Cubs Bullpen: Not A Joke (Technically)

The following is a post about the 2014 Chicago Cubs bullpen, and specifically the usefulness of players from that bullpen in a fantasy sense. It assumes (of course) that the 2014 Chicago Cubs will win a game or two, which they will (probably). It also assumes that the 2014 Chicago Cubs will have enough leads to hold and save that the members of this bullpen might provide some (any?) value for fantasy owners.

No, this post is not intended as a joke. This is a real thing.

Jose Veras

The Cubs signed former Houston closer Jose Veras to a one-year deal over the offseason (with an option for 2015), and new Chicago skipper Rick Renteria stated earlier this month that Veras will be the team’s closer in 2014.

He’s on his sixth team since 2010, which seems like a bad thing, but he’s been generally good at each of those stops, posting ERAs, FIPs, xFIPS, and SIERAs between three and four each season. He’s been good, but not elite. The lone exception to that was his stint with the Astros, where he saved 19 games, with a 2.93 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 3.52 xFIP, and 3.02 SIERA.

The most notable change for Veras in 2013 was his significantly improved control. Somewhat of a high-wire act prior to last season (lots of strikeouts, lots of walks), Veras posted a walk rate of 8.7 percent, down nearly five percent from 2012.

For the first time in his career, his first strike percentage crossed 60 percent (and was 63.9 percent in his stint with the Astros) so it’s plausible that a change in approach led to better control and better results. In particular, Veras pumped more sinkers into the strike zone than ever before, going from 62.4 percent in 2012 to 68 percent in 2013 according to Texas Leaguers.

It’s unclear if Veras is throwing the pitch differently (both due to sample sizes and potential classification confusion between the sinker and fourseam fastball) but Texas Leaguers also shows a change in movement on Veras’ sinker last year — adding one inch in vertical movement, and losing one inch in horizontal movement. The rest of his pitches were pretty static, so it seems this is the key to watch. If he pumps sinkers into the zone and can limit his walks while maintaining his strikeout rate, he could be a very effective closer for the Cubs. If the Cubs ever win, that is.

Setup Guys/Saves Sharks
Pedro Strop
Blake Parker
Hector Rondon
Arodys Vizcaino
James Russell
Kyuji Fujikawa

The Cubs have no shortage of options waiting in the wings should Veras falter or fail to seize the closer’s role outright. (Or get traded midseason, which seems a likely outcome if he’s pitching well).

Before the Veras signing, Strop looked to have a real shot at closing for the Cubs this season. Acquired from the Orioles in last season’s Scott Feldman trade, he was a stellar setup option for the Orioles in 2011 (after they acquired him from the Rangers) before control problems hampered his 2012 and 2013 seasons and paved his way out of Baltimore. His 2013 numbers before and after the Cubs acquired him are stunning, though.

K% BB% LOB% BABIP HR/FB% Opp. Avg. O-Swing% F-Strike% ERA FIP xFIP SIERA
2013 Orioles 21.6 13.5 61.1 0.288 26.7 0.245 26.4 50.5 7.25 5.51 4.1 4.06
2013 Cubs 29.4 7.7 73 0.247 4.5 0.172 35.7 58.7 2.83 2.31 2.79 2.49

It’s an ultimate Jekyll and Hyde scenario, as Strop’s pre and post trade splits paint pictures of completely different players. On the Orioles, he was a walk and homer machine. On the Cubs he was a downright dominating force. So, which is it? Well, small sample sizes and the fact that his pitch usage didn’t change much make it virtually impossible to say. Strop could be a bullpen ace. He also could find himself closing games for the Iowa Cubs. The fact that he’s had past success before this season-ending run with the Cubs is encouraging, but he’s gone through fits and spurts of being awesome and horrible before. We just don’t really know what to expect, as unsatisfying as that may be.

He’s less of a household name, but Parker was no less dominating for the Cubs than Strop. In 49 appearances with the big league club, Parker struck out 28.2 percent of the batters he faced, and walked 7.7 percent. He was an extreme flyball pitcher, though, generating just a 28.7 groundball rate, and will need to replicate last year’s 6.7 percent HR/FB% in order to maintain his strong 2013 numbers. He’ll be among the team’s top setup options to start the year, with a chance for an occasional save, or an expanded role if things break right.

