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Chicago Cubs: Is Joe Maddon overworking the bullpen?

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Maddon has made the call to the pen early and often

What started as an unstoppable force in the opening week of the season, has turned into a liability for the Chicago Cubs–especially in middle relief. Injuries have played a part, as

Brian Schlitter

,

Phil Coke

and

Jason Motte

were thrust into duty more often following the loss of

Justin Grimm

and

Neil Ramirez

. But has

Joe Maddon

played a part in all of this as well?

So many variables will play into a conversation about the manager “overworking” the bullpen. For example, there’s been little avoiding the bullpen in Jon Lester‘s starts as he’s not pitched as well as we’d hoped, running up his pitch counts and struggling altogether.

But Maddon has pulled pitchers with less than 100 pitches in the middle of an inning on several occasions. Yes, it’s early in the season–but it’s why we have Spring Training. And it’s not simply philosophy. He’s let Jake Arrieta go each start, especially in yesterday’s ballgame when he managed to work out of a bases-loaded jam. Does he only trust Arrieta?

Schlitter, Coke and Motte–two of them newcomers–are the ones who have struggled the most out of the bullpen. After an effective first half to the season (40 1/3 IP, 2.45 ERA, Opp. BA .190), his last 16 innings didn’t go quite as well. In 16 innings pitched, he allowed opponents to hit at a ridiculous .425 clip, while posting a 8.44 ERA. Unfortunately, that’s the Schlitter we’ve seen so far in his seven appearances with his 9.53 ERA.

Coke made the team out of Spring Training, surprising a more than a few people. Know for being effective against lefties and not so much against righties, Maddon has thrown that all to the wind. He’s never been a big fan of “matchups”, and hasn’t minimized him to just facing lefties. He’s made nine appearances to the tune of a 5.40 ERA.

Finally, there’s Motte. Once a closer for the Cardinals, he’s had to overcome injuries to get back to this spot. The Cubs believe a healthy Motte can be a dominant part of the bullpen. Now, he missed all of the 2013 season and part of 2014–so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’ll level out. But, nine appearance, nine innings, and a 5.00 ERA is not what the Cubs anticipated.

Of those struggling in the pen, these three have seen the bulk of the action. In Schlitter’s case, he’s lucky to be here. Injuries forced a move to call him up, and a healthy Tsuyoshi Wada or Justin Grimm will mean a demotion for him undoubtedly. The Cubs also have James Russell back, and he could be Coke’s replacement before long. 

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Zac Rosscup, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon have been as good as they can be, with Strop yet to allow a run this season. And the number of appearances for these three match or exceeds that of the “struggling three”. So can Maddon be part of the problem?

It’s possible, but too early in the season to point fingers. Injuries and poor outings have forced him to make the call early more often than he would like. But as we progress into May and June, he’s going to have to start trusting his starters to get in six innings, throw 100+ pitches and work out of trouble.

In time I think he’ll have a better feel and more trust in each pitcher, and feel more comfortable in what situations to use them. But a bullpen over the course of a 162-game season will continue to evolve, in roles and in personnel. So, “In Joe we trust”.

Next: What prospect could the Cubs move?

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