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Where Does the Cubs ‘Pen Go From Here?

With the Cubs currently on a roll it's a good time to examine the bullpen makeup, and what it might be come October. Benjamin J. Denen provides an in-depth scoop here.

In what has been, unquestionably, a roller coaster ride of a season for the 2019 Chicago Cubs, it’s no surprise that issues with the bullpen have been at the center of those peaks and valleys. The Cubs ‘pen has been unfairly maligned (more on that in a bit), but the latest issues have been health-related. Just this past week the Cubs have sent their closer (Craig Kimbrel) and one of their most effective high-leverage guys (Brandon Kintzler) to the IL.

Despite the bullpen concerns the Cubs are 63-52, with a 3.5 game cushion. If their current injuries persist, or — heaven forbid — new injuries arise, who can Joe Maddon count on to help close the door late, propelling the team toward October greatness?

2019 in Review (so far)

There are a lot of myths circulating the Cubs Twitterverse that just don’t play out in reality (Ian Happ is trash, anyone?). Let’s address some of those inaccuracies.

Maddon doesn’t trust his rotation. 

False. Entering play tonight, the Cubs bullpen has logged only 373.1 innings on the year. That’s good for fourth-fewest in the National League.

The Cubs ‘pen has been terrible this season. 

False. Sure, this set of relievers isn’t exactly exciting. But, let’s be honest, other than Kimbrel, there aren’t any names in that pen that are going to light up radar guns and get people frothing at the mouth. It’s a blue-collar pen.

What has, perhaps, fielded this myth is the ugly losses late in games, particularly on the road. The sting has yet to wear off from the recent brutal road trip that began against the Giants on July 22nd and mercifully came to an end on August 1st. During that stretch, the Cubs went 3-6 with four of the losses coming after the Cubs either held the lead or were tied entering the late innings. That hurts, absolutely, but overall, the Cubs pen has been trending in the right direction since the All-Star Break. Let’s look at the splits.

Bullpen Breakdown-Bullpen Season Splits 2019 Edited.jpg

Maddon has consistently relied on the starting rotation, but when used, the ‘pen has been fine. Their strikeout percentage is low (i.e., blue-collar pen), but they have dramatically cut down on their Achilles heel in the second half: walks. Going from the worst (highest) walk percentage to the second-lowest is a drastic improvement. They are not inducing as many ground balls as they were, but they’re also giving up fewer home runs.

The overall numbers are one thing, but the pen is far from full strength. Where does Maddon go from here? Let’s divide things up by the known commodities, the unknowns, the possibilities, and the wild cards.

The Knowns

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Steve Cishek

Cishek, as mentioned earlier, might be in danger of becoming a one-armed man. At the time of publishing, Cishek has been used in 53 games (that’s 9th most out of the 754 relievers used in the league this season). In 2018, he logged 80 appearances (2nd out of 799). That’s a lot of mileage, granted, and he has been a workhorse throughout his career having made at least 50 appearances in seven out of his 10 big league seasons. Can he right the ship? His K% and BB% are trending in the wrong direction, and he is giving up a ton of long balls (three in his past four appearances).

Pedro Strop 

He’s has been struggling all year. In his first action since returning from a tight left neck (not necklace, Kelly Crull, lol), he had quality results on August 7th, but time will tell if he can get back on track.

Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel has been decidedly… good. Definitely not great, and his ERA is misleading. But as I mentioned earlier, by assuming all save situation responsibilities he allows other guys to fill better-suited roles (Cishek, Strop, etc.)

Brandon Kintzler

Kintzler has been outstanding. He’s on the IL currently, but when he returns, he slides nicely into high-leverage situations. The only concern is that he, like Cishek, has logged a lot of appearances. Before hitting the IL, he had appeared in 49 games after doing so in 70 games in 2018.

Kyle Ryan

Likewise, Kyle Ryan has been a wonderful revelation that few saw coming. The ol’ “appearances” concern is there for him as well with 51 games after spending all of 2018 in AAA. Can he keep it up?

By the numbers, Maddon has relied heavily on his rotation, but when he’s gone to the ‘pen it’s been a heavy dose of Kimbrel, Cishek, Kintzler, Ryan, and Strop. Kimbrel and Kintzler are down while Cishek and Strop are struggling. Who is this “next man up” they love to talk about so much?

David Phelps

He’s a veteran who’s a known commodity. There’s nothing flashy about his game, but he’s an option. (You can probably tell just how excited I am about him).

The Unknowns

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I call them unknowns, not because they haven’t been making solid contributions to this point so much as it is unclear how heavily Maddon will feel comfortable relying on them going forward.

Derek Holland

Acquired from San Francisco after being DFA’d, he was brought in primarily for one purpose: get left-handed batters out. The Cubs had been searching for a LOOGY, and the early returns on Holland have been good.