We can be less sure about the roles of Rondon and Vizcaino, two electric but often injured players.

The Cubs nabbed Rondon from the Indians in the Rule V draft prior to last season, and the righty threw 54.2 innings for the club, more than his previous four seasons combined. The results were not especially encouraging (a K:BB of less than 2, and a middling ERA/FIP/xFIP/SIERA) but beggars can’t be choosers. Health was the most needed element of Rondon’s game, and he seems to have made strides there. He has the arsenal of a late inning reliever, so assuming a healthy 2014 it would not surprise to see him snag holds or saves.

Vizcaino hasn’t pitched since 2011, but a recent report by Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Gonzales has him hitting 98, and once again looking like the player he was as a top prospect for the Yankees and Braves. We’ll need way more than one positive report to bank on Vizcaino in 2014, but it’s a positive sign to say the least.

Often rumored as a trade piece, James Russell will nonetheless be back to serve as the top lefty reliever. His strikeouts and walks both went in the wrong direction last year, but it seems more like a one year blip than a trend to be concerned about. Another 19 holds are a fair expectation. As with anything not nailed down on the North side, it would not be a surprise if Russell ended the season playing elsewhere.

Fujikawa deserves to be in the conversation here as well. Signed to some fanfare prior to last season, the Japanese righty supplanted former closer Carlos Marmol early, before elbow troubles ended his first stateside campaign in June. He’s expected to be back midseason (right around the time the Cubs trade Veras) and could be in line for saves at that time. Right now he’s merely another name to squirrel away for later in the season.

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Jack Weiland is not just a pretty face. He resides in Boston with his wife and family (they're dogs) and watches the Cubs at levels not approved for public consumption. He likes chatting on twitter, too: @jackweiland.

18 Responses to “Cubs Bullpen: Not A Joke (Technically)”

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  1. Trevor says:

    They do have Wesley Wright now, too (part of their admirable quest to re-assemble the 2012 Houston Astros bullpen). He’s been solid the last couple years, and the projection systems seem to like him almost as well as they like Veras and Strop.

    He’s not going to close with his splits, but I’m thinking he’d be a better option than James Russell if you’re at the point of desperation where you’re looking at lefty-specialists in the Cubs bullpen for holds.

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  2. tylersnotes says:

    Take out Strop’s June and August (unluckiest and luckiest months, respectively) and that’s probably about what he looks like, which is basically what he has always been (around 3.50 FIP, 4.0 bb/9, 9+ k/9). I expect some people would look to strop as a sleeper after his 2nd half performance last year but I’d rather take my chances with the other guys on this list, who are mostly unproven and have more upside.

    I’d also wonder– on teams in the cubs position (new manager, no expectation to contend) is it harder for a closer to lose his role?

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      I was thinking about this as well, and I think what I determined was … it’s complicated. Veras is a new face, too, so he doesn’t come with any baggage, and you’d think that would be a better situation than Marmol was in last year, where people seemed just tired of his high wire act.

      That said, the fan base is increasingly upset/annoyed by the Cubs’ lack of contention. I’m not sure if I think that will make them MORE likely to run a closer out of that gig if he struggles, or LESS likely to care.

      But it’s interesting, either way. We’ll see?

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  3. Belle of the League says:

    Veras shouldn’t have a problem closing for the much maligned Cubbies. After all, he managed to accumulate some saves when with the slightly worse Astros. We could start a pool though. Date and team to which Veras is traded.
    Here’s the question: If his control is that improved, why didn’t the Tigers resign him? They acquired Joba Chamberlain, so it’s not like they have a deep bullpen.
    Strop: A million dollar arm and 2-cent head? (See: Perez, Chris) Flashes of better than average back in 2011 and erratic since, but unless he completely tanks, he more than likely will stay in Chicago. Teams are apparently talking to Carlos Marmol, so anyone has a chance of being a ML RP.
    Parker: Not enough data to know what to expect.
    Tough to get really interested in the rest of the pen. Fragile and inconsistent. They’ll be available as free agents in the fantasy leagues I play.

