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."

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio


Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

"Of course," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in the middle of the National League Championship — he would like his coaches back in 2018. Pitching coach Chris Bosio told the team's flagship radio station this week that the staff expected to return next year. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein didn't go that far during Friday afternoon's end-of-season news conference at Wrigley Field, but he did say: "Rest assured, Joe will have every coach back that he wants back."

That's Cub: USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale first reported Saturday morning that Bosio had been fired, a source confirming the team declined a club contract option for next year and made a major influence on the Wrigleyville rebuild a free agent. Epstein and Bosio did not immediately respond to text messages and the club has not officially outlined the shape of the 2018 coaching staff.

Those exit meetings on Friday at Wrigley Field are just the beginning of an offseason that could lead to sweeping changes, with the Cubs looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation, identify an established closer (whether or not that's Wade Davis), find another leadoff option and maybe break up their World Series core of hitters to acquire pitching. 

The obvious candidate to replace Bosio is Jim Hickey, Maddon's longtime pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who has Chicago roots and recently parted ways with the small-market franchise that stayed competitive by consistently developing young arms like David Price and Chris Archer.

Of course, Maddon denied that speculation during an NLCS where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game and the manager's bullpen decisions kept getting second-guessed.

Bosio has a big personality and strong opinions that rocked the boat at times, but he brought instant credibility as an accomplished big-league pitcher who helped implement the team's sophisticated game-planning system.

Originally a Dale Sveum hire for the 2012 season/Epstein regime Year 1 where the Cubs lost 101 games, Bosio helped coach up and market short-term assets like Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. 

Those win-later trades combined with Bosio's expertise led to a 2016 major-league ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) and a 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) plus setup guys Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell.

Bosio helped set the foundation for the group that won last year's World Series and has made three consecutive trips to the NLCS. But as the Cubs are going to find out this winter, there is a shelf life to everything, even for those who made their mark during a golden age of baseball on the North Side.

Report: Cubs fire pitching coach Chris Bosio after six seasons with team


Report: Cubs fire pitching coach Chris Bosio after six seasons with team

In Theo Epstein's end of season press conference on Friday he said that any coach Joe Maddon wants back will return in 2018.

Evidently, there's one coach Maddon didn't want back.

According to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the Cubs have fired longtime pitching coach Chris Bosio.

Bosio served as the Cubs pitching coach from 2012-17. He was the team's pitching coach under former managers' Dale Sveum (2012-13) and Rick Renteria (2014), and was retained when Maddon was hired as manager of the Cubs in 2015.

Bosio, who is one of the most respected pitching coaches in baseball, was instrumental in the career resurgence of Jake Arrieta who captured the Cy Young award in 2015, and the development of 27-year-old starter Kyle Hendricks (MLB's ERA leader in 2016).

One reason that could've led to Bosio's firing was the pitching staff's control issues during both the regular season and postseason, which Epstein mentioned during Friday's press conference. The Cubs issued the fifth-most walks (554) in the National League during the regular season and the highest total (53) during the postseason.

As the Cubs hit the market for a new pitching coach, Nightengale mentioned that one name that could be on the radar is former Tampa Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who parted ways with the organization following the 2017 season.

Hickey served as Maddon's pitching coach in Tampa Bay from 2006-2014.