Bullpen decisions loom for Cubs entering 2020

After struggles in '19, Strop's future with Cubs uncertain; club searching for high-leverage arms

November 8th, 2019

CHICAGO -- looked around the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park during the Cubs' final road trip last season, discussing the state of the team and the important winter that loomed. For parts of seven years, Strop has been with Chicago during its rise and fall as a franchise.

Strop experienced the 96-loss season in '13, won a World Series with the club in '16 and now faced the reality of the Cubs not making the playoffs in '19. The bullpen contributed to the issues last season and is an area in need of addressing for the North Siders this offseason, especially with Strop and a group of veteran arms in the free-agent pool.

Strop, one of the best relievers in Cubs history, said he hopes to remain a part of the solution for 2020.

"Definitely, and they definitely know that," Strop said. "I see the Cubs and this clubhouse, it's like my house. There's a lot of good memories, a lot of stuff here. Hopefully, they're interested in bringing me back. I want it and they're going to be my priority in the offseason. If I have to go somewhere else, well, at least they know I want to stay home."

The Cubs have free agents in Strop, and , who combined for 182 relief appearances in '19. Chicago also declined the team options on , , and , allowing them to hit the open market, too. If the Cubs consider retaining any arms within that group, Strop, Cishek or Kintzler would make the most sense on a short-term pact.

As things currently stand, there are few things set in stone when it comes to the Cubs' relief corps. Chicago has closer under contract, and he is hoping a regular offseason and Spring Training will lead to a strong bounceback season in '20. How the Cubs plan on aligning the bullpen in front of Kimbrel will be a storyline throughout the offseason and spring.

While both Kimbrel and Strop dealt with injury setbacks, rookie (acquired from the Padres last offseason) and lefty emerged as reliable late-inning weapons. adjusted well to a relief role, too. In the final few weeks, stepped up, and the Cubs took a close look at other 40-man arms like , , and .

Maybe some of those internal options will seize jobs this spring, but the Cubs know they need to add more depth whether it's via trade or free agency. Having another veteran in the mix alongside Kimbrel (and potentially Chatwood) could be beneficial as well. That is where it might make sense to see if Strop, Cishek or Kintzler are willing to stay on a cost-effective contract.

"We need to keep unearthing pitchers," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the end of the season, "who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats -- that was something we didn't do a lot of, although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group -- and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

Last season, the Cubs' bullpen finished fourth in the National League with a 3.98 ERA, but that hardly tells the story of the season. Four members of the Opening Day bullpen were with other organizations by the end of the year, while Chicago's front office worked to alter the makeup of the group. The look of the bullpen in the final two months was much different that the first four.

Consider that the Cubs' relief corps had a 4.81 ERA with an 18.5 percent strikeout rate for the month of July. Through a series of additions and subtractions, the group posted a 3.65 ERA with a 25.2 percent strikeout rate across August and September. The average fastball velocity in the bullpen also climbed to 94.3 mph (via Statcast) over the last three months, compared to 93.2 mph for the first three combined.

Per Fangraphs, though, the Cubs' bullpen ended the year ranked 11th in the National League in Win Probability Added (-3.96), 13th in wOBA (.352) and 15th in strikeout rate (20.7 percent) and walk rate (15.4 percent) in high-leverage situations.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year," Epstein said. "That's something that I have to do a better job of finding options for. So, it led a lot of people to paint the whole bullpen with a broad brush."

Strop knows he contributed to the issues and understood why former manager Joe Maddon began leaning on other relievers late in games.

"I was the one who should've pitched better to be in those type of situations, those type of games," Strop said. "That's what I like: To pitch in high-leverage situations. I like to pitch no matter what, but that's the fun part, when you pitch in those games."

The 34-year-old Strop has a 2.90 ERA in 411 career games for the Cubs -- the lowest ERA among the seven pitchers in team history with at least 400 outings -- but he posted a 4.97 ERA in 50 games in 2019. He dealt with a right hamstring injury in the spring and then had two injured list stints during the season that led to mechanical issues, a drop in velocity and diminished production.

Strop prefers to point to September, when he said he finally felt right and backed that up with a 2.00 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 11 appearances (nine innings). As Strop headed into his offseason, the right-hander hoped that strong finish would help lead to a chance to stick around with the Cubs.

"I can tell what I think and what I feel, but I don't know what they're thinking," Strop said. "I'm pretty sure that they know I don't want to go. I want to stay here, but I don't know what they're thinking. So, I don't know what's going to happen."