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Eddie Butler and the future of the 2018 Cubs bullpen

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A look at how modern relief pitchers are used to help reduce fatigue and failure.

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Chicago Cubs Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

As the spring draws to a close, much of the roster discussion turns to the bullpen. And, by extension, Eddie Butler. Butler is the presumed final arm in the bullpen, unless Pedro Strop (or someone else) is unable to go. To put a bow around it, what should be being expected from Butler, and should he be acceptable as the last option in the bullpen?

The piece of paper that missed the garbage can is this: Should another option be preferred over Butler for the spot?

Whether you are a fan of Alberto Baldonado, Anthony Bass, or one of the hitters and a seven-man bullpen, could that be a better way to go?

Theoretically, yes. However, if the assumption is that Chris Gimenez will get the back-up catching spot, the 40-man roster is as good as full. Someone would have to be designated for assignment. Which isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. If someone is in need of being sent away.

However, nobody on the 40 seems in danger of being sent away. Including Butler, who had 0.8 bWAR in 54⅔ innings last season.

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Bullpen usage seems one of those aspects of baseball that is presumed understood, but the understanding might not be especially accurate. I certainly don’t understand why relievers flip from hot streaks to cold streaks so often.

My hunch is that it sometimes revolves around misuse/overuse/underuse.

We usually get the idea that a pitcher shouldn’t relieve three straight days. Or even three straight games. However, the concept is still a bit up in the air. A continuous learning opportunity.

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An MLB side usually plays six or seven games in a week. With new scheduling stipulations, the trend toward six is growing, but teams will still play seven per week quite often.

As starting pitchers often go about six innings per start, the bullpen will often be in line for 18-21 innings per week, give or take. As such, I like to say the bullpen had better be able to provide 20 good innings per week, or the team will likely falter.

Many remain fans of the seven-man bullpen.

Back of the envelope math says that a reliever will be pushed over nine outs more often with a seven-man pen than an eight-man pen.

Toss in that the Joe Maddon Cubs have gone with eight rather regularly, you can see the appeal. Especially if some of the eight are useful relievers.

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The season is roughly 26 weeks long. If a reliever is averaging two innings per week over 26, that’s a 52-inning workload. Which is mildly large, really. Add a third inning, you’re putting the reliever at 78.

In his career as a current closer-type, Jonathan Papelbon never went over 70 innings in the regular season.

While each arm will be different, if you acquaint yourself with relievers and workloads, some will be 45-inning guys, others are mid-50 types, and some are very durable. As Butler and Mike Montgomery have some starter in their background, they might not wilt with a string of four- or five-inning relief weeks. However, it might not be wise to push that very much.

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Regardless what I say or you wish/think, a few Cubs relievers will go on the disabled list this season. The quick preference will likely be to give chances to actual relievers on the 40-man roster.

Which means Dillon Maples, Dario Alvarez, and Cory Mazzoni might be the first ones to get a chance. Or designated for assignment if they don’t get hitters out in Iowa, though Maples figures to have a degree of rope.

Either way, have a quick access for the Cubs 40 if you want to decide who’s the likely next call-up.

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While the Cubs might pull a late surprise (they have a PTBNL due from the Angels, for instance, for Felix Pena), I’d expect a largely eight-man bullpen from the Cubs in 2018, with a few exceptions. As such, Butler makes sense as a durable option, able to soak up multiple innings at a time.

If you buy the “two or three innings per week” with relievers premise, note that the loose limits might serve best on a “running seven-day period” range.

In other words, if Strop (who usually looks good for 60+ innings per season) isn’t used early in a week, and the eight or nine outs he provides are on the weekend, it would make sense to dial him back at the start of the next week.

Tabletop or computer game usage rules don’t necessarily translate well to actual human beings.

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Fortunately, the Cubs look to have a nice string of leverage-type relievers. However, as the season progresses, it should be a goal to have a better degree of confidence with more pitchers as the trade deadline nears.

One way or another, trades will occur. Likely for relievers.

As such, putting together a degree of awareness of how relief and starting pitchers on the 40-man roster are doing in the minors should help in your discussing trade moves. The same applies for those not on the 40-man roster, guys like Justin Hancock and David Garner.

The Cubs have quite a few choices between the pitchers in the minor leagues. Knowing which ones make more sense than the others improves the decision-making process.

Upgrading the decision-making process, along with getting players ready for the season, is what spring training is about.

Butler makes perfect sense at the back-end of an eight-man bullpen in the regular season. As to who should be atop the list of call-ups, or designations, is a discussion that I find fascinating, if too rarely traversed.