach Chili Davis, what I hope to see is better situational hitting. Not every situation calls for a home run attempt. That will hopefully get burned into their brains and muscle memory.

Concern: The Bullpen

How do I phrase this? I think the bullpen in July and August could be somewhat different than the bullpen in April and May. The Cubs are breaking camp with eight arms and I wouldn’t be surprised to see three new relievers in the bullpen this summer as the Cubs get ready to head down the stretch. One or two could be prospects, and the other(s) could be guys they pick up to strengthen the pen.

It’s not that any of these current relievers scare me, it’s more a matter of confidence. At times, I fear implosion and injuries haunting this squad. I don’t know how Brandon Morrow is going to be the closer all year if he cannot go on back-to-back days? Will Steve Cishek have anything left in August and September? Will Brian Duensing be able to replicate his 2017 season? Can Carl Edwards find the strike zone consistently? Can Pedro Strop hold up for an entire year? Which Justin Wilson is going to show up? I have more concerns, but I will stop there.

All of those are legitimate questions that need to be answered over the next two months. And by  answered, it is going to take a while to shake that bullpen out and find out what everyone is going to do regularly.

However, don’t let the fact that the Cubs have a farm system that’s now in the bottom five of baseball deter you from thinking they can’t go and make a deal to enhance the bullpen. They have plenty of prospects that other teams want. If the Cubs need to go out and get a bullpen guy, they have plenty of currency to do so.

In the end…

I am pulling for that second World Series in three years. To get there, this team is going to have to stay healthy, hit better in certain situations, and just dominate the teams they are supposed to dominate. It all starts today in Miami.

I will be back in an about an hour (I have to go for a walk) to go over some surprising MiLB roster moves the Cubs made yesterday.

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The Cubs’ Bullpen Looks to Be Gutted

By Todd Johnson

Pedro Strop.
Carl Edwards, Jr.
Mike Montgomery.
Justin Grimm.
Justin Wilson.

Those names don’t exactly exude confidence to get the final three to nine outs of a game. After yesterday’s announcement that the Cubs did not tender a contract to reliever Hector Rondon, new pitching coach Jim Hickey’s job just tougher, a lot tougher. At over $6 million, Rondon’s contract was getting too pricey to just be a setup man. The Cubs essentially said, “Thank you for service, but no thanks for 2018.” As a result, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer now have their work cut out for themselves this offseason.

Originally, just Wade Davis and Brian Duensing had left via free agency. The Cubs now have to replace half their pen and add depth to stash at AAA Iowa, which appears to be well underway.

Since the end of last season, the Cubs have taken some flyers on some arms with minimal MLB experience. Righty Luke Farrell could relieve, he could start. He has 13 career MLB innings. Righty Cory Mazzoni has 16 career innings to go with his shiny 17.28 career ERA. Lefty Randy Rosario’s career ERA is a whopping 30.86 in just  2.1 innings. And this week, the Cubs signed 29-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez. He might be alright. He threw 16 IP in 2017 with a 2.67 ERA but also put up an unsustainable whip of 2.02. He walked 14 batters. I thought his signing was a little odd as Theo talked about adding strike throwers in his offseason press sessions. I don’t think that is what he had in mind.

After seeing those stats, I am not brimming with confidence. I am not in sheer terror either, but I am concerned. The Cubs will need to find a closer and a couple of setup men while adding depth at AAA.

Theo is going to have hit the free agent market and maybe use the Rule 5 Draft (Kohl Stewart of Minnesota is one name I like) as a cheaper option. Theo has been able to find arms in the past rather cheaply and I am sure he will again. In addition, I would not be surprised to see Theo make a trade for an arm or two rather than overpay in the free agent market or in an international free agent.

Here are some free agent names to look for to see if the Cubs are associated with or show interest in over the next month:
Brian Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Pat Neshek, Brandon Kintzler, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Fernando Rodney, Matt Albers, Tony Watson, and Jake McGee.

As for internal options…
Dillon Maples is close to being ready. While he has top flight MLB pitches, it is just a matter of controlling them. At 25, he now stands a better chance of making the 25 man roster. I always thought that Jen-Ho Tseng’s change-curve combo would play better out of the pen than as a starter. He could get that chance in 2018. While Rob Zastryzny is an option, but I don’t know if I see him as a long term option. Justin Hancock is another strong arm. He had an up and down year year for three MiLB teams in 2017, but he does throw in the upper 90s. David Garner finally made it to AAA in August but struggled in his one month there. He is going to need some seasoning at that level. One name I like is Tommy Nance. He spent all of 2017 injured. He reminds me of Brandon Webb in that he throws a “hard” ball that breaks a lot of bats. Nance would be a very longshot to make the team, but I could see him getting a shot later in the summer if all goes well with his health.

