CHICAGO -- With the winter meetings around the corner (Dec. 5-8), the Chicago Cubs have less heavy lifting to do than in most offseasons. They return four members of their starting rotation and have more position players than available positions, but one area which is in flux is their bullpen.
Working backward, they’ll probably need a new closer -- or at least call on an old one to take over again.
“Whatever happens in the postseason does have an impact on the market,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said recently.
In other words, Aroldis Chapman’s October/November performance -- albeit not perfect -- isn’t going to detract suitors from offering big money. Since the day the Cubs acquired him, there has been no indication they were willing to give him max dollars, as he, along with fellow free agents Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon, should earn some headlines next week in D.C., where team executives will converge.
“It doesn’t surprise me, given the dearth of starting pitching in the market, that, that would be the focus right now,” Hoyer said of relief pitchers.
The closers may get attention, but that doesn’t mean the Cubs will be giving them theirs. Hoyer has indicated several times since the offseason began that ninth-inning guys emerge from within as often as they’re bought. See Hector Rondon as evidence. Who knew when he was taken in the Rule 5 draft in December 2012 that he would become a key cog at the end of games. Plus, the bidding for the available free-agent closers could get out of hand. Anyone remember the Giants' bullpen? They may have just a little bit of a larger need for one of the big names than the Cubs.
Chapman’s heroics in the postseason notwithstanding, it's Rondon whose accomplishments helped the Cubs to consecutive playoff appearances when he was healthy. And all indications are that he’s healthy again. Why can’t he return to his previous role in which he converted 85 percent of his saves? It’s not quite Chapman’s career 90 percent, but then again Chapman blew 3 of 7 save opportunities in the postseason, and he’s about to get paid big money. Of course, he was used a lot on the way to a World Series victory.
The bottom line is that Rondon could have the job again come spring training as the Cubs groom Carl Edwards Jr. for the longer term. The former pitcher is arbitration eligible and should make in the range of $5 million to $7 million. That’s nothing for a guy whose attitude when he lost the closer’s role was as good as his slider was when he was on his game. As for the hurlers in front of the closer, the Cubs have some decisions to make on the following relievers:
Travis Wood: The longest-tenured Cub is finally a free agent after enduring bad season after bad season before earning his ring. Suitors are lining up, but will he be a starter or a reliever? He’d like nothing more than to get another chance to start while earning some security after making $6 million in his final season of arbitration. The Cubs would like him back, but only in the bullpen, so his decision could come down to playing for an inferior team while making a reliever’s salary -- though with incentives if he ends up in the rotation. Expect him to examine the light starter’s market, then circle back to the Cubs to discuss a longer-term deal as a reliever.
Pedro Strop/Justin Grimm: Two key bullpen members over the past couple of regular seasons are both arbitration eligible, so they can’t go anywhere without the Cubs saying so. Grimm is an easy decision. He’s not making a lot and has value after suffering through one bad midseason stretch. All middle relievers struggle at times, and Grimm made up for it by consistently stranding inherited baserunners. In all, just 6-of-32 (19 percent) scored after he entered the game, well below league average (26 percent). It made up for his 4.10 ERA. Either way, Grimm can have a role on the Cubs in 2017, but the team will have to pay Strop similar to Rondon if they want to keep him. Like Grimm, he had his ups and downs as his ERA (2.85) was decent, but he allowed 30 percent of inherited runners to score. Of course, neither pitcher was Maddon’s go-to guy in the playoffs -- and neither was Rondon. That was Chapman, who more than earned his playoff share.
Lefties: Not unlike last season, the Cubs need to find help in the bullpen from the left side, especially if Mike Montgomery is to be a full-time starter. If Wood and Chapman are gone from the relief staff, that leaves rookie Rob Zastryzny as the lone lefty holdover. The Cubs do have some in-house candidates, including Jack Leathersich, whom they just added to their 40-man roster. He has recovered from Tommy John surgery and will be in the mix with the likes of Gerardo Concepcion and perhaps a recovering Zac Rosscup (shoulder). Of course, if the Cubs trade for a starter, that will allow Montgomery to return to his hybrid role, one he excelled at leading to his World Series Game 7 save.