Chicago Cubs: The bullpen has been lights out so far

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 07: Steve Cishek
MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 07: Steve Cishek /

The Chicago Cubs knew what their biggest weakness was heading into the 2018 offseason, and they made a concerted effort to improve it.

For the past couple seasons, the Chicago Cubs‘ Achilles heel has been their bullpen. With a collective 3.80 ERA in 2017, it’s not the case that they had a bad season overall. At times, the bullpen was actually quite good. Rather, their problem was they were entirely too unpredictable.

There really was no one reliever in the Cubs’ pen that made fans feel a sense of assurance that they could pitch a clean inning. That’s been the big issue. When relief pitchers are all or nothing on the mound, it’s a roll of the dice every time. And that affects the way the manager is perceived, too. Sometimes unfairly so.

Could this be the year the Cubs have some dependability on a consistent basis from their bullpen? It might be too early to say one way or another, but they’re off to a phenomenal start.

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Revamped bullpen off to a good start

Through nine games, the Cubs’ bullpen is 3-2 with a 0.94 ERA over the course of 38 1/3 innings pitched. Though their walk rate has been a bit high in the early going, they’re striking batters out at a 9.86 K/9 rate, which is excellent.

One of the big questions ahead of the regular season was whether or not Justin Wilson would rebound and look more like the pitcher the Cubs initially traded for. So far, so good. Appearing in five games, Wilson has pitched 5 2/3 innings without giving up a run.

Despite walking five batters in that span, he’s also struck out nine while giving up just one hit. At times, his control has still looked a bit shaky. But unlike last season, he’s been able to collect himself and finish strong. He still has some steps to take to return to form, but he’s off to an encouraging start.

Hats to the left

Pedro Strop tends to draw the ire of Cubs fans quite often, but the truth is he’s quietly been one of the best relief pitchers they’ve had in a long time. And that’s not an exaggeration. In six seasons with the Cubs, he’s pitched to the tune of a 2.67 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 1.028 WHIP while averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Those are fantastic numbers. And he’s doing the same thing to begin this season. He’s given the Cubs 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief.

In a 17-inning affair with the Miami Marlins, Eddie Butler saved the Cubs in a big way, giving them seven innings of relief. He only gave up one run in that appearance and was hooked with the loss. Baseball can be cruel like that sometimes. But his efforts didn’t go unnoticed. An effective Eddie Butler gives the Cubs yet another weapon.

New faces

Newly acquired side-arm pitcher Steve Cishek is already looking like a wise investment. In fact, it never looked risky to begin with. He’s posted a 2.72 ERA in his nine-year career. For the Cubs, he’s pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up one earned run while striking out five batters, giving him a 1.69 ERA.

Once a starter, Brandon Morrow is enjoying a nice career resurgence as a reliever. And for the first time in his career, as a closer. Morrow’s story is interesting. He signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers ahead of the 2017 season and didn’t even make the roster to begin the year. Because of a clause in his contract that would have made him a free agent, the Dodgers called him up to see what he could do.

He turned out to be one of the most dominant relievers in baseball that season. He posted a 2.06 ERA in 43 2/3 innings of work, recording 50 strikeouts in the process. The most impressive part? He didn’t give up a single home run. With the Cubs, he’s so far pitched two scoreless innings.

Next: Ben Zobrist hitting his way into starting lineup

Obviously, this trajectory is not sustainable. The Cubs’ bullpen is not going to finish with a sub-1.00 ERA. Not even close. But this group does seem to have a certain amount of reliability that has been lacking in years past. If they can keep it up, the Cubs will have dramatically improved their chances of making a significant postseason run. No Hector Rondon? Aroldis Chapman? No Wade Davis? No problem.