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."

Why Cubs should make Jim Hickey an offer he can't refuse


Why Cubs should make Jim Hickey an offer he can't refuse

Monday’s interview with Jim Hickey in Chicago — roughly 72 hours after the Cubs fired pitching coach Chris Bosio and within a week of manager Joe Maddon saying “of course” he wanted his entire staff back — is a first step in the reboot at Wrigley Field.

Maddon would probably like to have that answer back, knowing he could have softened the language with corporate speak and created some wiggle room in the middle of a National League Championship Series where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game.

But Hickey, the former Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach, is a familiar face and an expert voice at a time when Maddon’s honeymoon period appears to be over, repeatedly first- and second-guessed about his decisions, from the World Series Game 7 the Cubs won last year through a frustrating 43-45 start to this season and deep into another playoff run.

That staff is already in flux, with bench coach Dave Martinez scheduled to interview with the Washington Nationals for Dusty Baker’s old job and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske now leaving to take a lead role with the Los Angeles Angels hitters.

Here’s why the Cubs will probably have to make Hickey an offer he can’t refuse:

— A rival scout noticed how often Maddon looked like a solitary figure in the dugout, standing there looking down at his lineup card. Whatever friction Maddon felt with Bosio — a big presence who pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues and isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what he thinks — Hickey is someone the manager trusts after their eight seasons together with the Rays.

Maddon insisted he wasn’t maneuvering behind the scenes when he reached out after Hickey surprisingly parted ways with Tampa Bay in October, but it still showed the depth of their relationship: “I called him to console a friend.”

— While working for the Boston Red Sox, Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer got an up-close look at what Hickey did in the American League East, helping build the small-market contender that advanced to the 2008 World Series, the beginning of five seasons with at least 90 wins in six years.

Between his time with the Rays and Houston Astros, look at the All-Star pitchers Hickey has worked with: Chris Archer, David Price, Alex Colome, Brad Boxberger, Matt Moore, Fernando Rodney, James Shields, Rafael Soriano, Scott Kazmir, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge and Roger Clemens.

— Hickey can also offer unique insight into Alex Cobb, a free agent the Cubs will have to do more background work on as they try to replace 40 percent of their rotation. Cobb — who went 48-35 with a 3.50 ERA in 115 career starts for the Rays — just turned 30 and has only 700 innings on his major-league odometer after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in the middle of the 2015 season.

“He has a talent that most organizations search for relentlessly,” Cobb told the Tampa Bay Times after Hickey left the Rays with a year remaining on his contract. “He will have a great time being a free agent.

“I’m not going to try to explain how great Jim Hickey is. There’s really nothing I can say that would speak louder than his track record. All I can say is how fortunate I was to have him when I got to the big leagues. No one could have prepared me better.”

— Beyond the connection to Maddon, Hickey is someone who knows Chicago after growing up on the South Side, and that hometown draw will probably matter at a time when the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals are among several marquee teams in the market for a new pitching coach that now might be thinking: "Better Call Boz."

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

Dave Martinez – Joe Maddon’s bench coach during unprecedented runs of success with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays – is ready to step outside of the star manager’s shadow and run his own big-league team.

A Washington Nationals franchise coming off back-to-back division titles – while having some big personalities in the clubhouse and obvious internal issues – could still be that ideal opportunity.

The Nationals have reached out to set up an interview with Martinez, a source said Monday, confirming a Washington Post report in the wake of Dusty Baker’s messy exit, eight days after a massively disappointing playoff loss to the Cubs.

Martinez had been an X-factor in Washington’s search two years ago, when negotiations broke down with Bud Black and the Nationals eventually circled back to Baker, the former Cubs manager.

Martinez has the built-in credibility that comes from playing 16 seasons in the big leagues, which would be an asset for a team that has Bryce Harper entering his final season before free agency and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation.    

Martinez, who is fluent in Spanish and analytics, spent the last 10 years working as the bench coach for two data-driven organizations, putting him at the cutting edge of defensive shifts, bullpen management and game-planning systems.    

While Maddon thrives in the front-facing aspects of the job, dealing with the media before and after every game and selling a vision to the public, Martinez handles a lot of the behind-the-scenes issues, putting out clubhouse fires and interacting with the players in one-on-one settings.

The partnership worked to the point where the Rays captured the 2008 American League pennant and the Cubs won last year’s World Series. While the Cubs have advanced to the National League Championship Series for three straight seasons, the Nationals have been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs four times since 2012.

In the middle of the grueling five-game playoff series where the Cubs outlasted the Nationals – which may have been a tipping point against Baker for Washington executives – Maddon lobbied for Martinez to be in the manager mix during baseball’s hiring-and-firing season.

“He belongs in the group,” Maddon said. “I know all these people being considered, and I promise you our guy matches up with every one of them.

“He was such a heady, aggressive, gritty kind of player. Bilingual. All that matters. He's not afraid to have the tough conversations (that) people in that position may shy away from.

“Believe me, I see all the names. There are a lot of good names, and I like a lot of these dudes. But I’m just telling you: To not include his name with those other people baffles me.”