Deck Chairs: The Bullpen

We’re winding down Spring Training and while we’ve seen the majority of the cuts to the Cubs roster heading towards Opening Day there’s still a couple to decide as it pertains to the bullpen. Jose Veras, Pedro Strop, James Russell and Wesley Wright are viewed as locks for the bullpen but that leaves three remaining spots (assuming the Cubs carry the standard of 12 pitchers) between about four players.

Yesterday’s blowup from Chris Rusin against the Diamondbacks had to hurt his chances for claiming the 5th starter spot out of camp so for the purposes of this exercise I’m going to assume he’s sent to Iowa with Carlos Villanueva and his 8 grade mustache  claiming the role at the end of the rotation. That leaves us with three names that still haven’t been cut from camp and one surprising one that already has been sent to the minors just five days ago. Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Blake Parker, and Alberto Cabrera is the pool we’re working with. I wanted to include Carlos Pimentel as well but there just isn’t enough data to properly evaluate what he’s capable of doing out of the bullpen and he has to be considered a major longshot. The race likely ends up with Grimm, Rondon and Cabrera (he’s out of options) but it’s worth it to look at what all of them bring to the table in terms of arsenal and results.

 

When building a bullpen there’s a couple things I’m looking for out of a pitcher. The first, which the Cubs have done very well the last two seasons via trade and development, is a stockade of power arms. Velocity isn’t the only aspect that matters though. A pitcher can throw 100 but if he can’t keep the ball in the park in limited appearances then I’d rather have a guy with a little less mustard that keeps the ball on the ground. Not only keeping the ball in the yard, but the ball in the strike zone as well. Where a starter can be a little less efficient a bullpen arm makes more high leverage pitches meaning every release needs to have the most made out of it.

Above you’ll see the career rates of the four bullpen options as well as their PECOTA projected rates courtesy Baseball Prospectus. It’s a bit of a balance based on both career and projected numbers. Grimm is the most experienced pitcher out of the four in terms of big league innings logged but it’s not by much and is mostly attributed to the fact that he’s started some games for the Rangers. He doesn’t quite have the raw stuff that Rondon, Parker or Cabrera have however he did add a cutter to his repertoire and has improved confidence in his slider. As we learned with Travis Wood, raw stuff isn’t the be-all-end-all and keeping hitters off balance can be equally effective to blowing them away. Still, Grimm’s fly ball tendencies and low strikeout rate are concerning for a bullpen arm. He does have an option left and could be part of a stellar AAA rotation where he’d get more innings under his belt while further refining his arsenal.

On to the curious case of Blake Parker. The former Razorback saw success at the big league level in 2013 as he limited the long ball while posting an impressive 3.67 K/BB ratio. He’s primarily a two pitch pitcher (fastball, curveball) but as the year wore on built up more confidence in his splitter. It was his highest whiff rate pitch in 2013 mostly due to his selective usage of it. PECOTA sees a bit of a regression in those K and BB numbers but they also look favorably on his ability to produce more groundballs. The fly ball outcome is what got him into trouble last season at times as they led to extra base hits. Parker has two minor league options remaining so from that standpoint, I can see why he was cut from the roster. From a pure results and performance standpoint, Parker should be a middle reliever on the 2014 Cubs.

The 2014 season isn’t about results though, as it’s another transitional year, so Parker will start the year at Iowa where he’ll be the first option should Alberto Cabrera be unable to harness his potential. It also gives him the ability to work further on that splitter.

Rondon and Parker are similar in stuff but Rondon’s arsenal is both more developed and his confidence to throw all three pitches in almost any count helps with the balance aspect for hitters. Rondon’s slider is a true put away pitch whereas Parker relies on his fastball heavily. If Parker’s splitter usage goes up and he retains the effectiveness of it then both right-handers are ideal bullpen options. Where Rondon struggled was with his control last year. PECOTA sees an improvement there for 2014 which would mean less baserunners and a more efficient usage of pitches. As a Rule 5 selection that was forced into MLB action for the entirety of 2013, this is about as positive of an outcome as the Cubs could have expected from the 25 year old.

Alberto Cabrera is a guy to dream on but it’s been almost 3 years since he appeared on any watch lists for the Cubs. The only place I was able to locate even a mention of Cabrera last spring was on Jim Callis’ list at Baseball America where he listed Cabrera as having the best slider in the system for the Cubs. The knock on Cabrera was always the refinement of his secondary offerings and the ability to command his plus fastball. He may have had the best slider last year, but the command of it has long been an issue. The above PECOTA projection is for just 14 innings of MLB work in 2014 so it’s safe to assume PECOTA didn’t expect to see him until after or close to roster expansion. His Spring Training numbers haven’t been all that impressive but it’s typically a fool’s errand to put any stock into the raw numbers in the spring, especially for pitchers. Since he’s out of options and the Cubs would prefer not to subject him to waivers in order to get him to Iowa, he’s going to make the team out of necessity as opposed to merit.

In the end, it’s likely we see Rondon, Grimm and Cabrera all make the bullpen with Parker heading back to AAA along with Rusin. The caveat is, of course, when Jake Arrieta is ready to join the roster some time in April [crosses fingers, toes and all other appendages]. Someone will get bumped back to Iowa for his addition. He’s eligible for 30 days of rehab time in Iowa once he’s ready so that could extend someone’s stay as the resident pink backpack carrier (do they still do that?). Odds are it’s Grimm going back to Iowa unless there’s another injury or Cabrera is wildly ineffective enough that the Cubs don’t think he’ll be claimed on the wire. The optimist in me says that it’s better to have to worry about playing roster shuffle based on options remaining to retain as much talent as possible as opposed to just slotting in roster filler guys at the bottom of the bullpen.