Almost since the day he arrived in Chicago, Pedro Strop was the “other guy.”
And every five days for more than four years, with every start Jake Arrieta made for the Cubs, Strop seemed to get pushed just a little deeper into the background of that celebrated 2013 trade with the Orioles. He was destined, it seemed, to wind up closer to a trivia-question answer than the answer to the Cubs’ closer role.
Strop laughs when asked if he ever thought he might be the forgotten man in that four-player deal.
“Sometimes we joke around,” he said. “Sometimes on TV they’re talking about that trade, and they say, ‘Jake,’ and I say, ‘Hey, I was in there, too!’ ”
Nobody is overlooking Strop these days.
The right-hander with the easy smile and the off-center cap has been the Cubs’ most consistent reliever. And he might be more important than ever as the Cubs try to hold their slim lead in the National League Central with the schedule heating up.
The longest-tenured member of a bullpen that might be the Cubs’ best in at least a generation has emerged as manager Joe Maddon’s de facto closer with Brandon Morrow on the disabled list indefinitely because of biceps soreness.
Maddon won’t say if he has designated a regular closer in Morrow’s absence. And his choice could change at any moment.
But for now, it’s Strop, the career setup man. That has meant saves in six of seven chances since the All-Star break and almost as many saves this season (eight) as he had in nine previous years (nine).
“Anytime you get an opportunity to close a game, it feels good,” said Strop, whose final-out celebrations have been worthy of their own admission price.
“He puts the ball on the ground, and he has a wipeout slider that works against righties and lefties,” said Maddon, who’s using Stop in the ninth ahead of three healthy relievers with closing experience: Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Brandon Kintzler.
“He has the kind of stuff that can be closer stuff. But he’s so valuable being able to move him around, too.”
In using Strop in the ninth inning, Maddon hasn’t had to alter the way he uses high-leverage workhorse Cishek.
“Nobody has told me anything, like I’m the closer,” Strop said. “It’s been like that lately, but I’m ready from the seventh inning on. Because if Joe feels like the right inning for me is the eighth or the seventh, I know he won’t hesitate to put me in there.
“I just want to pitch.”
It’s that kind of attitude, along with a big personality and uniquely loud fashion style, that has made Strop one of the most popular players in the clubhouse over the years.
Maybe it was inevitable that the team would eventually plan one of its themed-apparel trips around Strop’s distinctive blends of bling and flamboyance, which it did for the quick trip this week to Kansas City.
That included a spike in sales for the “Believe” line of clothing he developed in 2015 and had on the market in ’16.
“A couple guys ordered online, some shirts and hats,” Strop said. “But I ordered like 50 hats for pretty much everybody. It was fun to see the guys wearing my stuff. There’s a bunch of guys who really liked it and are still wearing it.”
The “Believe” line, with a logo designed by Strop (and tattooed on his arm), coincided with the Cubs’ sudden rise into contention in 2015 and into the World Series in ’16.
But the inspiration was less baseball than his personal faith, he said.
Either way, it has never looked more appropriate on him. Or more timely for the Cubs and their veteran linchpin.
“I’ve been getting an opportunity in the ninth inning now, but we all know that all those guys in the bullpen can do it, too,” he said.
“I know I’m not the closer. I’m just ready.”
Pedro Strop was a struggling Orioles -reliever with a 7.25 ERA when the Cubs -acquired him in July 2013 as part of the Jake Arrieta trade. Here’s what he has done for the Cubs since ’13 compared to -previously in his career:
Year ERA G WHIP SV
2009-13* 4.14 144 1.481 3
2013 2.83 37 0.943 1
2014 2.21 65 1.066 2
2015 2.91 76 1.000 3
2016 2.85 54 0.887 0
2017 2.83 69 1.177 0
2018 2.74 47 1.087 8**
*Texas/Baltimore **6-for-7 since All-Star break with Brandon Morrow on DL