The domino effect from the Aroldis Chapman trade would push Hector Rondon into an eighth-inning role, knock Pedro Strop into earlier setup situations and propel the Cubs through October.
“When it first happened, my goodness, this was like bullpen utopia,” said Joe Maddon, an outside-the-box manager who would signal for the superstar closer to face the best hitters in the most crucial moments.
Except the Cubs live in an imperfect world, rationalizing Chapman’s 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy to start this season because he’s a left-hander with 100-mph velocity and unbelievable athletic gifts.
The Cubs made that blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees on July 25, believing Chapman could change the shape of three postseason series and help them win 11 playoff games before cashing in as a free agent.
Two weeks later, Strop tore the meniscus in his left knee. Nine days after that, the Cubs placed Rondon on the disabled list with a sore right triceps. Chapman preferred to work one inning at a time instead of getting four-out saves. A team that would finish with a plus-252 run differential can only create so many pressure-packed situations. A 103-win season saw the Cubs clinch the National League Central by the middle of September.
Now the Cubs will flip the switch on Friday night at Wrigley Field and see if their bullpen can overpower the San Francisco Giants in this best-of-five series.
“That’s an unknown right now,” Maddon admitted. “That was kind of a comforting thought from a bullpen perspective, but we didn’t get a chance to really run through that.
“I have a lot of confidence and faith in these guys, but we got to get them out there and do that. That’s going to be interesting.”
Those injuries to Strop and Rondon allowed Justin Grimm (4.10 ERA) and Carl Edwards Jr. (3.75 ERA) to gain confidence and experience and show off their swing-and-miss stuff (117 strikeouts in 88-plus innings).
To get ready for the playoffs, Strop (2.85 ERA, 21 holds) made four scripted appearances within the last 10 days of the regular season. Rondon – a 30-save closer last season – gave up eight runs and 13 hits in nine appearances since coming off the disabled list.
“The high-leverage bullpen dudes like that moment,” Maddon said. “They want that adrenaline flow, so maybe we didn’t see them as well as we could possibly see them in those moments.
“They’re still going to be put in those moments now. We’re going to find out. You may have to be less patient with that moment. In other words, you might have to have somebody backing him up, even from the first pitch they throw in a particular inning, because you just don’t know. They haven’t had that normal level of work.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
The Cubs still have an edge with Chapman, a player the Giants tried to acquire around the trade deadline, leaving them with a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves. The Cubs were 21 games over .500 when they finalized the Chapman deal, knowing they could maximize the closer by accounting for all the off-days built into the postseason schedule, their best starting pitchers working deeper into playoff games and a manager known for pushing the right bullpen buttons.
Already the bullpens factored prominently into both wild-card games, with Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter getting torched for not using Zach Britton in an 11-inning loss to the Toronto Blue Jays and the Giants waiting out Noah Syndergaard before winning with Conor Gillaspie’s three-run homer off New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia in the ninth inning.
“It was a different trade season for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Because we were in first place, we felt like we had a really good chance to win the division and we were not looking at the one-game playoff. We were looking at a playoff series. It’s been shown – when the Giants had those three (World Series) teams, they had great bullpens (in 2010, 2012 and 2014).
“Even the way the Mets used Familia last year, he was kind of their eighth- and ninth-inning guy in one, and they used him as a real weapon.”
The Cubs envision Chapman (career average: 15.1 strikeouts per nine innings) giving them a psychological advantage, getting in the Giants’ heads and making them believe this isn’t a nine-inning game anymore.
At full strength, the Cubs believe this group can be just as good as the bullpen the Kanas City Royals deployed during last year’s run to a World Series title.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “We got to do it on the field. (And) I really like our chances if we can just give them those opportunities.”