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What kind of bullpen will help the Cubs get back to the World Series in 2018?

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The Cubs need bullpen help. Which free-agent relievers should they look at?

Here’s one reliever who is a free agent and could help the Cubs.
Photo by Russell Lansford/Getty Images

Pardon me while I reminisce about the old days in baseball.

Which old days? Back in the day, teams used to think that having three closer-type relievers, or more, could help lock down games after the sixth inning and win postseason games and championships.

You remember, right? That was all the way back in 2014 and 2015, when the Royals’ trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland helped that club to consecutive World Series appearances and a title in 2015.

That was going to be the wave of the future! Every team was going to build bullpens that way and it would be the thing to watch in modern postseason play.

That wave crashed during the 2017 postseason, when starting pitchers routinely were taken out of games after the fourth inning, other starters were used as long relievers, and closers threw two and sometimes three innings. Managers almost seemed to throw up their hands and say, “I give up,” and call down to the bullpen and say, “Get any guy up and throwing who has a right arm or a left arm.”

That’s probably not a sustainable bullpen model. Let’s see if we can put together a Cubs bullpen for 2018 that will help them both win regular-season and postseason games.

I think the Cubs should retain Davis as closer. First, because he did a pretty good job in 2017; second, because he’s got quite a bit of relevant postseason experience; and third, because there really isn’t anyone else out there who fits that kind of description.

Other Cubs relievers from 2017 who will certainly be back are Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop and Justin Wilson. Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm are in the mix, but I think one or both might be non-tendered this winter.

If Davis is re-signed, that makes five sure things for the 2018 25-man roster; given the fact that modern bullpens have eight members almost all the time, that leaves three open spots.

Last week I suggested the Cubs could sign Addison Reed to close if Davis goes elsewhere. They could sign Reed even if Davis returns, too. Reed has setup experience as well as closing experience and along with Strop and Edwards, that would give the Cubs a strong eighth- and ninth-inning presence.

That would leave two more relievers to add. Here’s a list of all 2017-18 free agents; you can scroll down to find relievers listed by handedness.

One thing the Cubs will have to replace is the 2017 effectiveness of Brian Duensing, who is 35 and likely headed for a bigger payday than the Cubs should give him.

In looking down the list of lefty free-agent relievers, two names stand out to me.

One is Jake McGee, who is 31 and who pitched for Joe Maddon (and Jim Hickey) for five years with the Rays (2010-14) with considerable success. I recommended trading for him during the 2016 season. The only issue with McGee is that he might be a bit expensive; he made $5.9 million in his last arb season in 2017 and he’d probably be looking for at least a two-year deal at probably $7 million or $8 million a year. For that (or less), they could probably keep Duensing.

So let’s think cheaper. Former Cardinals lefthander Kevin Siegrist had a rough year in 2017 and wound up claimed by the Phillies. But he had excellent seasons in 2015 and 2016 and assuming he’s healthy, could be a good pickup. Siegrist is one of the younger FA on the list at 28.

Another former Cardinal, Trevor Rosenthal, is now a free agent at 28. He had Tommy John surgery in August and will miss most or all of 2018, but he might be a good pickup looking forward to 2019. He was a pretty good closer for the Cardinals in 2015.

Another former closer, Neftali Feliz, had a rough year for the Brewers (after starting 2017 as their closer) and Royals, but at 30 could be a good comeback candidate. Juan Nicasio, who the Cubs reportedly tried to obtain from the Pirates before he wound up first in Philadelphia and then in St. Louis late in 2017, might be looking for a closer’s spot (and money), but if nothing along those lines is open, would make a good setup man.

The Cubs do have some internal options for the vacant bullpen slots, including Dillon Maples, Matt Carasiti and the recently-acquired Luke Farrell and Cory Mazzoni. Some of those guys are likely going to be riding the Des Moines-to-Chicago shuttle in 2018.

To circle back to the point I was making about a World Series bullpen earlier, it would seem to me that a World Series-winning bullpen should have better-defined roles than the ones A.J. Hinch and Dave Roberts gave to their pens during the 2017 World Series. Hinch can say it worked for him because the Astros won, but I’d think most relievers work better when they know exactly what their role will be.

Whatever the Cubs do, they’ve got to improve their bullpen because it was one of the reasons the team failed in the 2017 postseason. Among that improvement has to be a better walk rate, presumably one of the reasons the Cubs changed pitching coaches. But they’ll probably have to change some of the members of the bullpen as well.