With the departure of several key members of last year’s group, the bullpen is a big need for the Chicago Cubs this offseason. Four key contributors from their bullpen joined the free agent market this year, including their top two relievers by WAR in Steve Cishek (who signed with the cross-town White Sox) and Brandon Kintzler (who remains on the market at this point), as well as longtime setup man Pedro Strop.
But even though the Cubs have a need to bolster their bullpen, it does not appear as though they are able or willing to dive too deep into their pockets to round out their relief corp. That is likely thanks to their recent standings in the Competitive Balance Tax, and they will have to look into the depths of the market to find serviceable arms that can provide innings and perhaps some unexpected value as well.
That is where Blake Parker, a former Cub, possibly comes into the picture.
Parker was drafted by the Cubs in the 16th round of the 2006 draft, and came up through the organization. It was during that time in the minor leagues that I personally became a fan of his, specifically during his time at the Triple-A level with the Iowa Cubs. As an Iowa native I have gone to my fair share of I-Cubs games (to say the least), and I was able to witness several of the 66 saves he tallied during his time in Des Moines.
He was called up to the major leagues at the end of 2012 during the beginning of Theo Epstein’s tenure with the team, and produced a very strong rookie campaign in the 2013 season as he posted a 2.72 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and a 10.7 K/9 over 49 total appearances. Unfortunately for Parker, he had a pair of rough outings early in the 2014 season, and that caused him to be sent back down to Iowa for most of that year.
After undergoing a minor elbow surgery in 2015 and bouncing around between the Mariners and Yankees in 2016 (and playing the waiver roulette game the following offseason), he finally got his chance to stay in a big league bullpen when the Angels claimed him before the 2017 season. He responded well by posting the best season of his career thus far with a 2.54 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 11.5 K/9 rate, and a 5.38 K/BB ratio over 71 appearances. Though his 2018 season did not go as well (3.26 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 9.5 K/9), Parker did work his way into Mike Scioscia’s closing carousel and led the team with 14 saves that season (with 22 total over his time with the Angels).
Prior to last season he was signed by the Minnesota Twins with the expectation of competing for the closing role, but — even though he did nothc ten saves for the Twins — his numbers were not as good as they had been the previous two years. He was designated for assignment and made a free agent before being signed by the Philadelphia Phillies, and remained unable to find his former stride. In the 2019 season Parker posted a combined 4.55 ERA, 5.07 FIP, 1.22 WHIP, and just a 2.95 K/BB ratio.
Over the last two seasons his velocity has dropped (which is to be expected as one gets older), and given his performance last year it doesn’t seem like Parker will receive more than a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. But that is what makes him fit in with the financial restrictions the Cubs organization is going through, and I still believe that he is worth considering adding to this year’s team. His experience with both success and hardships at the major league level could be a great benefit for the young pitchers coming up through the system like Duane Underwood Jr. and Dillon Maples, and he could still be a serviceable reliever in his own right.
The only certain thing about the Cubs bullpen in 2020 is that it will be largely different from the group they had last season, with the only real “locks” to make it being Craig Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, and Rowan Wick. With the number of experienced arms in the bullpen reduced by the losses of Cishek, Kintzler, and Strop, a guy like Blake Parker could play a key role on this roster.