On Day 3 of spring previews, we take a look at what the Chicago Cubs have on the mound this year. Most of the bullpen is returning as it performed well as a group last year while the starting staff has a new ace in Jon Lester.
On the cusp: Reliever Armando Rivero
Here is the simple question all Cubs fans should be wondering: How much better will Lester’s numbers look pitching in the National League for the first time? The answer might be “a lot.” If Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel are any indication, then Lester might just win 20 or have a sub 2.00 ERA. OK, that’s asking a lot, but he’ll be thrilled to face the bottom of those NL lineups. ESPN Stats and Information examined 10 recent pitchers who made the move from the AL to the NL, and nine of them improved their numbers. Only Tim Hudson’s ERA slightly went up when changing leagues. Otherwise, their collective earned runs averages went down from 3.98 to 3.55. Their strikeouts per game went up while their walks were down. And their win percentage increased from .566 to .577.
No one had a better move from the AL to the NL than Arrieta. That could be due to the moment in his career when the Cubs acquired him as he was ready to break out but needed a final push. Maybe pitching coach Chris Bosio deserves the credit. He’s a big part of the Cubs' pitching equation. The sky’s the limit for a healthy Arrieta. Among regular starters last year, he ranked fifth in baseball with a .203 batting average against. And it’s not like he was especially lucky as his batting average against on balls in play was .277, lower than the league average of .299 but not in the top 20. He simply didn’t allow a lot of hard contact. As for Hammel, if he can pound low in the zone as he did in the first half last year, he’ll have the same kind of success he did before being traded.
As for Hendricks, it will be interesting to see him in camp with a half-year under his belt, an offseason of work in the video room and the confidence gained by the start to his career. He may not act like he has a rotation spot locked up -- that’s a good thing -- but pitching this spring without the overwhelming stress of needing to impress Cubs brass has to be a relaxing feeling. How good can Hendricks be after going 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA? That’s another great question for 2015.
The drama in the rotation this spring should revolve around the No.5 starter. Wood has to have a leg up considering his salary --$5.69 million -- and the fact he’s one year removed from being an All-Star. However, when your ERA (5.03) nearly matches your veteran pay, nothing is for sure. Wood should benefit more than any other pitcher from the addition of catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross. For someone who likes -- make that needs -- to paint the corners, he has two of the best pitch-framing catchers in the league. Welington Castillo was anything but. Having said all that, the Cubs commitment to Wada is of interest as well. He’s more apt to move to the bullpen, but are they really going to pay him $4 million to mop up after a starter gets knocked out early in the game? It’s doubtful he’ll be the eighth-inning lefty specialist type which might command that salary, but neither will Wood. A trade is definitely possible. The rest in camp are longer shots to make the rotation.
There’s no reason to overthink the relief corps or make changes to it -- until they’re needed. Neil Ramirez was as nasty as they come as a set-up man. Keep him there. Hector Rondon surprised everyone, not just with his stuff, but with his mental ability to close games. He gets that job again. Strop got better as the season went along, as did Grimm. Newcomer Jason Motte is the veteran presence that Carlos Villanueva provided and has closing experience if Rondon falters. The Cubs don’t know who their lockdown lefty specialist will be but it may not matter with the group of righties they employ. And it’s been well documented that manager Joe Maddon likes to mix up the roles for his relievers and has a group he can do that with. None of their top four righties had an OPS (on-base plus slugging) against lefties higher than .621. For comparison, the league OPS average for right-handed pitchers against lefties was .713.
With that kind of versatility, the Cubs may only utilize one lefty in the bullpen, at least to start the season. Considering they didn’t prioritize it as a winter need, we’ll assume one lefty is the way they’ll go. And unless they change their minds, they’ll return to 12 pitchers on the roster after employing 13 most of last year. That means there’s room for seven relievers: Grimm, Strop, Ramirez, Motte and Rondon are locks, leaving room for one more righty and one lefty.
Zac Rosscup excelled in a smallish sample size getting lefties out last year. Can he do it in a pressure situation with a Joey Votto type player at the plate? Former Red Sox hurler Drake Britton was a late addition to the 40-man roster and could be a factor in camp as well. He’s given up 10 hits and struck out 15 in 51 at-bats against lefties in his career. Doubront and Joseph Ortiz could have a say from the left side also. But none of those guys has pennant-contending experience getting a key out late in the game. Will the Cubs be looking to bring in a veteran lefty this spring or summer? Stay tuned.
Just looking at the other righty returnees, Brian Schlitter could have a leg up if there is an opening. His numbers (4.15 ERA) last season are deceiving as he pitched in the majors for the first time since 2010 and was used early and often. His first half was very good, but he tired in the second half, amassing 61 appearances for the year. Having said that, Armando Rivero is next-up among pitching prospects. He flew past 2014 spring favorite Arodys Vizcaino, combining for a 2.22 ERA split between Double-A and Triple-A. He’s not on the 40-man roster, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win a job after working his way up the ladder for the last six years. In 65 innings last year, he gave up just 43 hits, while earning 11 saves.
It’s hard to predict the success of a bullpen from one year to the next, but sometimes spring training can be enlightening. In 2013, Carlos Marmol never looked right in February and March and that carried over to the regular season. The same thing happened with newcomer Jose Veras last spring and he was quickly demoted and eventually released. Conversely, Kyle Hendricks showed a lot of promise last year at this time and that worked out pretty well. So keep an eye on Rondon, Ramirez and several of the other young pitchers. Motte will need to prove he’s healthy and effective now that he’s over a year removed from Tommy John surgery. It’s not that they all need to dominate in Cactus League games. Hardly. But they do need to round into form as the calendar gets closer to April. That never happened for Marmol or Veras.
If things go right, the Cubs are setting themselves up to be a mini-version of the Kansas City Royals of 2014. By the sixth or seventh inning, they can put several flamethrowers on the mound who have the ability to strike people out with their fastball as well as some nasty off-speed stuff. That’s the hope anyway.