Before we dive into new Cubs reliever, Wade Davis, let’s talk about new (again) Yankees closer, Aroldis Chapman and what he meant to the Cubs bullpen. Chapman came to the Cubs as a rigid one inning closer who preferred to start an inning with no inherited runners and shut it down. And that’s ok. That’s who he was as a Red, as a Yankee last season before the trade to the Cubs, who he wanted to be when he came to Chicago, and who he will want to be when he returns to the Bronx next spring. And he is damn good at it. He is, arguably, the best in baseball at it. And without him, it is very difficult to envision the Cubs winning their first World Series in oh so damn long.
I used the distinction of reliever vs closer when discussing Davis vs. Chapman intentionally. Wade Davis hasn’t always been a “closer”, although after he was acquired from the Kansas City Royals, Jed Hoyer essentially declared that role for him. He spent time in a stacked Royals bullpen, at times setting up for free agent Greg Holland. Chapman has always been a closer, save for the spring the Reds tried to stretch him out into a starting pitcher. It is Chapman’s preference to close. And it works. Well. And it got him $86M from the Yankees. To that end, it is difficult to argue with what he wants. But it pushed Joe Maddon into having to fit pieces before him, as opposed to working pieces around him. Chapman’s preference limited what Joe Maddon could do with his bullpen, to a certain extent. Again, the Cubs probably don’t win the World Series without Aroldis Chapman, so none of this is a criticism. And, in fairness, Chapman stepped up and threw until his arm almost fell off in front of his first crack at free agency to help a team he knew he was probably leaving win. Acquiring him worked. Magnificently. But it’s alright that he’s moved on.
The current version of the Cubs is built on flexibility. The players who started at one position all season for the Cubs was pretty short. David Ross and Miguel Montero as catchers. Anthony Rizzo at first base. Addison Russell at short. Dexter Fowler in center field. The rest of the roster is built on flexibility. The NL MVP started games at first base, third base, left field, and right field. The Cubs attempted to do the same thing with their bullpen last season. By adding Adam Warren to Travis Wood, they went in thinking they had both a lefty and a righty who could pitch multiple innings, allowing Joe to mix his long guys based on match-ups. Adam Warren didn’t pan out. Adding Chapman, followed by injuries to Rondon and Strop forced the pen into being more traditional. In a lot of ways, it was a dark spot on a team built on flexibility.
Now, on to Wade Davis. He joins a Cubs’ bullpen that already has a group of high leverage relievers that includes Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Carl Edwards, Jr. Mike Montgomery may also fit into that group of high leverage relievers if he doesn’t find a slot in the starting rotation next season. Assuming that Montgomery is a starter next year, that leaves the Cubs with four pitchers who can be mixed and matched. Wade Davis doesn’t have to “close” the game. He can be the pitcher who faces the heart of an order in the 8th inning, allowing a pretty good “closer” in his own right, Hector Rondon, slam the door all the way closed in the 9th inning. In fact, Rondon’s 77 career saves outpace Davis by 30 (47). In this bullpen, titles can be fluid based on the day or the opponent. Or based on who needs a day off.
The current composition of relievers fits the overall build of this team much more suitably than it did at the end of last season. Davis, Rondon, Strop and Edwards are followed by Justin Grimm, who re-emerged late in the season after a stretch where he struggled. His role as the fire extinguisher went largely unnoticed last year because of some unimpressive traditional stats, but he allowed a pretty paltry .154/.286/.292 with runners in scoring position. Some of that was of his own doing, but again, outside of about six weeks in May and June, there was nothing wrong with Justin Grimm. Joining Grimm at the front end of the bullpen are Aaron Brooks, Rob Zastryzny, and Felix Pena, and Rule 5 acquisition Caleb Smith, who can all fill long relief roles. Zastryzny can be optioned to and from Iowa, where he can be kept stretched out and available for long relief, potential spot starts, or as a lefty specialist. They also have newly signed Brian Duensing as a potential lefty specialist.
The Cubs may not be finished adding pieces to the bullpen quite yet. After all, the Winter Meetings are just barely coming to an end. However, as it stands today, it appears to be more flexible and deeper than it was at the end of last season and into the playoff run. Depth is so vital, as we say last season when injuries affected both Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop. Not to mention the forearm issues that took some of Wade Davis’ 2016 season. Those fears should be alleviated somewhat by the fact that the Royals allowed the Cubs to look at Davis personally, but no worries about arm issues on a high end pitcher ever calms all the way down. The presence of four pitchers who can close, if necessary, should help keep all of them fresher as the Cubs push to make another deep playoff run. In turn, the hope is that they all also stay healthy.
Nothing should make Cubs fans happier than Joe Maddon having options. The questions about his bullpen usage last fall were almost entirely born out of two of the most relied upon arms not being as effective as they had been in the past. The timing of their injuries made it unlikely that they were going to be the same. Quite frankly, those two injuries were about the worst of the unlucky breaks the Cubs got last season. Getting them back to being themselves, fortifying that with adding Davis and the emergence of Edwards, and putting a group of reliable options in front of them could give the Cubs a strong bullpen. Any other additions after this point, which should be expected, will only serve to boost that. If the starters perform similarly to what they did last season, the Cubs may have an overall better pitching staff than they did last season. And they’ll do that in front of a still improving core of really good position players.