In the end, adding three to four more arms to a corps that struggled to find the plate in 2018 is a bit concerning. All last night I kept wondering if Theo would overpay for pen security or would he try to find undervalued arms somewhere. However, heading into day 2 of the Shohei Otani watch, rebuilding the pen could take a while as the Cubs do have more pressing needs at starting pitching. Once the Otani dust settles, it should be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes down.

State of the Cubs for 2018: The Bullpen Might Be Hickey’s to Sort Out

By Todd Johnson

Of the three parts of the Cubs team, this is the most volatile and unpredictable aspect of the organization. While the Cubs may have to replace two starters in the rotation and a couple of position players, the idea of selecting or finding relievers to hold a win is a bit frightening. Ideally, the Cubs would want to hold onto Wade Davis. I don’t think the odds of that are too good.

As a result, the Cubs could be in search of a closer this winter and a couple setup men. In addition to losing Davis, Brian Duensing could walk as a free agent. On the other hand, Joe was not on very good terms with many relievers other than Strop, Edwards, and Montgomery. Pitching Coach Jim Hickey has his work cut out with rebuilding the confidence and strike throwing capabilities of Rondon, Justin Wilson, and Justin Grimm. Add in newly signed Luke Farrell and Hickey has a lot to do at the MLB level.

Internal Solutions

Dillon Maples is going to get a shot at making the 25 man roster next spring. He is just one of many arms who are close to the major league level. I think we can add Iowa closer Matt Carasiti to that list if he re-signs a MiLB deal and is added to the 40 man. Corey Black, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, might be one to watch for later in the summer as he gets stronger. In addition, flamethrowers Justin Hancock and Tommy Nance are two to look for as well later in the year. Hancock has control issues but throws in the upper 90s, while Nance can really pound the mitt but was injured all of 2017. The best way I can describe how hard Nance throws is the catchers feel like their are catching bricks instead of baseballs. 

A long shot to make the pen could be Adbert Alzolay. And by longshot, I mean his odds are between slim and none. However, what Alzolay does have is a fastball that closes in on 100 miles an hour. As a starter, he usually throws between 95 and 96. He is not a pitcher blessed with a big frame to sustain 200 innings a year. As a result, his frame leans more toward relieving than it does starting. After a successful 2017 as a starter at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee, I can see Adbert making a push to get to Chicago as a reliever fairly quickly if all he has to do is make it one level, considering that two years ago he was a reliever at Eugene.

Three other possible longshots to make the pen next season are Jake Stinnett, Pedro Araujo, and Dakota Mekkes. Stinnett and Araujo who have been outstanding this fall in the AFL. Stinnett missed most of the year but came back reborn as a reliever. Araujo was the closer at Myrtle Beach. Of the three, Stinnett would have the inside track and it would be strange if he skipped AAA. As a result, he is an option to think about next spring.

As for Mekkes, he dominated two levels in 2017 at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He will have his work cut out for him at AA Tennessee in 2018. His deceptive delivery is his greatest weapon as it makes a 91-93 mph fastball appear to be 96-98. The odds are long for him to get to Chicago, but he is not that far away in reality. He will be a lot of fun to watch as a Smokie in 2018.

The Free Agent Market

It is not like closers and setup men grow on trees. Watching the Cubs go through the postseason with basically a five-man bullpen was a bit strenuous to watch on a nightly basis. Now, the Cubs can go and rebuild with what will hopefully be a couple of lefties and a couple of righties. I don’t think the Cubs are going to spend big but they will take their chances if someone is available that they really like.

Right Handed Relievers
Steve Cishek (32)
Wade Davis (32)
Greg Holland (32) — $15MM player option
Craig Kimbrel (30) — $13MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Brandon Morrow (33)
Huston Street (34)

Top Left-Handed Relievers
Brian Duensing (35)
Boone Logan (33) — $7MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Mike Minor (30) — $10MM mutual option with a $1.5MM buyout

Out of all the free agents, Davis is still the best option with Morrow close behind. On the other hand, neither are going to come cheaply. I would not be surprised to see the Cubs get 2 starters for the same price that they will have to pay for their closer in 2018.

I think the best route might be in a trade. Hopefully, the Cubs can find a suitor.

Assembling a bullpen is going to be the most challenging aspect of this offseason. Don’t be surprised if this becomes an ongoing thing through next summer as the Cubs acquire the perfect pen piece by piece. As a result, spring training should be highly competitive.

