In a day when quoting WAR-style numbers from sources like Baseball Reference or Fangraphs is standard operating procedure, relievers are considered interchangeable. Relief pitchers will routinely have a "good" year backed up by a pair of "bad" seasons, then return with a flourish. A pensman can have a couple solid months, but then go in the ashcan with three or four sub-standard outings in a row. Most fans will remember the horrific more than the efficient. With this in mind, does it matter the Cubs seem to have some bullpen quality and depth heading into the off-season?
Relief pitchers are better now than they used to be. There, I said it. My memory for relievers goes back a bit further than the 1984 Cubs, but that squad serves as a nice proxy for what used to be expected from relievers. Even then, they were still generally considered failed starters. Dennis Eckersley would soon be a prime example of the phenomenon. Once a solid starter, Eckersley ran into hard times with the Cubs. Whether or not he refused to take a role as a reliever for the Cubs is still up for grabs. It may be accurate, or it may not. Either way, in the mid-1980s, a reliever was certainly considered "less than."
On that squad, Lee Smith was the closer. The set-up man was, ummmmm...... hmmmmmmm.... George Frazier? Warren Brusstar? Brusstar had a decent enough ERA at 3.11, but he walked more than he fanned. Five different Cubs notched three or more saves, and George Frazier had the second-best FIP (behind Smith) of the five, but the worst ERA. Rich Bordi was the fifth. None were left-handers. (One of those types might have come in handy when Rick Sutcliffe was self-destructing in Game 5.) The set-up man didn't exist yet, as bullpens were as they still are, evolving.
With today's Cubs bullpen, Sutcliffe's bullpen would be readying while the Cubs hit in the seventh. Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm (who were once thought of as bit pieces in the Matt Garza trade) would be mentally getting ready to throw before the Padres came up to hit. One would be working in earnest, with Wesley Wright at the ready, as well. Pedro Strop would be in line to pitch the eighth, and Hector Rondon would be looking to close it out in the ninth.
Even more recent quality Cubs teams had weaker bullpens. The 2003 squad wasn't particularly deep in the pen. If 2007 or 2008 had as much quality as 2013, the starters could have had shorter outings. As improved as the pen is now, it should be better soon. Armando Rivero and Arodys Vizcaino figure to chip in during the 2015 season, and others in the pipeline may fail as starters and be moved to the pen. Having depth is pretty much essential now.
There are a few reasons, and virtually all of them place a team in better stead if the have ten quality options as opposed to two or three. And fourteen would be much better than ten. First, and most obviously, starters often pitch shorter stints than before. Back when, in the training ground of the major leagues, pitchers would go as long as they could in most instances. A starting pitcher at the A-ball level could go seven or eight innings routinely. They even threw complete games, sometimes.
For a test case, I went back to Cubs starter Rick Reuschel. In his first stint with the Cubs, he threw at least five complete games per season until being traded, after spending most of the 1970s with the Cubs. In the minor leagues, he started 42 games, and completed 24 of them, including five complete-game shutouts. This doesn't happen now. About the only way a pitcher goes the distance is in a rain shortened game, or a seven-inning twinbill scenario.
Part of this is due to teams realizing years back that some pitchers can be perfectly productive pitchers for three to six outs if they come out of the bullpen firing mid-to-upper-90s gas. While some hate the trend of starters going six innings, then turning it over to the bullpen, it's how things are now. Managers will use their bullpens more, so having better relievers is a must.
Another angle of the import of relievers involves the larger number of postseason teams. In the above-mentioned 1984 scenario, the post-season went only two rounds. If a player was injured, as Kevin McReynolds was for San Diego, roster changes weren't permitted. The team played with 24. Now, players can be disabled in the postseason if injured. Also, rosters can be tweaked each round. Therefore, a scuffling reliever can be replaced if the team advances. A team may get a huge benefit in the postseason if they can switch lefty specialists between rounds. Depth in the pen matters.
Not only that, but teams need to win 11 or 12 games to haul in the title. With those added games in those added rounds, the odds that a game goes 12 or more innings increases. Those games will often require six or more innings from relievers. In those momentum-swinging games, a team is better off with numerous quality relief choices, not just a couple.
Finally, as much as a fan may be pro-Moneyball regarding aspects of relievers being extraneous, pretty much every postseason series this year turned on the success, or failure, of the bullpens. If Oakland closes out Kansas City any of the three times the bullpen should have, the American League has a different World Series representative.
The Cubs have now four relievers who are, generally, rather reliable. Had one of the teams that was eliminated opted to trade for, say, Pedro Strop, they have advanced a bit longer. Part of the reason that the Dodgers hired Andrew Friedman is that Clayton Kershaw had no help available in the bullpen in the seventh inning against St. Louis. I think teams are going to start to realize that having numerous solid and reliable bullpen options may be switching from the dessert cart to the main course.
If that happens, a team like the Cubs might be in better shape than we think in the future. When Hector Rondon reaches a certain level of pay/experience, the Cubs might have two solid options. Spend a bit, and keep him in the bullpen, or trade him to a team that will surrender value for him. Swapping quality for relievers isn't how it's done now. Prospects are too important. But then, the Dodgers have had a stretch of golfing because of their seventh inning follies, caused in part by a shaky bullpen.
Many of the pitchers starting for South Bend or Myrtle Beach in 2015 won't be starting pitchers in the majors. Maybe C.J. Edwards will become a reliever. Perhaps Jen-Ho Tseng won't be good enough to start. However, if a pitcher has a good arm, and command of two pitches, there should be a place for them in a bullpen, at least.
While the Cubs would benefit more from the litany of prospect arms being starters, the likelihood of that isn't very strong. However, with bullpens pitching so many innings now, having a string of arms that can get six or seven outs would be a boon to the system.
The Cubs' future looks fairly bright despite the disarray of the recent past. In a period when power-hitting seems to be disappearing, the Cubs have some youngster with some pop. The pitching under the tenure of Chris Bosio has been generally much better than expected. Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks are poised for good careers, and the likelihood exists rather strongly of the Cubs adding a solid free agent pitcher or two, maybe without losing a valued draft pick in the process.
The bullpen is as solid as it's ever been, and the affiliates all figure to have solid pitching in the rotation and the bullpen. Offensive players in the pipeline are often working pitchers, in fashions that will help them through the system. This could help the Cubs through internal promotions or in trades.
None of us know what the future holds for Cubs baseball. Or, for that matter, in baseball valuations for relievers in the next few years. However, with the trend toward relievers having more key situations in the post-season, it certainly seems the Cubs are better off being loaded in quality arms in the bullpen. This should help them immediately in 2015. It should also pay dividends in the future when some of the more extraneous options are dealt elsewhere to continue to improve a farm system that is likely starting a run that few if any of us have ever seen in Cubs lore.
And bullpen depth will be a key part of that run.