As currently constructed, the biggest X-factor in the Cubs bullpen isn't Brandon Morrow or even Pedro Strop.
It's Carl Edwards Jr.
Maybe that all changes in a couple weeks if the Cubs join the Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes or acquire an impact arm via trade.
But the season is only about one-quarter of the way completed and Theo Epstein admitted Monday it's probably too early to see any major deals take place. So right now, it's Edwards that looms as the potential key to the much-maligned Cubs bullpen.
Edwards was called on in the seventh inning to protect a 1-0 lead Tuesday night, but managed to get only two outs before leaving with runners on second and third. Brandon Kintzler came on to face Andrew McCutchen, who promptly singled home both runners, saddling Edwards with a blown save. He has now allowed 9 earned runs in 7.1 innings on the season.
"Getting Carl right is large," Joe Maddon said before Tuesday's game. "If we get Carl right, that really fills a big gap right there."
Many have drawn the parallels between the 2019 Cubs and the 2016 Cubs and like that World Series team, this year's squad seems destined to acquire a closer (or at least a high-leverage impact reliever) this summer.
In 2016, Hector Rondon had a successful run as the team's closer, but it was pretty clear the Cubs needed an impact arm at the back of the bullpen to make a World Series run and they got it in the form of Aroldis Chapman.
It's too early to talk about World Series runs right now, but it's once again clear that the Cubs would be best served making an impact addition to the bullpen.
The Cubs got good news on the Morrow front Monday as he threw from flat ground and reported everything OK, but the 34-year-old has already suffered one setback in his recovery and at this point, he's a complete unknown. The Cubs can't bank on him returning at all this year and have to approach the situation with the idea that any contribution Morrow lends to this bullpen is a bonus.
Strop could be nearing a return after throwing a successful bullpen Monday. But his health — especially with his now-problematic hamstrings — will obviously be a big factor in the overall success of the bullpen, as we can see right now with the way this unit has been set up in his absence.
With both Morrow and Strop down, Steve Cishek has been the next man up in the closer's role, but he was asked to work 2.1 innings Sunday night to close out the Cubs' win in Washington and was thus unavailable for the series opener against the Phillies.
So Brad Brach got the call for the ninth inning Monday night at Wrigley Field and wound up getting charged with the blown save. The Cubs then lost the ballgame the next inning when Kyle Ryan served up a home run to Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto.
That bullpen breakdown led to another round of sky-is-falling panic in the fanbase, calling for relief reinforcements like Kimbrel.
The Cubs are tied for second in baseball with 9 blown saves, though they actually came into Tuesday's game with the second-best bullpen in the league (2.72 ERA) since that rough 2-7 start to the season.
But now this unit has become a big concern once again. Getting by without Morrow is one thing, but between losing Strop to the IL and Edwards still not performing up to his potential, suddenly this bullpen is on some seriously unstable ground.
"This year to this point, we've lost some games late that we normally haven't lost in the past," Maddon said. "If we had just pitched somewhat up to our standards, our record would be crazy good right now. But I like the stuff that we have, I like the resiliency that we have. Like I said, Carl's a linchpin to this and I think Stroppy is, too."
Even with the shaky moments from the bullpen and the fact they're onto their backup backup closer (or is it the "backup to the backup closer?"), the Cubs still entered Tuesday's game with a 27-18 record and in first place in the National League Central.
They've managed to do all that with very little in the way of contribution from Edwards, who has the best stuff and the highest ceiling of any pitcher currently on the roster.
The Cubs already sent Edwards down to the minor leagues for a month to fine-tune his mental and physical mechanics and though the 27-year-old has been back in the big leagues for the last couple weeks, he's still not quite himself.
Prior to Tuesday's hiccup, Maddon thought Edwards might be getting close to that level — he was dialing his fastball up to nearly 96 mph Saturday as he retired the only two batters he faced on 11 pitches.
"He threw well the other day," Maddon said. "[On Saturday], the fastball was better, better command of it, better finish on it. I think with Carl, it's just a confidence thing. I just gotta keep putting him out there. He has a couple successful moments and I think he can turn it around.
"But stuff-wise, I saw the better velocity, I saw the cut and I saw the really good curveball."
Sure, adding Kimbrel or another proven, high-leverage arm would give the Cubs a better bullpen.
But no such move appears to be on the horizon and Morrow's future is still a giant question mark, so the Cubs have to work with what they have and Edwards pitching like he's capable of would change the entire complexion of the bullpen.
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