So, About That Bullpen… 10 Things I Think

There are 51 games left to go and the bullpen is not settled. Then again, the Cubs have eight weeks to figure it out. If it seems like this has been a never ending process, you would be correct. In fact, the story started last offseason when the Cubs began stockpiling arms in the minors at AA Tennessee and AAA Iowa. Only two of those arms have had any modicum of success in the minors – Spencer Patton and Jack Leathersich. Then, throughout the course of the season, the Cubs have been adding and subtracting to the bullpen per their purview. It has not been a perfect process.

Here is the bullpen as it is constructed now:
cj 2015 75Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Travis Wood, Mike Montgomery, and Joe Smith. Only three of those names began the year in Chicago – Wood, Strop, Rondon. Eight other names have graced the pen – Joel Peralta, Joe Nathan, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm, Gerardo Concepcion, Neil Ramirez, and Adam Warren. Some of these names could return later this year. In addition, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a few other names get a look before the end of August or in September.

Here are ten things I think about the Cubs bullpen
1. I am not sold on Smith and Montgomery at all. Neither pitched much in high leverage situations this year. I know the Cubs brass likes these two pitchers, but I have not seen positive results, although Smith might be starting to warm on me a little because of the unique nature of his delivery. Still, there are 8 weeks to figure out if they make the postseason roster.
2. Aroldis Chapman has been as advertised on the field. 100-104 mph nightly is a good sign for me. However, I am not a fan of the 1+ inning save. If you need him in the 8th, bring him in, but don’t wear him out. “Save” him for October. With a 12 game lead, that should not be too hard.
3. Carl Edwards has fixed his control problems he had in the minors and has been amazing! It’s at the point I love to watch the reactions to his pitches more so than the actual movement and location of his pitches. It sure beats those nights when he was in Tennessee and he would walk the bases loaded to begin the inning. He’s come a long way in a short time as a reliever. He’s definitely an October arm.
4. For all these changes, it appeared as though the Cubs would turn each game into an 6 inning game with Strop, Rondon and Chapman rolling out to close out the game. The starting pitching during the current streak has had a little something to say about that. The rotation seems to go 7-8 innings a game lately.

At times, it comes across that the rotation has made the bullpen obsolete. I am OK with that, too, as long as the starters have enough stamina for the postseason.
5. Travis Wood is setting himself up for a big payday this offseason. The future free agent is currently the longest tenured Cub in only his fifth season. And it might be his best out of the pen.
6. Remember the name Jack Leathersich. The Cubs picked him off the scrap heap and his future is bright coming off TJS. Aside from one poor outing at Tennessee, he is slowly making his way back. He could throw another wrench in the postseason roster.
grimm 667. Justin Grimm’s attitude is extremely professional. He has taken being optioned as a chance to improve his arsenal. He went down, came back up, and is now back down again. If he gets right, he could be a game changer with his power arm.
8. There are several names that could get a look in September for a shot at the bullpen. For Pierce Johnson, his transition to a relief role comes after a 7+ ERA as a starter who has been beset by injuries throughout his career. He’s only had five outings so far. Throw away his first appearance and you’re looking at 6.2 IP with 10 Ks and 1 run allowed. We won’t talk about his debut as a reliever. I am not advocating for him to be a piece, just that he be in the discussion and September would be the perfect time to get an extended look at the new Pierce in Chicago. You could even call it a preview for 2017 if you want. To go with that reasoning, you could even preview Armando Rivero and Jose Rosario as well.
9. Even though the Cubs have been adding and subtracting to the pen all year, don’t think that they are done. If there’s an arm out there that Theo and Jed think can help them win in October, they will go get it.
10. While I do feel better about this bullpen than I did in May, I am still not 100% confident in the totality of its construction. For now, it’s fine. For October, I am 5/7 of the way there. For some reason, I think Grimm makes it back. As for Trevor Cahill, I think we may have seen the end of him.

51 games, 8 weeks, this should be good.

The 2014 Bullpen: Rebuilding from Within

The Rule 5 draft is only a few weeks away. The Cubs currently have 37 men on their 40 man roster. By the middle of the week, that number could reach 40 or even drop depending on who the Cubs protect and do not protect. Regardless, look for the Cubs to do what they have done the last two years and select a pitcher in the Rule 5 draft. Two years ago it was Lendy Castillo who spent 2013 in the Cubs minor league system, but last year Hector Rondon was a big success. He showed flashes of having a power arm late in the season and his selection strengthened the bullpen late in the year. The problem was, however, the bullpen imploded early and often throughout 2013.

