With the NL Central race having gone the opposite way we’d hoped (and thought, really), there are rising blood pressures and clenching… well, you know what’s clenching, around the Northside and Greater Cubdom. And it goes beyond just gaining a third-straight division crown. The concerns extend into October, because after all, it’s that upon which the Cubs’ success right now is defined. After all—the thinking goes—how far can the Cubs go if they can’t turn to their bullpen after what is already a somewhat tenuous rotation (especially with Jon Lester’s back becoming what all of our backs regularly are).
Because we’ve seen it before. It was just last season when the Cubs ‘pen started to have the pieces fall off of it in September, leaving the playoff ‘pen with about three guys that Joe Maddon trusted as far as he could throw them.
2016 wasn’t actually that much different, but you don’t remember it that way. Because the starters were mostly so good (aside from John Lackey, but The Dream has no memory of that), they could carry the ball straight to Aroldis Chapman, whom Joe Maddon had no problem using until he was a fine paste. Rarely was anyone else called upon in a tough situation, with all of Carl Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Pedro Strop getting merely a smattering of innings that mattered.
So what’s gone on, exactly? And how worried should Cubs fans be? Let’s travel back in time a bit, because it’s a fun thing to do.
You’ll recall last year enough, as the Cubs didn’t so much surge to the division title so much as look around while standing still and watch the Brewers have the ice beneath them crack. There was one streak of seven in a row that iced things, but it wasn’t exactly closing on the outside like Easy Goer (do not worry if you don’t understand this, for it marks you out as really old and really dorky). The ‘pen that month had a 4.36 ERA and a 3.39 FIP. Now, some of that can be attributed to having various roadside trinket salesmen and future tow truck drivers coming up from Iowa to throw innings here and there. But that’s not all of it.
That September, Maddon only had three guys he could trust. They were Wade Davis—or Weigh Davis, whichever way you want to go—Carl Edwards Jr. (boy that sounds funny at the moment), and Pedro Strop. Héctor Rondón got some mop-up innings to try and work himself back into shape after injury, but never saw a high-leverage inning. Justin Grimm was a funeral pyre. Brian Duensing turned back into Brian Duensing (funny how that works). Justin Wilson couldn’t hit an elephant’s ass. You may remember a Felix Peña Experience, or you may have done your best to block it out.
Of course, Edwards became truly iffy in the playoffs; perhaps being used every day after 73 appearances in the regular season didn’t help. Strop’s 69 appearances that season were one off a career-high. Duensing turned into a peanut-butter-and-dandruff mix after 68 appearances. But hey, the rotation simply wasn’t that good last year, someone had to make up the difference, so here we are.
2016 was not the easy swim in the pool that you thought, at least in the end for the pen. Both Strop and Rondón missed three weeks each, the former in September and the latter in August, and were never really trusted in the playoffs after that. Only Chapman and Montgomery saw more than 10 innings out of the ‘pen in 17 games to Valhalla. But it didn’t matter, because Lester and Kyle Hendricks were brilliant all postseason long, and other than a hiccup-y start against the Dodgers, Jake Arrieta backed them up.
2015 is kind of a weird study. Rondón and Strop were really good in the postseason, but it didn’t matter because Daniel Murphy drove in 84 runs. Plus the ‘pen was buffeted my midseason additions like Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, and Fernando Rodney, who didn’t have the wear and tear.
This isn’t to lay the blame at Maddon’s feet. Really only Cishek has seen a spike in his usage, and everyone else has been where they’ve been before. Maddon can’t help that for the most part, as his starters get lost in the woods in the fifth or sixth inning, treating 21 outs like Atlantis. He can’t really get between Edwards’s ears, which is a playground overrun by kittens right now in any big situation. Someone has to cover these innings, and he’s really spread them out as best as he can.
Still, with how playoff baseball works, you can’t expect a string of seven-inning starts in any series, especially if you get to the World Series, or as this year it will be known: “Where The Wild Things Are,” where the freakish lineups of the Red Sox or Astros dancing around a fire very well might be lurking.
What’s the solution? One might be that, if you’re Pedro Strop, you might want to make sure you’re getting to your yoga classes regularly (there’s an image). Strop is headed for a reduction in usage this year, at least when he’s been healthy. If Maddon needs multiple outs, he very well might want to consider Strop to be the one to get them. Jesse Chavez is clearly another reliever who is going to get a workout in. And beyond that, it’s hard to know what to do.
A returning Morrow is going to have limited use. Whatever gremlins Edwards has right now are going to have to be sacrificed on the Wrigley mound and burned with a flame high enough to see from Rogers Park if we’re all going to be sure he can be trusted. Justin Wilson is only a year removed from being said flame.
It’s enough to make you queasy. But then again, bullpens are the most unpredictable section of any baseball team, and perhaps any of the four major sports. Three guys can get hot and untouchable in October for no reason other than BASEBALL. Equally, they can all go cold as they have in the past. Looks like the Cubs and their fans might be flying on the wings of maybe this fall.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports