If the Cubs are Serious About Winning, Here’s How They Can Address the ‘Pen Problems

The Cubs have had some problems in the bullpen lately. No, you can’t just blame it all on Brian Schlitter, as much as we want to. And yes, it’s easy to just say that the ‘pen has “gone into the Schlitter.” But aren’t way all tired of that joke yet? No? Okay, carry on.

But the fact is, if the Cubs are serious about being playoff contenders, they’re going to need to do more than just wait patiently for Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez to return from injuries. Schlitter has been bad, Edwin Jackson can’t be trusted in high-leverage situations, Jason Motte has been iffy, and Phil Coke has pitched like there was a reason he was still unsigned at the beginning of March.

Cubs fans and bloggers talked all winter long about the depth of bullpen arms in the farm system (I’m guilty), so it’s put up or shut up time for a few of them. I went ahead and put together a short list of guys that could be making their way to Chicago to get their chance at some middle relief, not including any possible trade targets:

Tsuyoshi Wada

This one is kind of a gimme. Wada worked his second rehab start for the Iowa Cubs on Wednesday, and he could be pitching for the Chicago Cubs the next time he takes the mound, according to Tommy Birch. You may remember Wada from his time with the 2014 Cubs as a starter. Barring another injury, he’d likely go to the bullpen.

But Wada isn’t an ideal candidate for middle relief. His higher flyball rates and mediocre fastball make him more of a long reliever, or left-handed specialist at best. He’ll still likely get his chance in the pen if he’s healthy and pitching well, but I wouldn’t expect him to come in and pick up the slack for Grimm or Ramirez.

James Russell

Here’s a familiar name for Cubs fans. He was traded to the Braves with Emilio Bonafacio last year, and ended up signing a minor league deal with the Cubs toward the end of Spring Training this year. It’s obviously a small sample size, but Russell has made three appearances for Iowa, throwing 4.1 innings and allowing just one hit, no runs, no walks, and striking out five.

With Zac Rosscup and Phil Coke already holding down the left-handed side of the bullpen, and with Wada possibly on the way as well, it’s difficult to imagine Russell coming in without either Rosscup or Coke being sent out. At the rate that things are progressing, it could be Coke getting put on waivers if he can’t get things together in the next week or two.

Donn Roach

A reliever that the Cubs claimed off waivers from the San Diego Padres over the winter, Roach has been stretched out as a starter so far this season. The results have been good in the small sample; Roach has pitched 17.1 innings in his three starts, allowing 16 hits and just three walks with a 2.60 ERA.

Roach hits the low 90’s with a fastball and has a sinker and curveball as well. The sinker can serve as a strikeout pitch, but Roach is only a decent strikeout guy. He relies heavily on getting groundballs, which can work for a middle reliever in the Major Leagues in spurts. Overall, there isn’t much hope for long-term potential with Roach, but there’s a decent chance he could come up and help out for a stretch.

Blake Parker

You’ll remember Parker as the guy that got all the frequent traveler discounts on the Des Moines Express last season. He’s pitched 73.1 innings for the Cubs since 2012, putting up a 3.68 ERA and 3.59 FIP, along with 10.4 K/9. The problem is that Parker is on the DL for the Iowa Cubs, and it’s not certain how soon he’ll be returning.

Even if he was back soon, I’d say it’s a safe bet they wouldn’t just call him straight up to Chicago. He’s going to need a little time at Triple-A to get back in the groove of things and get his arm strength up. If he’s able to return soon, don’t be surprised to see him spend some time in the ‘pen in Chicago this season.

Armando Rivero

Rivero has been talked about a lot among fans since signing with the Cubs in 2013. He posted a monster season in 2014 between Double-A and Triple-A, putting up 100 strikeouts in just 65 innings to go along with a 2.22 ERA. The guy has electric stuff, and it was surprising to some that he didn’t get a call to the Major’s late last season.

The downside is that Rivero is already 27 years old and has allowed four walk, five earned runs, while striking out only one batter in just three innings pitched so far this season at Iowa. It’s not a real concern yet, but I bet if he were dominating the way he did last year he’d already be in Chicago. He’s still a name to watch.

CJ Edwards and Corey Black

I lumped these guys together because they’re prospects that haven’t even reached Triple-A yet. Edwards is a starter long-term that is currently pitching out the pen, while Black is likely going to end up a reliever that’s pitching in the rotation. Both have the makings of dominant set-up men, and there’s a chance we could see one or both of them in Chicago this season.

But before that happens, I think you’d probably see mostly everyone else on this list first. I don’t envision either of these guys getting called up until later in the season, and even then it might only be as a September call up, depending on the Cubs position in the standings.

Hopefully, the Cubs can start shuffling the deck chairs around and find a few combinations that work in the bullpen. It’s been frustrating to watch the last few games, especially to see a 4-1 lead in Pittsburgh turn into a 5-4 loss. With the heavy divisional schedule early in the season, the time is now for the Cubs to make the league take notice and make a statement that they’re serious about winning.

It starts with fixing the problems in the ‘pen.


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