How Cubs have dramatically upgraded their bullpen since last year’s Opening Day  

How Cubs have dramatically upgraded their bullpen since last year’s Opening Day  

Bullpens are such an X-factor that it’s no coincidence the Cubs and Indians made it all the way to the World Series by pushing some of the most dominant relievers in the game – Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen.
We saw the way bullpens were used last fall, unleashed as early as the fifth inning, with closers getting more than just three outs. And, of course, some of the biggest postseason backlash centered around Orioles manager Buck Showalter not using elite closer Zack Britton in a wild-card loss.
Even in saying bullpens are unpredictable by nature, just look at how much better this projected Opening Day bullpen appears to be on paper than the one the Cubs put together a year ago: 

Neil Ramirez
Adam Warren
Trevor Cahill
Clayton Richard
Travis Wood
Justin Grimm
Pedro Strop
Hector Rondon

Mike Montgomery
Carl Edwards Jr.
Justin Grimm
Pedro Strop
Hector Rondon
Koji Uehara
Wade Davis

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Davis will have two former closers (Uehara and Rondon) setting up in front of him. There’s a potential future closer (Edwards), a middle-innings closer (Grimm), a guy who could probably close for at least half the teams in the majors (Strop) and a lefty who recorded his first career save in a World Series Game 7 (Montgomery).
"When this all shakes out, everybody in that bullpen can be very capable to pitch at almost any time and that's a good thing," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "We have all even or ahead guys, meaning they can all pitch well or effectively when the score is even or when you're ahead.
"There are a lot of guys that are minus guys that pitch much better when you might be way up or trailing by a little bit and then all of a sudden, you see the best side of them. We have all even or ahead guys throughout the bullpen, which hopefully is going to mean we can spread out their workload."
Going off 2016 stats, this group of seven relievers posted a stat line that looks like this: 3.05 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 10.6 K/9 in 341.2 innings.
Those marks would've easily given the Cubs the best bullpen in the big leagues, as the 2016 season leaders in each category had a line of: 3.35 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 10.1 K/9.
"I've been here for five years and I feel like this is one of the best groups we've ever had right now," Rondon said.
Of course, the season is not played on paper and the Cubs will assuredly need to rely on other pitchers outside the season-opening seven.
Rondon is a specific point of concern right now after surrendering four runs in his final spring appearance Thursday night, running his official line to 14.73 ERA, eight hits, six earned runs in eight innings. Couple that with seven hits and five earned runs in 1.2 innings in the World Baseball Classic and you can see why Cubs fans are biting their fingernails with their ex-closer.
But spring numbers are not everything, of course. Rondon had a 12.38 ERA and 2.37 WHIP in spring last year and wound up with a 1.72 ERA and 0.67 WHIP in the regular season before the All-Star break.
The bigger concern here with Rondon is the triceps issue that hampered him in the second half of 2016 and limited his effectiveness in the playoffs, plus his overall medical history. For his part, Rondon has insisted he feels 100 percent this spring and the health issues are in the rearview mirror.

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Even if the struggles persist into the season, the Cubs have enough talent in the bullpen they can afford to let Rondon work through his issues in low-leverage situations.
Maddon and team president Theo Epstein have repeatedly mentioned how the Cubs have enough depth in the back end of the bullpen to allow a rotation of sorts in the closer and setup roles, because it's all about getting to October healthy.
"This bullpen's got some serious power arms," said veteran left-hander Brian Duensing, who will start the season on the disabled list. "It should be a lot of fun."

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form


Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

The MLB regular season is still 13 days away, but Willson Contreras is ready for the swings to count.

The Cubs catcher hit an absolute bomb of a homer Friday afternoon off White Sox pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, but it wasn't just a homer.

Contreras put an exclamation mark on the dinger (his third of the spring and the second this week) with an A+ bat flip:

I'm not sure what's more majestic: The 450-foot shot or the 45-foot bat-flip.

Either way, Contreras is ready for those 2018 NL MVP votes.

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback


Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton


The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

Complete opposition research

San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Franciso Giants