Ready or not, Cubs will find out if bullpen is built for October


Ready or not, Cubs will find out if bullpen is built for October

PHILADELPHIA – The Kansas City Royals unveiled a playoff blueprint last year, essentially making it a six-inning game and riding their bullpen to a Game 7 loss in the World Series.

The Cubs have enough issues with their relievers that manager Joe Maddon listened to at least 10 questions about the bullpen during a pregame media session that lasted almost 13 minutes.

“You’re not going to win everything without a real consistent and strong bullpen,” Maddon said Sunday, sitting in Citizens Bank Park’s visiting dugout. “Physically, we have the ability to nail those innings down. Now we haven’t arrived at the Royals’ abilities or consistency yet. But I think physically we’re there.”

Mentally? The Cubs watched it all unravel the night before in a 7-5 walk-off loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, exposing what could be their biggest concern in October.

All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo committed the fielding error that led to the five unearned runs charged against Justin Grimm in the seventh inning. With two outs in the ninth, pinch-hitter Cody Asche crushed Hector Rondon’s 95-mph fastball and it bounced off the right-field foul pole for the game-winning, two-run homer.

[MORE: Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and where Cubs go from here]

No one really notices these guys when they do their job. But Maddon called the right-handed Grimm “the best lefty in the National League” because of his “absurd” numbers against left-handed hitters (23 strikeouts vs. seven walks in 53 at-bats and a .453 OPS). And Rondon has gone 28-for-32 in save chances, putting up a 0.81 ERA since May 25.

“It’s just getting them to get their confidence,” Maddon said. “Listen, most all of them are having really good years and physically – like you saw last night – Grimmer’s throwing 98 miles an hour.

“So we just got to get their confidence right. I try to avoid overusing them. (But) I think they’re all in pretty good order right now.”

Maddon is hoping Fernando Rodney will look more like the guy who led the majors with 48 saves last season – and not the one who got designated for assignment by the Seattle Mariners last month with a 5.68 ERA.

Pedro Strop (26 holds) is a good setup guy, but do you trust him against the St. Louis Cardinals? Strop has faced 32 St. Louis hitters this season, giving up nine runs on nine hits and six walks in nine rivalry games (0-2, 15.19 ERA).

Tommy Hunter (5.84 ERA) hasn’t been the stabilizing force the Cubs hoped for when they acquired him from the Baltimore Orioles at the July 31 trade deadline.

[RELATED: Kris Bryant keeps delivering in the clutch for Cubs]

Jason Motte hasn’t pitched since Aug. 23 and the Cubs can’t count on the veteran reliever – who closed out the 2011 World Series for the Cardinals – coming back from a strained right shoulder this year.

“I don’t think so,” Maddon said. “It’s slipping away from us a little bit right now.”

If Neil Ramirez hasn’t been able to rediscover what made him such a dominant setup guy in 2014 by now, it’s probably not going to happen in the middle of September.

Carl Edwards Jr. is an intriguing prospect with good stuff (369 career strikeouts in 292-plus innings in the minors). But his command issues at Triple-A Iowa (24 walks in 31-plus innings) make it difficult to throw him into high-leverage situations.

“You will see more of him,” Maddon said. “I want to see more of him. It just hasn’t presented (itself) right now.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have used 22 different relievers this season (including David Ross and Chris Denorfia in mop-up duty) and posted a 3.60 ERA while working with a rotation that at times has struggled to account for innings beyond Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.

This is a difficult balancing act with the most inherently volatile part of the team. There is no magic bullet. At this point, Maddon said, “You pretty much know who your guys are.”

A manager who has pushed the right buttons all season won’t hit the panic button now.

“You’re going to stay with that particular group,” Maddon said. “If there’s (an) outlier you want to throw in there, you might do something like that. But for the most part, it’ll be pretty much what you had seen all year.

“I just want to make sure that their confidence is in order going forward. That’s it.”

Jed Hoyer says Cubs plan to add depth before the trade deadline

Jed Hoyer says Cubs plan to add depth before the trade deadline

With the second half of the season about to kick off Thursday afternoon, the Cubs front office is in the final stretch of roster building as the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline looms.

Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer spoke with NBC Sports Chicago's very own David Kaplan today on his ESPN 1000 radio show answering plenty of questions on what the Cubs' gameplan is before the trade deadline. 

There has already been a flurry of moves over the past few days, with two of the more enticing trade pieces being moved in new Dodger shortstop Manny Machado and former Padres reliever Brad Hand, who was traded to the Indians Thursday morning.

