Cubs

Cubs can't afford to abandon hope on Justin Wilson in ailing bullpen

Cubs can't afford to abandon hope on Justin Wilson in ailing bullpen

The Cubs aren't abandoning hope on Justin Wilson in the final two weeks of the season.

It's not like they have much of a choice, however.

We've officially entered the most important time of the season for the bullpen and the Cubs have a closer who's gone 31-for-31 in save chances, but there are serious question marks ahead of him.

Hector Rondon is nursing a sore elbow while Koji Uehara has a knee infection and a minor back issue. Pedro Strop has come on strong lately and Brian Duensing has been consistent all year, but Carl Edwards Jr. has had bouts of control/confidence issues this year, Justin Grimm's ERA is almost six (5.98) and Wilson has allowed 28 baserunners in 13 innings since joining the Cubs.

That's a big reason why the Cubs moved Mike Montgomery out of the starting rotation and gave Jen-Ho Tseng his first big-league start Thursday against the New York Mets.

No team can ever predict injuries, but the Cubs knew they had an issue in the bullpen leading up to the trade deadline, which is why they parted with top prospect Jeimer Candelario for Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila.

Time is running out for Wilson to correct his issues and get back to the dominant force he was with the Tigers earlier this season (2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, 13 saves). 

The bullpen issues were highlighted over the weekend as Wade Davis, Edwards and Strop were called upon to get a combined 21 outs and needed 116 pitches to do so. Both Edwards and Davis worked in all three games. If Wilson was performing at the level the Cubs expected when they acquired him, he could've taken some of the load off.

"Clearly I need to pitch better so I can pitch more," Wilson said.

Wilson and the Cubs believe Friday could've been a spark for the 30-year-old southpaw. 

When John Lackey was ejected from the game with two outs in the fifth inning Friday, Wilson was suddenly called on to face Cardinals star Matt Carpenter with runners on second and third and the game hanging in the balance. Wilson responded by striking out Carpenter on a full-count pitch, giving the Cubs offense time to come back and take the first game of the all-important series against St. Louis.

It was only one out, but Wilson called it a "step in the right direction" and believes the sudden nature of the appearance might've helped him just go out there and pitch without much time to overthink anything.

"I think coming into that situation where you have no room for error was good for him," said Avila, who entered Friday's game at the same time as Wilson when starting catcher Willson Contreras was also ejected. "Those are the situations he's been pitching in all season. There's no thought process for him as far as working on pitches, working on mechanics, things like that.

"I know he hasn't pitched well, as well as he would've liked, but coming into a situation where there's no room for error and you're really not thinking about that. You're just, 'Here it is, this is my stuff vs. you and whoever wins, wins.'

"It was a good outing on him. He looked similar and normal to me from what I had seen earlier in the year. I've always had confidence in him. He's the type of guy that you don't have to worry about if he's prepare or if the situation is too big."

A couple hours before that strikeout, Cubs president Theo Epstein discussed how one pitch or one outing is all it takes sometimes to get a guy on a hot stretch.

"The story's not written on [Wilson]," Epstein said. "He's a really quality major-league relief pitcher who's really struggling right now. 

"So what do you do with those guys? You work to get them feeling good about themselves, you work to get them locked in and you look for the right opportunity because they are always just one outing away from getting locked in and becoming a weapon again."

Prior to Friday, Wilson had given up a run in three straight outings, surrendering five runs in a span of 1.2 innings in September thanks to five walks. He entered an 8-2 game against the New York Mets last Tuesday and couldn't throw strikes, only managing to get one out before Joe Maddon was forced to make a change.

Before September, Wilson actually looked like he had gotten things smoothed out with five straight scoreless appearances from Aug. 23-31. He didn't walk a batter in 5.1 innings while striking out seven.

Epstein and the Cubs thought Wilson had turned a corner.

"Then there was a little bit of a setback," Epstein said. "I think he was starting to feel pretty good about himself. Then you get a little bit of mixed feedback from an outing or two and then you try to make adjustments when maybe the best thing to do is you try to be yourself.

"That's part of the issue — simplifying it for him, helping him believe in himself and his fastball. He's got a special fastball. He doesn't have to be too fine with it. He's an aggressive pitcher.

"Guys are working with him. He still believes in himself. He still wants the ball. Seen it before — guys get traded and you can have a really brutal month or something and one good appearance and it clicks."

Maddon admitted the Cubs are working hard to make sure they're not overwhelming Wilson with too many things to work on or too many voices in his ear.

The Cubs also admit it's at least partially a mental thing with Wilson, who has a career 3.32 ERA in six big-league seasons and has never come close to any walk issues like he's had in blue pinstripes.

With the postseason bearing down on the Cubs, will Willson be able to find a way into Maddon's circle of trust at the most important time of the year for relievers?

"He could be a linchpin to a lot of this stuff right here," Maddon said. "Look at his numbers in Detroit. They're outstanding; not just OK. For whatever reason, he's struggled a bit with his strike zone since he's been here.

"But we get this guy right, that could make a big difference down the stretch run and hopefully into the playoffs. We do need to get him back on track because he can be very influential."

When the Cubs acquired Wilson, he was one of the top relievers on the open market who came with experience pitching in the most intense part of games, four postseason appearances and a left-handed arm that approaches triple digits. 

The Cubs hoped he would be a valuable weapon in the regular season but also providing another late-inning option against the left-handed power of teams like the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers in October.

"All relievers are going to go through ups and downs over the course of the season," Avila said. "That's just part of the ebb and flow of the season. Like I've told him and a lot guys — talking to Joe too: There's gonna be a time where we need him like today and he's gonna come through and hopefully he gets hot."

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