'I'm back': Strop rejoins Cubs bullpen mix

Right-hander eyes roster spot, aims to prove his health

March 4th, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- A year ago, Javier Báez moved his gear into the locker that previously belonged to Pedro Strop. The Cubs' shortstop spoke of how hard it was going to be not to have the long-time reliever, clubhouse leader and friend around the team.

"I'm back," Strop said with that signature smile Wednesday morning at the Cubs' complex.

Really, Strop did not stay away for long.

One of the all-time great relievers in Cubs history, Strop returned to the franchise this spring via a Minor League contract that gives him the chance to help the bullpen. After a few months spent wearing Cincinnati red last year, the righty signed back with Chicago on a similar deal in September, but he cut his stay at the alternate site short when injury issues persisted.

Strop dedicated himself over the offseason to shedding pounds, adding flexibility and trying to be prepared for the lower-body issues that have slowed him in recent seasons. He knows there are no guarantees, but there is no other place where Strop would want to prove there is still more in his boisterous and energetic tank.

"Man, it's always fun when you go home," Strop said. "That's what I consider the Cubs. This is my home. This is my house. To come over and see my guys, my teammates and the staff, I'm just so happy to be back here."

After completing a bullpen session Wednesday morning, Strop sat down with Cubs reporters on a patio adjacent to Field 1. In typical Strop fashion, he had his hat tilted to the left, a thick gold chain around his neck and a gold cross earring bouncing as he laughed.

Strop joked that it was strange for one of his former catchers, David Ross, to now have a home in the manager's office. The reliever laughed his hearty laugh when asked if he and Jake Arrieta (back with the Cubs this year, too) always came as a package. Strop poked fun at Báez, who is no longer a "kid," but a father of two.

And Strop had a little fun at his own expense, too.

Not long before agreeing to his deal with the Cubs, a video was posted of Strop pitching to his 12-year-old son, Royelny. In one clip that hit social media, Royelny, hitting left-handed, slashed one of his dad's offerings to left field. Strop said his boy has even homered off him in batting practice.

"Somebody told me something funny," Strop said. "It was like, 'Hey, you know why you didn't sign quicker? Because you posted videos of your son taking you deep.'"

Strop let out another loud laugh.

"I think that's true, man," he added. "I didn't think about that. That day, I was so excited. That's the first time I've ever been happy to give up a hit like that."

How Strop might fit into the bullpen plans is an unanswered question. As things currently stand, Chicago's projected relief corps includes closer Craig Kimbrel, and veterans like Brandon Workman, Andrew Chafin, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler in contention for setup duties. There is a long list of other arms jockeying for jobs, too.

At the very least, Strop can make an impact in camp, provide the Cubs with a veteran depth piece and, of course, brighten the day of everyone around him.

"He's like a ray of sunshine," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. "That guy's never had a bad day and he lifts everyone else up and it's fun to have him around."

Strop lost 20 pounds over the winter and said that he is past the hamstring, groin and hip troubles of the past two years. The 35-year-old says he is back at full strength and hopes to regain some fastball velocity this year as a result. Per Statcast, his sinker dropped to 91.8 mph on average in 2020, steadily down from 96.2 mph in 2017.

"The way I feel right now, which I feel healthy," Strop said, "I'm pretty sure the velocity is going to come. I'm not going to be throwing 98 or 97 [though], you know?"

There's that Strop laugh again.

Strop ranks sixth in Cubs history in games pitched (411). Among the four arms with at least 400 relief appearances -- a list that also features Hall of Famer Lee Smith, Carlos Marmol and Don Elston -- Strop ranks first with a 2.90 ERA. He was at his peak from 2014-18, posting a 2.61 ERA and picking up a World Series ring along the way.

Strop's legacy with the Cubs is set, and he knows that the end of the road is closer than the start. With that in mind, the pitcher said that he would love nothing more than to stay with the Cubs in some working capacity whenever he hands the ball over for the last time.

"Definitely," Strop said, "I will be willing to do anything for that organization. I owe them a lot, so I think that whenever I'm done playing, whatever I can help for their development, I'm going to be willing to do it."

For now, there is only one thing on Strop's mind.

"The only thing I can control," he said, "is just come out there and compete whenever I've got the ball and show them and prove to them that I'm healthy, that I'm the same Pedro Strop that was here a couple years ago."