The “Swing Men” of the Cubs Bullpen
The “swing man” on a pitching staff refers to the guy that typically provides middle inning relief but has the versatility to start games, mop up in blowouts, or enter an extra inning game and eat innings.
Are these four as indispensable as the rest of the pen, or is “swing man” just a rebranding of the traditional “starter-reliever” role, that is, a place for the pitchers believed to be unable to make quality starts or close out games consistently?
Undoubtedly the four add depth to the Cubs fine starting rotation of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks. All have experience as starters in the Major Leagues. Cahill (2010) and Wood (2013) each have an All-Star season under their belts. Together the foursome has accumulated 458 Major League starts in just over 700 combined career appearances.
The presence of Cahill, Wood, Richard and Warren allows Manager Joe Maddon day to day flexibility in the event injuries, work load issues, or poor performance affect any of his starting rotation or the relief specialists (closer Hector Rondon and set-up man Pedro Strop, and middle relief/set-up men Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez).
Trevor Cahill, a one-time Baseball America top 100 prospect, joined the Cubs in 2015 after being designated for assignment by the Atlanta Braves. He signed a minor league contract, joined the the Cubs at roster expansion, and pitched 17 innings in 11 games, fanning 22 and giving up just eight hits. In that brief interval Cahill impressed coaches with his effective sinker.
In December Cahill signed a one-year contract with the Cubs, and he figures to make a run at entering the rotation. He will also see relief work in “high leverage situations” (read: close games). If Cahill returns to anything close to his 2010 form with the Oakland A’s (18-8, 2.89 ERA in 195 innings pitched), he may be a major asset. He has some baggage to overcome, though; in 2013, pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cahill led the league with 17 wild pitches. In his eight MLB seasons his strikeouts-to-walks ratio is an unimpressive 1.77.
The Cubs acquired Travis Wood from Cincinnati in 2012 and the left-hander made the National League All-Star team in 2013. That year the former second round draft pick made 32 appearances, all starts, and finished with a line of 9-12, 3.11 ERA, 144 strikeouts and 66 walks in an even 200 innings pitched. After slipping to a 5.03 ERA and seeing his strikeout rate decline and walk rate increase in 2014, Wood had to prove himself to remain in the rotation.
Joe Maddon started Wood just nine times in 2015 with mixed results but the left hander became a valued reliever, compiling a 3.84 ERA in 100.2 total innings, and increasing his velocity and strike out rate when compared to 2014. His versatility doesn’t stop at pitching; a fine all-round athlete, Wood has been known to pinch run and even pinch hit.
Clayton Richard, like Cahill, was a 2015 in-season acquisition and a bit of a reclamation project. A baseball and football standout in high school, Richard had been out of Major League Baseball since shoulder troubles sidelined him in June 2013. After six seasons, played mostly with the San Diego Padres, Richard signed as a free agent with the Diamondbacks and later the Pittsburgh Pirates organizations. The Cubs acquired him from Pittsburgh in July 2015 in exchange for cash. He compiled a 4-2 with a 3.83 ERA in 23 games (three starts), accumulating 42.1 innings.
Richard complements Wood in the sense that his slider and sinking fastball-heavy repertoire induces a lot of ground balls, whereas Wood is known as a fly ball pitcher. Maddon will consider match ups and ball park effects in deciding which of his two left-handed relievers to deploy.
The last acquired of the “swing men” is Adam Warren, who was the principal player swapped by the New York Yankees for infielder Starlin Castro In December. Warren compiled solid statistics during his time in Yankee pinstripes (3.39 ERA in 289.1 innings, mostly over three seasons). Unlike the other three, Warren in his Major League career has appeared much more often as a reliever than as a starter. He did make 17 of his 20 career starts last season for the Yankees, compiling a 7-7 record with a 3.29 ERA, 104 strikeouts, 39 bases on balls in 131 total innings pitched (43 appearances).
Time will tell if the Cubs swing men perform a truly valuable function, or if they will be part of the revolving door that so often defines the modern bullpen. While the goal of these men may be to crack the starting rotation, by most accounts they demonstrate a “team first” attitude and accept their supporting role, which is the first step to success.