Chicago Cubs: The month of May has been a reality check for bullpen


Some painful truths are emerging in May

Some of the hope in the Chicago Cubs may have been misplaced. Media outlets were all over the Cubs winter moves, young talent in the pipeline making its way to Wrigley Field. For others, it was just annual optimism. Everyone is 0-0, no reason not to believe that this is the year. Some have been able to keep expectations in check. It’s early. Not too high, not too low. We’ve got a lot more baseball to play.

Much of that is the truth. But the month of May has shown many things. The Cubs, nor anybody else for that matter is on the same level as the Cardinals. And if things don’t change with this bullpen, “wait till next year” will be trending on Twitter sooner rather than later. I’m not down and out on this team, but this bullpen situation–and really the pitching staff in general–is leaving a lot of doubt in my mind.

I questioned the use of the Cubs bullpen about a week ago, raising questions about how soon starters were getting the hook in ballgames. Admittedly, the starters haven’t been providing consistent, quality outings–but these are the guys that are expected to eat up the innings. Not the conglomerate of arms in the bullpen. Joe Maddon has said he doesn’t think anyone is overworked. If that’s true, then most of the arms in the pen are just really, really bad.

Or are they? Could it be a matter of the starters not pulling their weight, and in-turn the bullpen is having to hold up a much larger part of the bargain? It’s really “chicken or the egg” type of question. Jason Hammel is one of the only starters who has done his part consistently, with the rest being a mix of results. But Hammel can beat the Brewers. 6-0 in his career, so that’s a big help.

I started drinking the “blue kool-aid” already, so I’m going to just go ahead and keep doing so. It indeed is early. The Cubs offense has had some ups-and-downs, but overall the largely young group of hitters have held their own. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler have impressed me enough so far to believe that they all will be successful at this level. Anthony Rizzo is raising his level to that of the “elite” of first baseman in the National League, while Starlin Castro has elevated his game in the field while getting the job done at the plate.

Chris Coghlan started the season hot but has hit a rough stretch, but an unproven Matt Szczur would be the “next in” with Chris Denorfia on the DL–so Coghlan needs to work through his woes at the plate. New additions Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero have done their share as the veterans, so I think this offense will be alright in the long run. 

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But this bullpen. Oh, this bullpen.

There may need be a group in baseball and fragile and unpredictable as the bullpen guys. The life of a reliever, if you’re being honest about it, is probably about 3-4 years on average. Especially for closers. Carlos Marmol, Brad Lidge, Eric Gagne. Guys who at one time were the cream of the crop that simply vanished. There are the occasional few–and only one Mariano Rivera–that survive longer at the end of the game. Middle relief guys tend to have a longer duration in the league, assuming they aren’t overused. Watch how quickly it happens when a reliever leads the league in appearances out of the pen, to being ineffective within two years.

Seeing a starter every five days who throws four or five pitches, to seeing a reliever who has a much smaller arsenal three times in a series? Brian Schlitter could be a poster child for that. Solid early on last year, but used heavily. And where is Schlitter now? How many of you even cared as long as it wasn’t in the Cubs pen?

As a Cubs fan and a writer, I am lucky to have a voice in the media, but it’s simply the same as many Cubs fans heard at home, in Wrigleyville, and within the walls of Wrigley Field. I’m not saying anything that many of you aren’t already thinking. Yes, it’s still early. But with the start the Cardinals are off to, that thinking can’t last much longer.


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