Chicago Cubs: Bullpen becoming a question mark late in games


Cubs’ closer role becoming a question after another blown save

Let me preface this by saying overall, the Chicago Cubs bullpen has been very good this season. After a rough stretch early on, guys fell into their designated roles and have been very reliable. Outside of making the switch away from Hector Rondon as the closer when he was having some confidence issues, Joe Maddon has been able to rely on them.

Until recently that is.

Once the Cubs started having some bullpen issue earlier in the season, they looked to address them rather quickly. They traded Welington Castillo to the Seattle Mariners for Yoervis Medina, as well as signing free agent Rafael Soriano, a former All-Star closer that had played for Joe Maddon before. The Cubs were also awaiting the return of Neil Ramirez who had some arm issue early on in the season.

Things may be more noticeable now, especially with the offense struggling to score runs consistently, but there are definitely question marks arising in the back-end of this bullpen–which has turned into a carousel of guys trying to close games. But with recent developments, another change may be needed. But there are reasons for the struggles.

As the Cubs history shows–as well as baseball as a whole–the life of a closer can be fleeting. There aren’t many Mariano Rivera’s or Trevor Hoffman’s out there.

The starting staff has had its issue getting deep into ballgames. Maddon hasn’t been shy about pulling a starter early, which has led to more appearances and more innings by the relievers. There comes a point when these guys have been seen frequently enough that they can’t be as effective. Maddon could be teetering on that balance with this staff now. The starters need to start getting into the sixth and seventh innings to help alleviate going to the pen too soon.

When the Cubs acquired Medina and Soriano, they hoped the two would help solidify a bullpen that at the time was strong–but still had a few holes. The two have merely created more questions in their short time in Chicago. Medina has stepped into the “Brian Schlitter” role, as he’s been hammered to the tune of seven earned runs in nine innings for a 7.00 ERA in just five appearances. He’s walked four while having a WHIP of 1.78. Not good numbers for a reliever.

Cubs’ fans were hoping that Soriano would regain that All-Star form, possibly even lock down the closer’s role. Yeah, that hasn’t happened. Including last night’s poor performance, Soriano has allowed two home runs in just 3 2/3 innings. He hasn’t pitched at this level in a while, so I expected some rust. But you have to keep the ball in the yard as a closer. Motte and Pedro Strop have been victimized as of late by the long ball, slowly taking away reliable options for Maddon to turn to in late innings.

With Ramirez, Maddon is being cautious as he returns from injury. While that is the right way to go, it’s coming to a point where Maddon needs to have every arm available in that bullpen, and right now Ramirez only has “part-time” availability.

Oddly enough, the man who might be most fitting to close out games right now is the one who lost his job and created all of this. In the month of July, Rondon pitched 11 1/3 innings, striking out 11 while allowing just one run on seven hits. His 0.79 ERA in that stretch combined with holding opponents to a .184 average might be an indicator Maddon needs to give him the ball back in the ninth.

If not any of these options, then where do the Cubs go? Now we’re talking a trade, and trading for a closer can be a dangerous undertaking. As the Cubs history shows–as well as baseball as a whole–the life of a closer can be fleeting. There aren’t many Mariano Rivera‘s or Trevor Hoffman‘s out there. But two names that are out there have been as consistent as they come. Jonathan Papelbon and Aroldis Chapman.

More from Cubbies Crib

The Phillies’ Papelbon has made it very clear he wants out of Philadelphia, as he feels he’s put in enough time and the team isn’t progressing towards anything better. Even on a terrible Phils squad he’s put up terrific numbers. He’s 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA, saving all 17 of his chances. His WHIP of .098 is more of what you look for in a closer. He’s mentioned playing for the Cubs before, but it would all come down to the asking price of the Phillies–which they still seem to be in fantasyland on demands for their players.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Chapman is really not a viable option. As much as the Cubs would hate to give away talent, and then possibly have to see it several times a year against the Reds–Cincinnati doesn’t want to face Chapman either. Trades within the division are rare, but they do occasionally happen. There has really been nothing to tie the Cubs to Chapman–except for fans frustrations and the desire for a guy who can lock down games.

The win last night will hopefully help to turn the tide for the Cubs and get them over the hump and back in the thick of this race. But the win can’t overshadow the fact the bullpen made and exciting game out of one that should have been “routine” in the top of the ninth.

Next: More on the Phillies' Papelbon