If the Cubs don’t figure out the bullpen soon, nothing else will matter.
At 4-2, the Chicago Cubs sit atop the National League Central. That’s thanks to a historic first trip through the starting rotation and an offense that’s seemingly scored at will, with the third-highest OPS in the Senior Circuit.
Kyle Hendricks earned NL Player of the Week honors after his Opening Day shutout and guys have been doing damage up and down the lineup. Jon Lester, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills all carried the weight when they toed the rubber – but all of this is being overshadowed by the team’s glaring weakness: its bullpen.
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Chicago’s relief corps ranks dead-last in all of baseball with a 9.68 ERA. That group has allowed seven home runs and walked 20 in just 18 2/3 innings of work. The wild part is just that – these guys can’t throw strikes and it’s been absolutely crippling for the Cubs early on.
Opponents are batting .254 against Cubs relievers – not a great number, but you can usually overcome that kind of performance. But the hit by pitches, free passes and wild pitches are another story altogether.
Where to start?
I guess we’ll start at the back end and work our way up. Craig Kimbrel? Well, he’s pitched once – and it was undoubtedly one of the worst showings of his decorated big league career. He couldn’t locate his fastball, the Reds hitters didn’t swing at a single curveball and he recorded just one out, walking four, hitting a batter and uncorking a wild pitch.
Kimbrel is supposed to be your anchor in that pen. Right now, he’s as big – or bigger – of a question mark as any of the younger arms looking to compete for a role. Looking past the Chicago closer, there are a couple guys who’ve gotten decent results in the first week.
Jeremy Jeffress, who bailed Kimbrel out by working out of a one-out, bases-loaded situation he inherited, carries a 0.60 WHIP in 1 2/3 innings of work. Kyle Ryan has been reliable, as well, but has lost major velocity over last season. Hopefully, it’s a matter of him ramping up after arriving late to Summer Camp.
Rowan Wick? He’s the same guy who looked like a future closer last season. He hasn’t seen a ton of action, but he hasn’t raised any red flags, either – which, right now is all we’re asking for. That’s the bar right now – just don’t suck.
If you sort Cubs pitchers by walks, you’d think that list would include a few starters. Wrong. Kimbrel and Dillon Maples lead the pack with four apiece – despite a cumulative 1 1/3 innings pitched. Rex Brothers adds in three of his own for good measure.
I’m sorry. We’ve talked for years about Maples’ potential. We’re past that point now. With an option remaining, it’s time to send the right-hander to South Bend and let the cycle begin with some new blood.
I’m clinging to hope that after a successful first bullpen, Jose Quintana can start to be tentatively penciled into the team’s pitching plans in the not-so-distant future. Even as a long man, he could be a critical piece to a group that’s failed in almost every measure over the first week.
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For now, we keep holding our breaths and hoping for a miracle. Because that’s what it’ll take to make this bullpen a reliable threat.