Cubs’ Pen Taking Shape, Looking Good

Koji UeharaYesterday, after a little more than a week of rumors, the Cubs finally completed a one-year deal with Koji Uehara, the 41-year-old reliever who has spent the last four years of his MLB career in Boston, putting up numbers that were downright absurd out of the back end of the Red Sox bullpen.

This is the latest in a series of moves aimed at upgrading the Cubs’ bullpen, an area that proved to be of some concern over the course of the Cubs’ World Series run. Rightly or wrongly, Manager Joe Maddon ended up relying even more heavily than anticipated on Aroldis Chapman as the 2016 postseason drew to a close.

With the Cubs (rightfully) having no desire in investing five years and $80+ million into a reliever, the team’s most prolific bullpen arm found its way back to New York. That’s not to say the bullpen was left in shambles; there was still a lot of talent to be found in the arms of Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and, potentially, Mike Montgomery – assuming he doesn’t make the move to the starting rotation.

But given the way Maddon relied so heavily on Chapman during the postseason run – not to mention the impending departure of innings-eater, vest-wearer and pinch hitter/left fielder extraordinaire Travis Wood – it was pretty obvious there were some holes to be filled.

Now, thanks to a flurry of pen-focused moves, the Cubs’ crop of relievers is starting to look pretty impressive. Let’s start with Uehara.

While the Japanese import will be 42 on April 3 of 2017, his age isn’t of particular concern, especially on a one-year deal. What’s more important is that Uehara is currently on a streak of seven consecutive seasons, dating back to his second MLB season with Baltimore, in which he’s posted a WHIP below 1.

Beginning in 2010, Uehara has put up WHIPs of 0.955 (BAL), 0.723 (combined between BAL & TEX), 0.639 (TEX), 0.565 (BOS), 0.917, 0.917 and 0.957, respectively. That’s downright absurd. And while his ERA has fluctuated between a high of 3.45 last year and a low of 1.09 in 2013, ERA isn’t of particular concern to me when it comes to relievers. Put simply, when you’re only pitching 45-55 innings per year, one or two bad outings can really tank an ERA.

What’s more important to me from a reliever is how many men he lets on base. And in that department, he’s been terrific. While his numbers have declined slightly over the last two years, specifically in regard to walks, which have doubled to about 2 per nine innings after five consecutive seasons in the 1-per-nine-innings range, there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for concern.

He’s maintained his career averages in terms of strikeouts per nine, as well as hits per nine, and he hasn’t seen drastic increases in the number of longballs he’s given up. So, there’s no reason to think he’ll be anything but stellar out of the Cubs’ pen next year, providing yet another great option in that late-inning mix of Edwards, Rondon, Strop and Wade Davis.

601352302Speaking of Davis, don’t sell that move short. While it really sucked to lose Jorge Soler, the move made absolute sense. Though I still think that Soler is eventually going to be a perennial All-Star in this league, he needs time to develop at the big league level. That means plate appearances and the latitude to struggle and still stay on the field. Given the Cubs’ glut of strong hitters that need to make their way into the lineup, there’s just no way he was going to get that shot in Chicago.

Davis, however, goes a long way in replacing Chapman. Though he’s not the owner of a once-in-a-generation arm like Chapman’s, his numbers are actually on par with the big lefty. In save situations over the course of his career, Davis has posted a 1.14 ERA/0.922 WHIP with 12.4 K/9, and batters have hit a meager .170 BA/.241 OBP/.234 SLG off of him.

Comparing that to Chapman: over the course of his career, in save situations, Chapman has posted a 1.81 ERA/0.939 WHIP with 15 K/9, and batters have hit a similarly weak .153/.252/.237. All in all, that’s pretty damn similar, considering Chapman’s significantly higher salary.

So, while you’re not going to see the radar gun well up into the triple-digits with Davis, the results should be pretty similar. Of course, Davis did have some injury troubles last season, and he struggled late in the year (perhaps as a result of those injuries). But the Cubs seem confident in his health, and if his health holds up, the Cubs bullpen is suddenly looking quite strong.

If I’m a team down three or fewer runs heading into the final three innings of a game against the Cubs, I’m not to psyched to see any combination of Davis, Uehara, Rondon, Strop or Edwards warming up in the bullpen. That’s a five-man combination that could shape up to be one of the best back-end-of-the-bullpen groups in all of baseball.

And while I think it likely that Montgomery gets a shot at the rotation in 2017, names like Rob Zastryzny, Brian Duensing, Justin Grimm (who could rightfully be included in that fearsome-fivesome group above) and others still lurk as middle-inning options.

All in all, the bullpen looks like it could be a real strength in 2017.