Chicago Cubs: Has the bullpen turned the tide?

(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs’ bullpen has been the biggest area of concern in a rough start to the season. But over the past few days, things have begun to look up.

After one week of the regular season, it seemed the Chicago Cubs bullpen couldn’t possibly get much worse.

The bullpen had already blown three games in the first two series against the Texas Rangers and the Atlanta Braves. Despite the Cubs scoring 10 runs in the series finale in Texas, the bullpen couldn’t close the deal. And in game two in Atlanta, an eighth-inning bullpen collapse eliminated any chance of a series win.

Something had to be done. Something was done. And since then, the bullpen has begun to turn the tides.

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Before the Cubs’ second game against Milwaukee over the weekend, Carl Edwards Jr. was optioned to Triple-A, Mike Montgomery was put on the injured list, and Kyle Ryan and Allen Webster were recalled from Iowa.

And it wasn’t necessarily a result of those moves, but dating back to Saturday’s win over the Brewers, the Cubs bullpen now has a 12-inning scoreless streak going—a seemingly unthinkable concept just seven days ago.

Everyone’s pitching in

Saturday’s 14-8 win over Milwaukee wasn’t pretty. The Cubs still needed plenty of run support to ensure a victory. But it was the start of a streak that’s now gone on for two more games. Steve Cishek pitched a scoreless ninth on Saturday to secure the win, and the rest of the bullpen followed suit the next day.

The Cubs lost the series finale on Sunday 4-2, but there was a silver lining: despite another tough outing for Kyle Hendricks, the bullpen tossed a combined four scoreless innings to keep things close till the end. Tyler Chatwood (yes, you read that right), Ryan and Webster all turned in scoreless outings.

Then in Monday’s home opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jon Lester was lifted due to hamstring tightness in the third inning. Even with a 6-0 lead, a win wasn’t certain, knowing the bullpen would have to piece together seven innings of work.

But they got it done, as four more relievers joined the frenzy of scoreless outings. Brad Brach, Brandon Kintzler and Randy Rosario each threw two scoreless innings, and Strop closed out the 10-0 win with a scoreless ninth.

Still, a long way to go

The scoreless streak is just what the bullpen needed to build confidence and begin to establish a circle of trusted relievers for Joe Maddon to turn to. Of course, the bullpen is still far from perfect, and it’s going to need a lot more work to prove it can hang with the best.

The Cubs still rank 23rd in bullpen ERA at 6.92, and the bullpen has a -0.4 WAR so far this season, according to FanGraphs. The Cubs have scored 10 or more runs in five of their games so far—and yet they’re just 3-2 in those games.

It’s going to take a few high-leverage outings for anyone to feel confident in the bullpen’s ability to close out games. But a stretch like the last few days is what it can take to turn the tides and establish confidence among the group.

Next. Cubs may have paid a high price for Monday's win. dark

After all, it’s still early—way too early to even make a real judgment about the bullpen. Will it eventually rank among the best bullpens in MLB? Probably not. But will it be good enough to lead the Cubs to a playoff appearance? That’s still within reach.