But when asked about going after big-name talent at the deadline, Hoyer explained while the team may "engage" in those conversations, the focus for him and the Cubs was on adding depth to the roster. 

"Obviously, we'll be involved in those [trade] discussions, but I do feel like adding depth is something we are going to do. We're going to be in on every discussion, but at the same time, I do believe we have the pieces internally to be a heck of a team." 

The name that has garnered attention recently has been Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom, who is currently having the best season of his career at age 30, but Hoyer made no indication the Cubs would once again facilitate another blockbuster deal.

And even with Tyler Chatwood struggling to locate the strike zone this season, Hoyer made it clear the front office hasn't lost faith in their second biggest investment of the off-season. 

"We're confident [Chatwood] will have a better second half, we're going to have a really big, long pennant race," Hoyer said. "It's going to be really challenging second half and we're going to need all the pitching we can possibly get and I think Tyler is going to be a big part of that." 

In terms of team needs, the Cubs are a club with few holes on their roster but could stand to add more pitching in both the bullpen and rotation with everyone but Jon Lester having frustrating moments in the first half of the season.

Making moves similar to the Mike Montgomery trade in 2016 are what Hoyer relishes, telling Kaplan those are the moves the Cubs "pride themselves on." 

But when it comes to Cubs improving on their already impressive first half of baseball, Jed Hoyer continued to back the players who are currently on the roster.

And while it may not be the move that creates the social media buzz fans crave this time of year, Hoyer knows he can get more from his current roster in the second half. 

"There's no doubt that the best way we can get better is by having guys we already have [play] better than they have to date." 


Yadier Molina sees something familiar in Cubs: 'They remind me of what we were back in the day'

Yadier Molina sees something familiar in Cubs: 'They remind me of what we were back in the day'

Yadier Molina has been playing the Cubs for a decade and a half.

For 15 years, Molina has been one of the faces of the St. Louis Cardinals, making nine All-Star Games, winning eight Gold Gloves, playing in nine postseasons and winning a pair of World Series championships. And for much of that time, his Cardinals had the upper hand in the rivalry between the two National League Central foes.

But that's changed in recent years. The Cubs have ascended to the Cardinals' old spot as a perennial contender, and it was their defeat of the Cardinals in the NLDS back in 2015 that really seemed to usher in the current era of World Series expectations on the North Side.

If you watch any rivalry long enough, you'll see the balance of power shift back and forth. Molina has been watching this rivalry for a long time.

"They've got good chemistry, they've got good talent there, they play together," Molina said Tuesday in Washington, D.C., before suiting up alongside Willson Contreras and Javy Baez on the NL All-Star team. "So yeah, they remind me of what we were back in the day with the Cardinals."

High praise considering all that Molina and those old Cardinals teams accomplished.

It wasn't too long ago that the Cardinals were a dominant force in this division and in this rivalry. Between 2009 and 2015, the Cubs lost double-digit games to the Cardinals in all but one season. The Cardinals won a World Series title during that seven-year span (2011), ending all but one of those campaigns with a postseason appearance. The Cubs, meanwhile, had five straight fifth-place finishes and missed the playoffs in all but the last.

But since the end of the 2015 regular season, the Cubs are 30-20 against their biggest rivals, a record that includes that 3-1 series win in the 2015 NLDS.

And now it's the Cubs who have seemingly built a winning machine. Like the Cardinals dominated the division with a core cast of characters that included Molina as well as Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, the Cubs now have that reliable core featuring Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Baez, Contreras and so many others. They're expected to be at the top of the Central standings and compete for championships, just like the Cardinals were for much of a decade.

The Cardinals, of course, have quite recently been thrown into a state of atypical tumult with manager Mike Matheny fired in the middle of the season and a couple off-the-field controversies grabbing national headlines. That's not to say they're exactly out of contention, though, as they begin the second half with an above-.500 record, 7.5 games back of the division-leading Cubs and only four games back for the second NL wild card spot.

But when you compare the drama-drenched Cardinals with the Cubs — who while no one would describe as firing on all cylinders have managed to stay not far behind their 2016 pace — there's a noticeable gap, a gap that's somewhat crazy to think about for those who can remember the Cardinals' past dominance in this rivalry.

Though the Cardinals have actually won more head-to-head matchups this season (five of the eight), the five-game set to begin the second half — the first of eight games between the two teams over the next two weekends — would figure to favor the Cubs, who won 12 of 15 to close out the first half.

"It's important for us to go out there and try to win the series. Right now, we need that as a club," Molina said. "It's going to be tough. The Cubs, they're playing good baseball right now, they've got chemistry there. It's going to be tough, but our concentration is on trying to win the series."