Cubs' Top 5 relief pitchers: Bastian's take

June 8th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Jordan Bastian's ranking of the top five relievers in Cubs history.

Cubs' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | UTL | RH SP | LH SP

1. , 1980-87
Key fact: His 478 career saves are the third most in MLB history.

In this era of bullpen specialization, asking a pitcher to transition to a role as a high-leverage weapon or late-inning arm is often an easier sell. The save statistic has helped boost stature -- not to mention salaries -- for some players, and the importance of the bullpen has been embraced by teams.

In previous eras, being asked to work as a reliever was not always received well.

"In those days, you wanted to be a starter or nothing," Smith said during his Hall of Fame induction speech last summer.

The Cubs selected Smith in the second round of the 1975 MLB Draft, and he was converted to relieving over the next four years. Initially, it felt like an insult, but Smith worked on the craft and eventually developed into one of the most celebrated closers in baseball history.

Smith owns the Cubs' career record with 180 saves and trails only Mariano Rivera (652) and Trevor Hoffman (601) in that category for an MLB career. One difference between the three arms is that Smith collected his saves in an era filled with more multi-inning efforts. The big righty had 169 career saves consisting of at least four outs (fourth most in MLB history), including 108 with Chicago.

Over his 18-year career, which included stops with eight teams, Smith had 94 saves consisting of at least two innings (74 with Cubs). He averaged 1.26 innings per appearance over his 1,022 career games, compared to 1.15 for Rivera and 1.05 for Hoffman. During his eight-year run with the Cubs, Smith averaged 1.49 innings per outing.

Smith is not only the Cubs' all-time saves king, but he boasts the most games finished (342) for a Chicago pitcher and is second in career strikeouts (618) for a Cubs reliever. He made two All-Star teams (1983 and '87) with the Cubs, receiving both National League Cy Young and MVP votes in '83 (1.65 ERA and 29 saves in 103 1/3 innings).

Smith's 2.82 ERA is second only to Bruce Sutter among Cubs relief pitchers with at least 350 innings. Within that group, Smith ranks fourth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.6) and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.45). Only Don Elston (658 1/3) and Charlie Root (655 2/3) logged more relief innings than Smith (644 1/3) in Cubs history.

"No matter where I pitched," Smith said in his speech, "I always wanted to embody my two traits -- loyalty, to the team and my teammates … and dependability, as a teammate and a pitcher. It didn't matter when I was given the ball -- seventh, eighth or ninth inning, no matter how many innings I pitched -- as long as I could impact the game and help my team."

2. , 1976-80
Key fact: Won the 1979 NL Cy Young Award.

You could make a case that Smith and Sutter are really 1a and 1b in Cubs history when it comes to ranking the franchise's best relievers. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Sutter is also one of five NL Cy Young Award winners in Cubs history, and that was not even his best season with the club.

"I finally felt like I belonged in '77," Sutter told Carrie Muskat in her book "Banks to Sandberg to Grace: Five Decades of Love and Frustration with the Chicago Cubs." "I pitched so much. I think I had 75 innings by the All-Star break."

In fact, during that incredible '77 campaign, Sutter had a 1.11 ERA over 81 1/3 innings (45 games) before the All-Star Game. The righty pulled a muscle under his armpit shortly thereafter and missed a chunk of games between July and August. Still, Sutter's showing in '77 was one of the most dominant seasons in Cubs history.

That summer, Sutter finished with a 1.34 ERA, 1.61 FIP, 0.86 WHIP and 129 strikeouts compared to 23 walks in 62 appearances. With his famous splitter baffling batters, Sutter allowed only 69 hits over 107 1/3 innings. The righty received Cy Young and MVP votes and made the first of four consecutive All-Star teams as a Cub that year.

In Cubs history, Sutter ranks second in saves (133), third in strikeouts by a reliever (494) and fourth in games finished (222) and relief innings (493). Among the relievers with at least 350 innings with Chicago, Sutter ranks first in both ERA (2.39) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.32). He also averaged 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings in an era prior to punchouts dominating 'pen production.

