After 'Murphy's Law' strikes bullpen, Cubs searching for answers at pivotal point in season

After 'Murphy's Law' strikes bullpen, Cubs searching for answers at pivotal point in season

A year ago, Theo Epstein was putting the finishing touches on his "disguise" and getting ready to sit with his front office buddies in the Wrigley Field bleachers.

The Cubs clinched the division on Sept. 15 last season but this year, they woke up on the same date getting ready for a battle with the St. Louis Cardinals with plenty still to be decided in the National League Central.

Instead of planning for a celebration, the Cubs were tasked with trying to find some answers for a bullpen with a plethora of question marks.

There's Justin Wilson, the left-handed flamethrower and former Tigers closer acquired from Detroit ahead of the trade deadline who has struggled with his command since donning Cubs blue.

Then there's Hector Rondon, who has elbow inflammation — though no structural damage — and has been shut down indefinitely. 

And of course there's 42-year-old Koji Uehara who has an infection in his knee and his status is up in the air.

Even with expanded rosters, Epstein, Joe Maddon and the rest of the Cubs front office and coaching staff have their hands full trying to figure out how to solidify the bullpen in the final two-plus weeks of the season. 

That's a big reason why the Cubs called up young pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng for his big-league debut Thursday night against the New York Mets, moving Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen in hopes of giving Maddon another reliable option with an all-important three-game set against St. Louis looming.

"If you look at the Cardinals games that we play, a lot of those games that we play are decided in the late innings in the bullpen," Epstein said before Friday's 8-2 win over St. Louis. "It was sort of an educated gamble — of all the games the rest of the season, that was the game we could maybe win and allow us to have an extra weapon out of the 'pen for the big games this weekend. 

"They're all big; we weren't doing that to lose the game. We wanted to win the game and have Monty available and it ended up working out."

Epstein and Co. knew it was a gamble, but the Cubs offense helped smooth things over by going off for double digit runs for the second consecutive night against the Mets.

Just like the Mets are a cautionary tale of how fickle pitching health is, the Cubs know all too well how fragile a bullpen can be, both in terms of health and performance.

"Bullpens go through peaks and valleys and we're in a valley right now, which is unfortunate because this is the time of year you wanna be clicking on all cylinders," Epstein said. "That can change quickly. You get one or two guys locked in, one guy throwing strikes, another guy feeling better with his stuff, next thing you know, you look up and you're in good shape.

"I think it's kind of a Murphy's Law type thing right now with our 'pen. But we can turn it around in a hurry."

The Cubs ranked 12th in baseball with a 4.00 bullpen ERA entering Friday's game, when they accounted for 4.1 shutout innings. Wilson got the first of those 13 outs after starter John Lackey was unceremoniously ejected from the game in the fifth inning. 

Wilson called the moment a "step in the right direction" and time will tell if the same could be said for the entire bullpen. 

Wade Davis got four outs as Maddon played things true to his word. Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm bridged the gap from Wilson to Davis, allowing four singles and striking out three batters in 2.2 innings.

The Cubs had weeks to figure their bullpen out in low-leverage situations as the 2016 season wound down and still found themselves unable to come up with all the answers by the time October hit with Strop and Rondon nursing injuries. 

This year, they're gonna have to figure things out on the fly with very little wiggle room.

"We're fighting harder than usual to get that depth," Epstein said. "That's just the honest assessment. But again, I think those things change in a hurry —not a permanent state of affairs.

"It's a tough time of year to be fighting that hard to have kinda normal depth back there. But it is what it is. You deal with the reality. You don't cry in your cereal. You look at ways to fix it."

Of course, Epstein and Maddon both agree there are more things to focus on than just the Cubs' bullpen, like the health of other players (Jake Arrieta, Addison Russell) or the offense trying to find consistency. 

But pitching issues are the last thing the Cubs want down the stretch.

"That's where we're gonna find out what guys are made of," Epstein said. "Guys are going to get the ball in big spots and have to perform. Any time you're in a situation where you have a very small margin of error, whether it's in a postseason series or in a pennant race or in the course of a game, it adds to the risk and it adds to the reward, too.

"Guys step up in big games and perform well and all of a sudden, you have something because you have some momentum from the most important time."

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is alive and well and this offseason has been further proof of that.

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made a rivalry-altering move like inking Jake Arrieta to a megadeal, but they have proven that they are absolutely coming after the Cubs and the top of the division.

However, a move the St. Louis brass made Friday afternoon may actually be one that makes Cubs fans cheer.

The Cardinals traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday in exhange for a pair of right-handed pitchers: Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone is the main draw here as a 26-year-old reliever who posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 70.1 innings last year in Toronto.

But this is the second young position player the Cardinals have traded to Toronto this offseason and Grichuk is a notorious Cub Killer.

Grichuk struggled overall in 2017, posting a second straight year of empty power and not much else. But he once again hammered the Cubs to the tune of a .356 batting average and 1.240 OPS. 

He hit six homers and drove in 12 runs in just 14 games (11 starts) against Joe Maddon's squad. That's 27 percent of his 2017 homers and 20 percent of his season RBI numbers coming against just one team.

And it wasn't just one year that was an aberration. In his career, Grichuk has a .296/.335/.638 slash line against the Cubs, good for a .974 OPS. He's hit 11 homers and driven in 33 runs in 37 games, the highest ouput in either category against any opponent.

Even if Leone builds off his solid 2017 and pitches some big innings against the Cubs over the next couple seasons, it will be a sigh of relief for the Chicago pitching staff knowing they won't have to face the threat of Grichuk 18+ times a year.

Plus, getting a reliever and a low-level starting pitching prospect back for a guy (Grichuk) who was borderline untouchable a couple winters ago isn't exactly great value. The same can be said for the Cardinals' trade of Aledmys Diaz to Toronto on Dec. 1 for essentially nothing.

A year ago, St. Louis was heading into the season feeling confident about Diaz, who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2016 after hitting .300 with an .879 OPS as a 25-year-old rookie. He wound up finishing 2017 in the minors after struggling badly to start the season and the Cardinals clearly didn't want to wait out his growing pains.

The two trades with Toronto limits the Cardinals' depth (as of right now) and leaves very few proven options behind shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder Tommy Pham, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017.