    Really good question.
    My uneducated guess is some of it depends on the front office’s goal. If the goal is an eventual trade, then he’ll be the closer until he works out any glitches he encounters like Jim Johnson did last year for the O’s and Tyler Clippard the year before for the Nats. Most closers hit a slump at some point. Ask Phans about Papel”bum” last season.
    If the goal is “to win”, then there might be a shorter leash. Veras will have some nebulous arm strain and work out the problem while on the DL.

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      Well, I’m not sure “why didn’t the Tigers sign him” should factor that much into your calculus. It’s one personnel decision by one front office. And this is the front office that didn’t sign a closer last year, rushed to annoint Bruce Rondon the man, and was shocked when that didn’t pan out. Perhaps they don’t make the best decisions in this particular regard?

      Entirely possible he hasn’t improved anything, and his improved command was a blip on the radar, but one team deciding not to sign him and another choosing to sign him doesn’t sway me either way. Teams make these calls all the time. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong.

      Veras: July 31st, Dodgers. Who you got?

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      • Belle of the League says:

        You’re right. Detroit’s FO/scouting hasn’t been exactly exceptional when it comes to its bullpen.
        July 30 Tigers
        They’ll be in contention, need a closer or setup guy due to injuries, and might try to recycle him like Valverde.
        It’s only a one year deal.
        The Dodgers are very good guess, though, and are high up on my list as an option, too.

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  4. MLB Rainmaker says:

    I don’t think Veras’ has the goods to keep the job, hence why he’s pitching for the Cubs for $4M ($3.85M w/option)on a 1-year deal w/club option. That’s pretty much bottom basement pricing for RP talent.

    The Cubs needed a warm body to fill that spot and Veras is at least passable. Given his command issues in the past, its just as likely he reverts to his old ways as it is that he keeps his 2013 control. Parker is somewhat interesting if he comes out very strong, but I’d guess they really want Fujikawa to have the job. Given his injury, that likely won’t happen until at least the ASB.

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      Yes, it’s worth noting that it is very unlikely he remains a closer after he is traded (assuming he is traded). I’ve got him going to the Dodgers above as a setup guy. And he could be a first division setup guy. He’s clearly a B-team closer, though, which is why he ended up on the sad sack 2014 Chicago Cubs.

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      • MLB Rainmaker says:

        I don’t see the LAD argument at all. After Kenly, they’ve got Wilson, Howell, now Perez looking to resurrect his career, and Scott Elbert who should be back midseason, on top of 2-3 other nice suprises — Withrow and Rodriguez. Not to mention that their saddled with Brandon League’s ridiculous contract so he’s not going anywhere.

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      • Jack Weiland says:

        (With the full understanding that I was mostly picking a team out of my butt for fun …)

        It’s a really tough sell for me that the $15MM they owe Brandon League is going to keep him pitching for the Dodgers if he’s terrible, especially with all the players they’re signing and money they’re throwing around. I didn’t mean to make it seem like they have a bad bullpen, or NEED Veras, moreso I could see them being a contending team and the kind that says “F it, we need another bullpen guy!” and overpays for the kind of pitcher Veras is.

        Totally fine to disagree. But if it happened would it really be the most shocking thing in the world?

        Where/when do you see Veras going?

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      • MLB Rainmaker says:

        If Orioles show in 2014, like they did in 2013, they’re going to need some help in the back end of their bullpen…

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      • Jack Weiland says:

        I’ll buy that.

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  5. Brendan says:

    “His strikeouts and walks both went in the wrong direction last year, but it seems more like a one year blip than a trend to be concerned about. ”

    James Russell isn’t very good. While he garners a lot of IFBs, he is still 5% above league average in OFBs. Compounded with the fact he doesn’t induce many strikeouts (i.e., batters hit the ball most of the time against him), this is worrisome. Why do you think Russell is good and one shouldn’t be concerned?

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      I didn’t say he was “very good” … I said owners could expect similar results next year. If an owner is thinking about adding James Russell it’s safe to assume they’re in a deeper league where his averageness may have some value.

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  6. papasmurf says:

    I think it was 2012 that Strop had a decent year as a setup guy for BAL. In 2011 he barely pitched. Even in 2011 he was pretty damn lucky with a high strand rate and low HR/BB rate.

    Of course, it is possible that CHC may have fixed some mechanical flaw,but I need to see more.

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