Sutter won the Cy Young with a 2.22 ERA and 37 saves in '79 and was dominant again in '80, but he was traded to St. Louis prior to the '81 season due to the Cubs' financial situation. With the Cardinals, Sutter led the NL in saves three more times and continued on his Hall of Fame trajectory.

3. , 2013-19
Key fact: His 120 career holds are most in Cubs history.

It was one of the best trades in the long, storied history of the Chicago Cubs. On July 2, 2013, the Cubs shipped Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman to the Orioles in exchange for Jake Arrieta and Strop.

Clevenger posted a .680 OPS in 69 games over parts of three years with Baltimore. Feldman went 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA over 15 starts in '13 and then left via free agency. Arrieta grew into a true ace, winning the NL Cy Young Award in '15 with one of the great pitching seasons in history. Strop developed into one of Chicago's top bullpen arms in club history. Oh, and the Cubs won the World Series with both on their staff in '16, ending the franchise's 108-year drought.

In his seven-year run with the Cubs, Strop was utilized primarily as a setup man, with a few cameos as closer. His 120 holds are the most in team history, and he ranks second in strikeouts per nine innings (10.3), strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.89) and third in ERA (2.90) among Cubs relievers with at least 350 career innings.

Affectionately called "Stropy" by teammates, Strop also became a leader in the Cubs' clubhouse and a favorite among fans (partly for the unique way he wears his hat slid slightly to the left). All of that said, Stop also delivered consistent production, ending fourth in Cubs history in relief appearances (411) and fifth in relief strikeouts (425).

Strop turned in a 2.61 ERA across 296 1/3 innings in the 2014-18 seasons, and posted a 2.12 ERA in 20 career postseason games (including allowing no runs in three World Series outings in '16) with Chicago.

4. , 2006-13
Key fact: Owns highest strikeout rate (11.7 per nine innings) in Cubs history.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1999, Marmol grew into one of the great strikeout artists in Cubs history.

His 138 strikeouts in 2010 are a single-season club record for a pure reliever (no starts), and his 657 relief strikeouts overall with the Cubs are the most in a career. Marmol ranks first in Chicago history in relief outings (470), second in games finished (245) and third in saves (117). His 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings as a reliever is the highest in Cubs history (min. 200 games).

Marmol received an NL MVP vote in 2007 (1.43 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings) and made his lone NL All-Star team in 2008 (2.68 ERA with 114 strikeouts in 87 1/3 innings). The righty did struggle with walks at times, but was nonetheless dominant. In '10, Marmol averaged 16 strikeouts per nine innings and ended with a 2.55 ERA, 38 saves, 70 games finished and 77 appearances.

5. Don Elston, 1953, '57-64
Key fact: His 239 games finished are third most in team history.

There are any number of pitchers who could've been fifth on this list, but Elston gets the nod for longevity. When looking across the statistical categories, the right-hander is often right behind or among the other four names here. Elston is third in Cubs history in relief outings (434), fourth in strikeouts (458) and first in relief innings (658 1/3). He posted a 3.70 ERA in his Cubs career and made an All-Star team twice (both coming in 1959).

Honorable mentions
First, let's note that Charlie Root -- second in Cubs history in relief innings (656 2/3) and seventh in games finished (171) -- was excluded from this list as he appeared in our all-time ranking of the Top 5 right-handed starters for the Cubs.

Other names who could have cracked the No. 5 slot include: Paul Assenmacher (328 strikeouts in 279 games from 1989-93), Rod Beck (51 saves and club-record 70 games finished in 1998), Ryan Dempster (reliever and starter from 2004-12 with 87 saves for Cubs), Kyle Farnsworth (467 strikeouts from '99-04), Willie Hernández (3.81 ERA from '77-83), Randy Myers (112 saves, including a club-record 53 in '93, across '93-95), Phil Regan (3.44 ERA and 181 games finished from '68-72), Héctor Rondón (3.22 ERA and 77 saves from '13-17), Dick Tidrow (3.36 ERA from '79-82, with club-record 84 games in '80) and Mitch Williams (52 saves from '89-90 and an '89 All-Star), among others.