Let’s Review Some High-Velo Relievers Cubs Could Target to Bolster Bullpen

We know the bullpen is an area of need for the Cubs this winter and we also know that Jed Hoyer regrets not doing more at the deadline to improve a thin unit that wasn’t stellar even before late injuries took their toll. That should mean employing a strategy a little less reliant on luck than the typical value-based approach. While it’s unlikely the Cubs will be shopping at the top of the market for relievers, it stands to reason that they’ll target two or three known commodities.

Velocity and the ability to miss bats figure to be high on the list of priorities, but Cubs relievers were actually fourth in MLB last season with a 26% strikeout rate and sixth with a 95.1 mph average fastball velo. However, they were middle of the pack in terms of ERA (3.85, 13th), FIP (4.05, 12th), and groundball rate (43.2%, 18th). The biggest area for improvement is an 11% walk rate that ranked 29th in MLB last season and washed away most of the shine from those strikeouts.

With that in mind, I wanted to look at the hardest throwers who will be available in free agency to see which of them stand out as good fits for the Cubs. Since I’m just a lazy blogger who likes to let others do the heavy lifting, I figured it was best to simply use the list Tommy Meyers shared on Twitter. Their 2023 stats are listed first with ages and career marks in parentheses.

Jordan Hicks, RHP (27)
FB: 100.3 mph (100.8)
K: 28.4% (27.3)
BB: 11.2% (12.8)
GB: 58.3% (60.4)

Youth is a big factor for the hardest thrower out there, but walks have been a big problem throughout his career. He missed most of 2019 due to a torn UCL and then sat out the shortened 2020 season due to a combination of rehab and his status as a Type 1 diabetic. I’m sure this will draw the requisite jokes about Jed Hoyer loving pitchers who’ve had TJ surgery, but every team has two or three of those guys at this point.

Hicks has struggled with walks in the past and his big fastball hasn’t always produced enough strikeouts to offset them. This feels like a situation where some team will pony up big, and I just don’t see the Cubs being interested.

Aroldis Chapman, LHP (36)
FB: 99 mph (99.4)
K: 41.4% (33.8)
BB: 14.5% (12.4)
GB: 47.7% (42.7)

Dude is still throwing gas, but he also walks a lot of batters and he’s a little long in the tooth at this point. Even if we overlook his less-than-savory personal history, this isn’t a direction the Cubs need to take. My concern comes from him being more or less a two-pitch guy whose fastball and slider are neither consistent nor elite. While the velo is still there, Chapman’s reliance on high-spin ride may continue to lose effectiveness as hitters adjust further.

Eno Sarris noted recently that more and more guys have learned to think about it like trying to hit the top of the ball or to swing 2-3 balls above where they might normally. It’s not a matter of actually doing those things, just a way to get their swing on a better plane to square the heater up. Do that and spit on spin, you’ll find success against Chapman.

Shintaro Fujinami, RHP (30)
FB: 98.4 mph (n/a)
K: 23.2% (n/a)
BB: 12.6% (n/a)
GB: 5.13 (n/a)

The raw stuff is there, but this dude gave up 73 hits with 45 walks over 79 innings during his first MLB season. He began the season as a starter with Oakland and transitioned to the pen after allowing 24 earned runs over 19.1 innings in just four outings, then he was traded to Baltimore about a week and a half before the deadline. Though his results were better with a competitive team, there’s nothing to suggest Fujinami would be anything other than a reason to chew Tums every few games.

Reynaldo López, RHP (30)
FB: 98.4 mph (96)
K: 29.9% (21.3)
BB: 12.2% (8.6)
GB: 39.2% (35.5)

A very inconsistent starter for the Nationals and White Sox over his first few seasons, López found new life as a reliever in 2021. This past season was his second as a full-time reliever and he bounced around with Lucas Giolito as the Sox traded them to the Angels, who soon after placed both pitchers on waivers and saw them claimed by the Guardians for nothing. Always a mid-90’s guy, López has seen his fastball tick up significantly in each of the last three seasons.

He has also narrowed his repertoire to pretty much just four-seam and slider, leading to increased whiffs in each of the last two seasons. His walks were up significantly in ’23 despite working in the zone a little more than the previous year as he suffered from a big drop in called strikes. That likely came from a tweak to his slider that had him generating more vertical break than in the past.

