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."

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel stuck with what was working. He pounded the strike zone with one high fastball after another against Manny Pina. Kimbrel was rewarded with a strikeout to end the inning.

In the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Friday, Kimbrel pitched a shutout ninth inning to give his team the chance to rally. Instead, the Cubs’ bats went cold. But the stadium lights illuminated Kimbrel’s progress.

“He looked really good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”

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It should be noted that the spot Ross found for him was in a one-run game. Kimbrel, who entered the season as the Cubs closer, at least temporarily lost that job after a string of rough outings. The Cubs blamed mechanical issues.

On Friday, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit with the game on the line.

One of the biggest developments for Kimbrel is that he’s now throwing his curve ball for a strike, therefore not allowing opposing hitters to simply gear up for a fastball.

The third pitch he threw on Friday was a curve ball. Avisail Garcia already had two strikes on him, and then he fouled off a curve at the bottom of the strikezone.  Kimbrel sat him down with a high fastball clocking in at almost 98 mph.

“I don’t think he was far off (all year),” Cubs starting pitcher Alec Mills said, “and I think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curve balls. It was good to see, for sure.”

As Kimbrel’s teammate, Mills may not be speaking from a position of objectivity. But he knows pitching, and he said he’s been excited about Kimbrel’s fastball all year.

“Even that first inning in Cincinnati,” Mills said. “The ball was coming out really good. It was electric. It was more like the Craig that I remember from past years.”

The Kimbrel from past years was a seven-time All-Star from 2011 to 2018, the year he won the World Series with the Red Sox.

But from 2017 to 2019, the average speed of Kimbrel’s fastball dropped from 98 mph to 96mph. It has remained right around 96 mph this year. On Friday, Kimbrel was locating it more effectively, while his curve ball helped put batters off balance.

Kimbrel still walked a batter – he stopped short of overpowering. But even against the one batter he walked, Justin Smoak, Kimbrel got ahead in the count early. He threw two curve balls for strikes. The first Smoak watched. The second he whiffed.

One outing isn’t a guarantee that Kimbrel will win back his role as closer. But it does show that the positive feedback Ross is getting translates into games. And that Ross is ready to trust him in close games. 

“I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said earlier this month.

On Saturday, he sure did.



Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.