In all, the Cubs trotted out 23 relief pitchers in 2013. Five guys would get saves but nobody foresaw Kevin Gregg stabilizing the bullpen. After the Marmol meltdowns, the Fujikawa injury, there was really nowhere else to go and Gregg came in and won the job. In June and July, the Cubs bullpen situation stabilized some as players began to find their roles but more injuries, despite the Marmol trade, began to take its toll. As a team the Cubs only converted only 60% of saves last year. That was 25th in the league! The relief corps blew 26 saves! Heading into 2014, the bullpen, along with strengthening four positions (3B, LF, CF, 2B), are the main areas of concern for the Cubs.

The Candidates from the 40 Man Roster
Daniel Bard
Kyuiji Fujikawa
Justin Grimm
Chang Yong-Lim
Blake Parker
Pedro Strop
Brooks Raley
Zach Rosscucp
Chris Rusin
James Russell
Carlos Villanueva
Arodys Vizcaino
Carlos Villanueva

Candidates from the Minors
Marcos Mateo
Marcus Hatley
Dallas Beeler
Rafael Dolis
Yoanner Negrin
Zach Putnam

Roles to be filled
The Injured – Fujikawa and Vizcaino will likely start the year off either in Iowa or rehabbing their surgeries. Of the two, Vizcaino shows the most promise but needs to build up arm strength after being off for what could be classified as three years. Vizcaino, after pitching a few innings at instructs this fall, will likely be limited to relief duties twice a week at Iowa while he rebuilds his arm strength. In the long run, for 2015, he becomes a viable closer candidate.

Long Relief – Clearly this is Carlos Villanueva’s role from last year. Along with Justin Grimm, the two could fill this role along with the 6th/7th inning setup simultaneously.

6th/7th Inning – Villanueva and Grimm could fill this role as well, but for my money, this is Hector Rondon’s domain. In August and September, he was hitting 95 on the radar gun regularly in this role. Zach Putnam, Mateo, or Hatley could gain a spot here depending on their performance down in Mesa.

Loogy – the odds of the Cubs breaking camp with more than two lefties are slim. Russell has been used a lot in longer stints the past two years because they had no dependable arms. I would like to see Russell have a smaller more dependable role this year. His 8 blown saves led the club in 2013. The other option is Rusin/Rosscup/Raley. One could be a starter (Rusin) while one of the other would aid Russell, and the third would stay stretched at as a starter at Triple A

8th Inning Setup – Ideally, this is where Pedro Strop and Josh Bard belong. They are two power arms who, in the past, have shown they can get the job done. Bard had a horrible conversion to starter and then back again. Whether he can regain his form is yet to be seen. We know that Strop has the potential. Blake Parker, along with Rondon also showed flashes here.

Closer – As of now, the Cubs going out and hitting the free agent market for a closer would be a poor investment. Theo and Jed tend to build from within.

Longshots – Negrin, Hatley, and Mateo showed some flashes in the minors. Negrin at 29 is the oldest and has the best chance of earning of spot. But really, it all depends on their product and arms in spring training. I truly believe they will be given every opportunity to earn a spot just based on how horrible the pen was last year. The Rule 5, if a lefty, has a great chance to make the team as the Cubs are bereft of left-handed relievers, specifically, left-handed power relievers. Soft tossing lefties, the Cubs have that covered.

Free Agency
Grant Balfour would be a nice pickup, but not for a long-term contract. I don’t see the Cubs going this route unless they intend to flip him at the deadline. Balfour would be a stable addition at the back-end and could provide some leadership to what is basically a collection of young pitchers. I would like to see the Cubs also bring back Matt Guerrier in the 6th/7th inning role. He did a nice job after his trade from the Dodgers before injuries derailed his season. It would not surprise me to see both men in Cubbie Blue next season, but the odds are the Cubs front office will build from within, and do it on the cheap for one more year.

What Will Likely Happen
Villanueva, Bard, Rondon, Strop, and Parker will be the right-handed relievers while Russell, for now, will be thee left handed reliever. Ideally, you would like to see two lefties out there, but Rosscup will likely need some more seasoning as a starter at Iowa and Raley will likely join him. Rusin, his situation is still a little unclear. At times, he was the crafty lefty and has earned a shot at the rotation with Samardjiza, Wood, Jackson, Arrieta, Villanueva, Grimm, Scott Baker (if resigned) and Kyle Hendricks. Although compared to the bullpen at the beginning of 2013, this bullpen has a little more heat and more well defined roles.