Hector Rondon

The Long Game: How Joe Maddon is navigating 'awkward' first week in Cubs bullpen with the future in mind

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AP

The Long Game: How Joe Maddon is navigating 'awkward' first week in Cubs bullpen with the future in mind

Joe Maddon was just chilling in the first-base dugout, enjoying the Miami weather and taking in the undeniable beauty of Opening Day.

Then, suddenly, he was forced into action.

Cubs Opening Day starter Jon Lester was unable to make it out of the fourth inning against the Marlins and Maddon had to think quickly on how to save the first game for a team with World Series expectations.

Spring training was officially over.

"That was not what I was looking for. I'm not trying to match up in the fourth or fifth inning of the first game! I'm over there enjoying myself on Opening Day and now all of a sudden, I gotta start thinking a little bit," Maddon joked with reporters.

Yes, it was all in jest. Maddon and his coaching staff are always thinking ahead. Things rarely come as a total surprise for big-league managers...even on Day 1. They think about almost every scenario before it happens.

And Maddon is already thinking about August, September and October, even though the Cubs are just five games into the 2018 campaign.

A huge part of that is the craziness and "awkwardness" of an opening week where the Cubs' bullpen has emerged as the superstar during a 2-3 start.

The bullpen was Public Enemy No. 1 last postseason and for most of the offseason with Cubs fans. Theo Epstein's front office retooled the relievers, adding veterans Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to replace Wade Davis and Hector Rondon.

Through five games, the bullpen has recorded 78 outs, one more than the Cubs' starting rotation (77 outs). 

That'll happen when you're forced to play 17-inning and 10-inning games on back-to-back nights and when a rotation that may be the best in baseball has just two quality starts once through the order.

"[The relievers have] proven their mettle already," Maddon said. "...There's a lot of confidence to be derived from these games from their part."

The Cubs skipper knows he's had no choice but to lean heavily on his bullpen so early and thus far, they've responded with a sparkling 0.69 ERA (2 ER in 26 innings) while allowing just 17 hits and 10 walks.

But wearing down the bullpen early is what got the Cubs in trouble last year. From Maddon to Epstein to the relievers themselves, there was an open admission that the bullpen was tired and worn out by the time the playoffs hit.

Maddon is always tuned in to getting his team to play at their peak performance in August and September and heading into the postseason on a high note.

Baseball has changed, however. With everybody around the league now "woke" to most pitchers' struggles facing an opposing lineup for the third time in an outing, managers are going to their bullpens earlier and earlier.

So this year, the Cubs hoped to go easy on their bullpen so they, too, would be fresh for what they hope is a run into the end of October. That should've been made easier with two guys — Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler — stretched out as starters coming from spring training and capable of pitching long relief outings.

It just hasn't worked out that way, though Maddon won't ignore the long game.

"I'm trying to keep in mind August and September," he said. "I want us to play well and strong in those months and we have. And if you don't keep an eye on it right now, you will not play well in those months.

"It's hard to keep pushing, pushing, pushing, especially when you play as deep into the year as we have. I think it's wise to keep an eye on the end of the year right now."

MLB teams typically get an off-day in the first few days of a new season, but the Cubs were thrown into the fire immediately with six scheduled games in six days. And the first three of those games featured four games' worth of innings with a pair of extra inning contests.

"The three games for the first three games of the year are so awkward," Maddon said. "The pitching didn't want to work. ... The bullpen was extended."

No pitcher was taxed more than Montgomery, even though he threw only 36 pitches. The 28-year-old pitcher worked each of the Cubs' first three games of the season, marking the first time he's ever worked three days in a row in the big leagues.

Montgomery said his arm still felt fine after those three games thanks to being stretched out as a starter in spring training and only needing to go one inning at a time in each outing. But this is also not something he wants to make a habit of all season to the point where he's completely worn down in September.

The Cubs did catch a break thanks to the weather in Cincinnati, however. A rainout Tuesday night affords them back-to-back off-days heading into a crucial early-season series with the Brewers in Milwaukee this weekend.

Every Cubs reliever will be rested entering Thursday night as the team's first true test of 2018 will emerge against a retooled Brewers team that has its sights set on the division.

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

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AP

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

We have officially reached a Bullpen Revolution.

Never before in baseball history have relievers carried so much weight and importance as starting pitchers are being pulled earlier and earlier in games.

We see it in the slow winter, where even guys who aren't being signed as closers are still earning $7 or $8 million a season and being inked to multiyear deals.  

Meanwhile, the largest contract given out to a starting pitcher (as of this writing) is still the Cubs' three-year, $38 million pact with Tyler Chatwood.

"The money is shifting to the bullpen and teams are building super-bullpens," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the Cubs Convention inside the Sheraton Grand Chicago earlier this month. "A lot of organizations are not expecting their starters to go deep into games anymore. 

"The pendulum swang a little bit too far in that direction, because if you're constantly pulling your starter before tehy face the order a third time, it puts a tremendous burden on your bullpen throughout the course of the regular season."

The Cubs saw that last fall, when their relievers experienced a prolonged drought of inconsistency and instability.

From the morning of Sept. 1 through the end of the postseason, the Cubs bullpen ranked 17th in baseball with a 4.38 ERA. Among playoff teams, only the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers had worse marks and keep in mind, those numbers are skewed because both World Series teams saw bullpen implosions constantly throughout the seven-game Fall Classic.

Yet in the first half of the season, the Cubs posted the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.26 ERA), second to only the Dodgers (2.99) among National League teams.

"Our bullpen, I think, got a bit over maligned by the end of the year," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I think they were [out of gas]. Throughout the year, we could not throw enough strikes. That was almost like a disease that ran through our bullpen.

