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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.

Closer
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.