Could a Cubs’ bullpen, which had one of the highest walk rates in the majors last season and ran out of gas late, become a significant strength in 2018 with just two proven additions, including a closer who failed in that role the last time he tried nine years ago?
If so, consider Brian Duensing a big part of that plan after the Cubs on Wednesday reached agreement on a two-year, $7 million deal to bring back the free agent who was one of the Cubs’ most reliable relievers last year.
The left-hander, who turns 35 next month, threw strikes at a better rate than anybody in the Cubs’ 2017 bullpen, except Koji Uehara. Duensing’s return provides not only a strong lefty option to Justin Wilson in short relief but also lefty insurance against Mike Montgomery’s inevitable turns in the rotation.
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Immediately after the season ended, Cubs president Theo Epstein said bolstering the bullpen with “strike throwers” would be a priority this winter.
The Cubs were among the worst three bullpens in baseball last year with 4.25 walks per nine innings, and the relief crew struggled throughout the postseason (6.21 ERA and 6.45 walks per nine).
On the other hand, the Cubs ranked third in the National League with a 3.80 bullpen ERA, in large part because they were so tough to hit (No. 2 in the NL with a .224 opponents average).
“Our bullpen I think got a little bit over-maligned I would say at the end of the year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said during the Cubs Convention last weekend. “Certainly as a collective last year we did not throw enough strikes. That was something that was almost like a disease that went through our entire bullpen; guys had their career-worst strike-throwing years.
“But overall, I think our bullpen was better than it looked at the end of the year, and I think we still have a lot of really good relievers in that bullpen who are going to throw well for us.”
The biggest loss was All-Star closer Wade Davis, who signed a three-year, $52 million deal with the Rockies.
But the Cubs believe they’ve solved a lot of last year’s problems and added bullpen depth like they haven’t had in recent years with the additions of Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek and the return of Duensing.
Assuming they’re done revamping their bullpen, the Cubs will take eight veteran relievers with recent track records of success and at least two more pitchers with a chance to compete for a job.
Like Duensing (2.6 walks per nine innings), Morrow (1.85) and Cishek (2.82) were among the best relievers at limiting walks last year.
Morrow, in particular, had a breakout season for the Dodgers after several seasons hampered by injuries, a career rebirth underscored by his dominance against the Cubs in the NLCS as the Dodgers’ setup ace.
The Cubs say Morrow is their closer — despite failing in that role early in his career with the Mariners — a role he hasn’t been asked to fill since 2009.
“We’re really confident in Morrow,” Epstein said. “Just because he hasn’t closed consistently before, we are very confident in our ability to project him into that role the way he’s thrown. That’s the guy we anticipate in that role and having a great year for us.”
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