I’ve been critical of the Cubs’ tinkering in the past, but I think this is a case where the smallest modification could get that slider dialed in a little more. Cutting back on the walks would make López an elite back-end guy.

Ryne Stanek, RHP (32)
FB: 98.2 mph (97.9)
K: 23.9% (27.8)
BB: 9.9% (12.0)
GB: 30.7% (33.6)

The name alone makes this a good move, plus Stanek also has loads of tremendous experience with both the Rays and Astros. Both organizations have had a lot of success over the years due in large part to excellent pitching development in the minors and at the big-league level. Even though this past season wasn’t particularly good for Stanek, who saw his splitter and slider roughed up a bit, he maintained his solid results against lefties.

He’s got nearly even career splits and could improve the numbers against right-handed hitters with minor adjustments here and there. As a bonus, his long hair and beard are reminiscent of guys like Rod Beck and Andrew Chafin.

Luis García, RHP (37)
FB: 97.3 mph (96.8)
K: 19.9% (21.5)
BB: 9.0% (10.4)
GB: 61.5% (55.1)

Age is a factor here, but García gets a ton of grounders to make up for his relatively low strikeout numbers. Signing him would mean also getting a lefty because he pitches to very bit platoon splits, but that bowling-ball sinker can erase mistakes in a hurry.

Robert Stephenson, RHP (31)
FB: 96.8 mph (95.1)
K: 38.3% (25.9)
BB: 8.0% (10.2)
GB: 34.6% (33.8)

Stephenson went really heavy on the cutter this past season and saw a huge uptick in strikeout percentage as a result. The key is differentiating it from the slider in terms of both shape and speed, but it’s also a matter of pitching backwards to an extent. At over 41% usage, the cutter is Stephenson’s favorite pitch. The slider is next at just over 24%, then that big fastball is used less than a quarter of the time.

He’s always been a little better against right-handed batters, but he absolutely dominated them in ’23 and should be able to do so again with this new pitch mix. Stephenson is very familiar with the NL Central after spending several seasons with the Reds and Pirates, so maybe that gives the Cubs a leg up. This dude has all the makings of a potential lockdown setup man.

Josh Hader, LHP (30)
FB: 96.1 mph (95.6)
K: 36.8% (42.2)
BB: 13.0% (10.2)
GB: 35.5% (29.6)

He’s been one of the best closers in baseball and he’ll want to be paid as such, which is why the Cubs probably won’t even bother having a conversation with him. As good as it would be to have a dominant lefty coming out of the ‘pen, Hader’s an expensive prima donna who will almost certainly not be worth the added cost over one or two other high-leverage options.

Craig Kimbrel, RHP (36)
FB: 95.8 mph (97.3)
K: 33.8% (39.4)
BB: 10.1% (10.2)
GB: 33.6% (38.4)

We’ve all seen this movie before and it didn’t end particularly well. Kimbrel’s velocity isn’t what it used to be and that leaves him without much leeway for mistakes, something that became quite evident in the postseason. I can’t believe the Cubs will entertain even the slightest thought of another dance with their former closer.

Emilio Pagán, RHP (33)
FB: 95.8 mph (95)
K: 23.8% (28.1)
BB: 7.7% (7.0)
GB: 31.5% (29.7)

Pagán’s K-rate has fluctuated quite a bit over seven seasons, some of which might be due to his constant movement between teams. He’s been with five organizations since debuting with the Mariners in 2017, and he’s tinkered with his pitch mix along the way. His homers allowed really dropped this past season, a function of dialing up the four-seam heat and really figuring out the cutter in his second year of using it. He could make sense on a shorter deal.

I like Stephenson, García, and López the most out of this group, though I might have a different list of preferences if you ask me tomorrow. Remember that we’re just looking at the 10 hardest-throwing relievers here too, so there are going to be scores of other available pitchers once free agency opens up. Getting one or two from this list and then rounding them out with someone who complements their skills would make for a nice bullpen upgrade.

Oh, then you’ve got the homegrown prospects who should be coming up to fill in here and there. While the relief corps is certainly a priority for Hoyer this winter, it’s not one that should take a great deal of time or money to address.

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