Tyler Chatwood 

Chatwood is another name who has turned heads this season. Before opening day, he was synonymous with all that went wrong with the 2018 offseason. He was a terrible signing. So was Yu Darvish. In 2019 they have both consistently proven that narrative wrong. Chatwood has been good…like, really good. He’s not walking guys, and righties, in particular, can’t hit him (.202 average on the season). He is an intriguing option for Maddon should he go his way more frequently in high-leverage situations. Last night’s performance suggests as much, twirling three scoreless innings with six strikeouts, helping preserve a big road win after an abbreviated performance by Cole Hamels.

Rowan Wick

If there was a guy the Cubs Twitterverse has fallen in love with, it’s Rowan Wick. His sample size is small (only 13.2 innings pitched), but he’s been really good. Maddon has been using him in more critical spots lately, and he has answered the bell. He has yet to give up an earned run since the break and he’s stranding guys on base left and right.

The Possibilities

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These are the guys that are, perhaps, Maddon and the Front Office’s most likely options to fill in for the Cubs current and potential injuries. It’s a long list with some interesting names and others that might elicit little more than a groan from our readers.

Duane Underwood Jr.

All he does is literally strike out everyone he faces. While that is obviously not sustainable, making his 2019 debut by tying a Cubs record for consecutive strikeouts out of the pen (six) was pretty darn impressive. While his AAA numbers were far more realistic, he’s been much better since he was switched to full-time relief duties. He was good at getting righties out and has the kind of stuff (fastball / changeup) that could really play nicely in the right situations.

Dillon Maples

There’s no question Maples has electric stuff, but command has always been his struggle. In Iowa, Maples has been striking out batters at an insane rate, but those walks are leaving a lot to be desired. Nobody can hit him when he’s in the zone, righties or lefties. He’s an intriguing option that has already tossed eight innings with the big league club this season and could be seen as a quality roster expansion candidate.

James Norwood

His AAA numbers have been good, and what is especially intriguing is how he has owned lefties despite being an RHP. That high K% looks nice as well.

Brad Wieck

Acquired in the Carl Edwards Jr. trade, his numbers in San Diego were not great nor have they been in the short time he’s been at Iowa, but, he throws with his left hand and presumably has a pulse, so there’s always that.

The “Been There, Done That” Crowd

Randy Rosario was much better in 2018 than he has been in his short stints with the big league club this season. Fellow LHP, Xavier Cedeno, is currently on the 60-day IL and could be reinstated this month. He didn’t strike guys out and was walking them at an obscene rate before getting hurt. It was a tiny sample size, but that .150 batting average by lefties at AAA is intriguing. Finally, there’s RHP Tony Barnette who, like Cedeno, has been oft-injured, but in his small sample size at Iowa, his numbers are much better. Righties have struggled to the tune of .138 against him.

The Wild Cards

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Players find themselves on this list either because they have been used primarily as starting pitchers (the switch to the ‘pen is not always smooth) or they are not currently on the 40-man roster.

The Starters

Again, the jump from the rotation to the pen is not always smooth. The following three pitchers are intriguing, but it remains to be seen if the front office would risk such a move this late in the season. All three might be better suited for filling in for a starter if the need were to arise.

Adbert Alzolay is one of the Cubs top pitching prospects who turned heads in his brief stint with the big league club. On the AAA IL with a “slight biceps strain” since July 19th, Alzolay was activated and made his first start for Iowa on August 3rd. According to the young pitcher, the Cubs have already said that they “have plans” for him in the second half.

Alec Mills filled in nicely for the Cubs when Hamels went down. He’s not flashy and doesn’t strike out a ton of batters, but doesn’t walk them either.

Colin Rea is another starting pitcher who has turned heads at AAA. In a decidedly hitting-friendly league, Rea has pitched well. His walk rate is solid, both handed hitters have struggled to hit for average against him.

Danny Hultzen

Hultzen is, perhaps, the most exciting “realistic” option on this list. A former second overall pick by the Seattle Mariners, Hultzen has battled injuries and lack of success at the minor league level. He could be a really fun story to watch if the Cubs call him up. He’s a LHP (which could really benefit the Cubs down the stretch) and has put up stellar numbers in, albeit, limited opportunities since returning from injury in July. The Cubs would have to finagle the 40-man roster (who will be Theo’s latest 60 IL victim?), but he remains a quality option if he stays healthy.

Brailyn Marquez

Yeah, yeah, yeah… I’m crazy for including him on the list. He’s only 20 years old and currently pitching in high-A. The Cardinals had a guy you might have heard of who made a similar jump in Jordan Hicks. Then again, he absolutely shredded his elbow (to no one’s surprise) so that might not be a great example. Yes, Marquez is a LHP with electric stuff and is absolutely dominating A ball right now, but there is very little chance Epstein would start the clock on him. But it is fun to dream.

The Cubs pen, while improved since the second half began, is facing some uncertainty with the health of Kintzler and Kimbrel in doubt and Cishek and Strop struggling, but there are options. Figuring out who to plug in is in Epstein/Hoyer’s hands.

Maybe it’s “big boy” time for the Cubs brass as well.

Follow Benjamin J. Denen on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Loop Sports

 

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