"Guys had their career worst strike-throwing years. But overall, I think our bullpen was better than it looked at the end of the year. We have a lot of really good relievers in that bullpen that are gonna throw well for us."

In that same stretch from Sept. 1 onward, the Cubs were second only to the woeful Cincinnati Reds bullpen in walks per nine innings. On the season as a whole, Cubs relievers tied with the New York Mets for the second-highest BB/9 mark.

Hoyer is right: The Cubs featured a bunch of guys with their worst walk rates ever.

Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Koji Uehara and Justin Wilson all either approached or set new career highs in BB/9. The only relief pitcher who turned in a quality strike-throwing season was Brian Duensing, which is part of the reason why the Cubs re-signed the veteran southpaw to a two-year deal last week.

So how do the Cubs fix that issue?

For one, they're hoping the change in pitching coaches — from Chris Bosio to Jim Hickey — will do the trick. Bosio is one of the most highly-respected pitching coaches in the game, but for whatever reason, oversaw that alarming increase in relief walks. A new voice and message could be enough to effect change.

Beyond that, the Cubs placed an emphasis on strike-throwing as they remade their bullpen this winter. 

Gone are Davis, Rondon and Uehara and in their stead are Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, two veterans who are adept at throwing strikes. Morrow ranked 18th in baseball last season in BB/9 (1.85) among relievers who threw at least 40 innings. That's a big part of the reason why the Cubs are so confident in Morrow's ability to close, even though he has just 18 career saves only two of which have come in this decade.

The Cubs are counting on a return to form from Justin Wilson, who walked just 37 batters in 119.2 innings from 2015-16 before doling out 19 free passes in 18.1 innings in a Cubs uniform last year.

Last season, manager Joe Maddon felt Edwards was getting too fine at points and trying to nibble to avoid getting hit hard, which led to an uptick in walks. But because the young flamethrower has such dynamic stuff, even if he lives in the strike zone, he should still find — Edwards has allowed just 44 hits in 102.1 innings the last two seasons.

The Cubs are also woke to the importance of keeping relievers fresh down the stretch.

The proof was in the pudding last postseason when all bullpens were "fried," Epstein said, especially by the time the World Series rolled around.

"We need to strike a balance," Epstein said. "We as an organization still put a lot of value on starting pitchers and starters' abilities to get through the order a third time because it really works in the long run — it allows your bullpen to stay fresher throughout the six months of the season."

The Cubs don't intend to wear out any pitcher, whether it's a reliever with a checkered injury history (Morrow), a starter getting up there in age (Jon Lester) or anybody else who takes the hill for the team in 2018.

The idea is to have the entire pitching staff strong and hitting their stride as October approaches.

But even with the weight placed on bullpens — especially in October — the Cubs know they still need more starting pitching depth because bullpens are so volatile.

"There's definitely a shifting dynamic in the game where there's increased importance on the 'pen and slightly less on the rotation because more innings are shifting to the bullpen," Epstein said at the MLB Winter Meetings last month. "But there's a contradictory dynamic which is relievers are a lot less predictable than starters.

"So if you react to the first dynamic that I described and put all your resources into the 'pen and then you end up becoming the victim of unpredictability, then you're in a really tough spot."

Cubs' bullpen shake up continues as Hector Rondon Era comes to an end

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USA TODAY

Cubs' bullpen shake up continues as Hector Rondon Era comes to an end

The Hector Rondon Era is over on the North Side.

The Cubs declined to offer a 2018 contract to their former closer Friday, part of the effort to reshape their bullpen after a rough postseason for the relief corps.

Rondon saved a combined 77 games in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, turning in particularly eye-popping numbers during the 2015 campaign — a 1.67 ERA and 30 saves in 72 appearances — to warrant the title of being one of baseball’s best ninth-inning men.

But those numbers ballooned over the next two seasons, and he was replaced when the Cubs acquired Aroldis Chapman in a midseason trade with the Yankees in 2016. Wade Davis was brought over in an offseason trade with the Royals ahead of the 2017 season.

Rondon earned two saves in the Cubs’ National League Division Series win over the rival Cardinals in 2015. But his numbers were not good in each of the last two postseasons. During the 2016 World Series run, he gave up three runs in six innings of work for a 4.50 ERA. He didn’t pitch during the NLDS against the Nationals this year, but he gave up two runs in his three appearances against the Dodgers in the NLCS, hit with the loss in Game 1 of that series.

Rondon ranks sixth on the Cubs' all-time saves list.

With Davis hitting the free-agent market this winter, the Cubs continue to look for their 2018 closer. Whether it’s Davis, another free-agent signing, a trade acquisition or an internal solution, Rondon won’t be the guy, nor will he be back in what is expected to be a very different-looking bullpen.

The Cubs struggled mightily in relief during their playoff series against the Nationals and Dodgers, with a huge 6.21 ERA in their 37.2 innings of work after the starter departed.

Davis is a free agent, along with Brian Duensing, and now Rondon is no longer in the mix. Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm were tendered contracts for the 2018 season, and Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. remain under contract. Mike Montgomery might or might not end up in the bullpen, as he could be a part of the starting rotation.

The Cubs also made a free-agent signing Friday, adding left-handed reliever Dario Alvarez.

Of course, the most important piece of this 2018 bullpen puzzle is figuring out who will be the team’s closer. In each of the past three seasons, Rondon, Chapman and Davis were huge parts of getting the Cubs to the NLCS — and a World Series win, in the case of 2016. While various members of Joe Maddon’s bullpen experienced stretches of unreliability this past season, Davis was pretty rock solid during the regular season, converting 32 of his 33 save opportunities.