Cubs Closers: The Future in Wrigley
Cubs closers are not hot commodities in fantasy baseball leagues at the moment. Sometimes, managers need to dig deep to find future stoppers — even on teams with only seven save chances. ROTOscouting crowned Dellin Betances as the future closer in the Bronx in March and the fantasy community is finally beginning to catch on. Likewise we touted Jeurys Familia on March 31 and everyone else followed six weeks later. In last week’s MLB stock watch it was Jason Motte, and he’s already started out strong in his 2014 debut. This week features an incumbent on shaky ground and his possible replacements who have the pedigree and stuff to take over ninth inning duties.
The State of the Cubs’ Bullpen
The Cubs’ pen has posted a 0.5 WAR (20th overall) and has almost as many blown saves (6) as saves (7). However the group has a respectable 8.62 K/9, a top-3 GB% (50.8%), and top-2 FB% (27.8%) which has helped mitigate hitter-friendly Wrigley Field (104 basic park factor, T-3rd overall). In 2014, the organization has cycled through several closers including incumbent Hector Rondon.
Speaking of the de facto closer, Rondon was a Rule 5 draft pick sporting a 30% increase in K/9 rate from 2013, a top-8 FIP among relievers (min. 20 IP), and he leads the club with five saves. His fastball-cutter combination is producing ground balls at a top-5 rate (55% and 67%, respectively) and he’s been generating more whiffs against right handers this year –especially with his sinker.
2013 Results (54 2/3 IP):
2014 Results (21 2/3 IP):
Info via BrooksBaseball.net
However, his repertoire and velocity haven’t changed significantly meaning improvements against right- handed hitters (.256/.346/.417 in 2013 and .167/.216/.208 in 2014) don’t appear sustainable despite a .286 BABIP mark. Given his lack of pedigree and zero home runs allowed, expect the numbers to regress across the board. Rondon is not the long-term solution for the Cubs.
Cubs Closers in Waiting
With Theo Epstein and Co. already employing six Cubs closers in the ninth inning, history suggests another change is coming. Who could conceivably take the job and run with it? Two pitchers are worth watching:
Neil Ramirez, RHP, Age 24 (MLB)
Mike Newman scouted Ramirez in 2009 when he was with the Texas Rangers in Hickory. Noting his fastball movement and hammer curve Newman concluded:
Ramirez strikes me as a polarizing prospect that will leave some tantalized by his potential two plus pitches and others underwhelmed by just how much work needs to be done for him to profile as a solid big league starter. The path of least resistance for Ramirez is to become a two pitch reliever with a potential for a late inning role.
Jeff Reese also saw positive improvements in 2012 after his shoulder injury and was optimistic about him reaching his ceiling as a #2 starter.
The Cubs bought low on Ramirez in the Matt Garza deal and are reaping the benefits in their bullpen. So far this season (sample size alert: 10 innings pitched) he has posted a 16:3 K/BB ratio and 1.67 xFIP. The issue for Ramirez has always been about throwing strikes, but thus far he has posted a 2.7 BB/9 rate (a career best). With a 94-mph fastball and 79-mph, 12-5 curve, his stuff is ready to stifle hitters (e.g., Ryan Braun) in the show:
Given the Cubs lack of experience in the pen (47 career saves), the former first-round pick has the raw stuff and is showing he can limit the free passes. If this continues, Neil Ramirez will be the next in line for saves at Wrigley.
Arodys Vizcaino, RHP, age 23 (Triple-A)
Once a highly touted prospect in the Braves’ system, two elbow surgeries in 2012 and 2013 have significantly tarnished his prospect status. Newman was disappointed after a look at him in 2010 although he noted Vizcaino “is a quality prospect in his own right and I see less than a handful of arms per year with his pure arm strength.” In 2012 Reese also profiled him as a “dominant reliever” with good fastball velocity and a power curve ball. Listen to the first 10 seconds below and know why Cubs’ fans are excited:
Healthy for the first time in two years, Vizcaino has posted a 19:5 K/BB ratio across High-A and Double-A (15 IP) in 2014. Health permitting, Vizcaino has the ability to miss bats and become a key piece of the Cubs bullpen in the second half of the season. Although his path to the ninth is murky, Vizcaino is worth a stash in dynasty leagues.
Blake Parker, RHP, age 28 (Triple-A)*
In 54 big-league innings Parker has posted a 10.17 K/9 rate with a respectable 3.05 K/BB ratio. In triple-A he’s been even better (11.57 K/9 in 11.2 IP). Parker’s fastball sets up his curve, which generated a top-10 whiff/swing rate in 2013 (min. 200 pitches). However, he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher (45% career) who has trouble working from the stretch (2.44 xFIP with the bases empty versus 5.07 xFIP with men on). Based on strikeout potential, Parker is a dark horse for saves. At this point, however, he’s merely a watch-list candidate.
*Parker called up to the big club after publication on 5/27.
Jose Veras and Pedro Strop are not future Cubs closers. Smart fantasy owners should sell high on Rondon before the bottom falls out and stash Ramirez who will post gaudy strikeout numbers. Dynasty league owners should look to trade for Vizcaino while his value is low. Parker is the hail mary play. Cubs’ starters aren’t providing many save opportunities yet but even bad teams win close games throughout the season.
27 May 2014 / Joseph Pytleski / 1
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