Randy Rosario

'Stropy wouldn't expect anything less from us': Who steps up in the bullpen now?

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USA TODAY

'Stropy wouldn't expect anything less from us': Who steps up in the bullpen now?

It was a little easier to answer the 9th inning question when Brandon Morrow hit the disabled list, but now that Pedro Strop is done for the rest of the regular season, things get a little murkier.

"We definitely have guys that are capable," Joe Maddon said prior to Friday's game. "[Justin] Wilson’s done it, [Steve] Cishek’s done it, [Jesse] Chavez has already done it with us. I think Carl [Edwards] is still eligible and capable to do those kind of things."

Prior to his mid-July injury, Morrow had notched 22 saves, and then Strop had 13 of his own. Strop was on his way to a nearly three inning save when he tweaked his left hamstring on Thursday. 

After that, the pitchers Maddon named do all come with some degree of closing experience. 

Wilson has 14 in his career, and all but one of those came last season before he was traded to the Cubs from Detroit. At the time, he showed potential to continue that task when spelling Wade Davis and then possibly to be considered for the closer's role in 2018, but he walked far too many batters in the second half of 2017 to be trusted with any high-leverage innings, whenever they came. 

That said, Wilson has been something of a better pitcher this year, dropping his WHIP to 1.37 from the disastrous 2.09 he had for the Cubs last season. That's still high, but he was holding that number below 1.00 while he was with the Tigers in 2017, so the potential is there. Thanks to an upper 90s fastball and a 30% strikeout rate, he can certainly close games if he can keep runners off of the bases.

With the Marlins, Cishek was their go-to 9th inning guy in 2013 and 2014, and he closed for the Mariners in 2016. In all, Cishek has 124 career saves. He has closed for the Cubs three times this season, but he has also logged 65.2 innings already, so he might be best saved for other duties.

If called upon though, Cishek said he is ready, along with the rest of the bullpen.

"A lot of us have pitched in the 9th inning before," Cishek said. "I’m always going to be ready from the 6th inning on. Whenever my name gets called, I’m going in, and that’s the approach I think all the guys have taken throughout the course of the year."

That flexible attitude is sort of the mantra of the bullpen this year. Chavez, who has picked up three saves for the Cubs since joining the team in late July, echoed Cishek's thoughts.

"That’s a quality of the bullpen we have, the group we have. The type of personalities we have down there that aren’t going to fret in situations they’re put into," Chavez said. "They’re going to go out there and treat it like it was a normal situation."

To the observer, it would seem that handling the 9th inning couldn't be as simple as just treating it like any other inning. The pressure of a close division race, the energy of the crowd amplify these moments more than most ballparks. 

But, the Cubs relievers say, the roar of Wrigley actually helps.

"It actually keeps you calm a little bit," Brandon Kintzler said. "With this stadium here, they’re up in the 6th inning and it feels like the 9th inning."

Kintzler closed games in 2016 and 2017 for the Twins and Nationals. He has yet to pitch in that situation for the Cubs this year, but he fits in with the mindset of the rest of the bullpen.

"From my experience closing you just have to you can’t treat it as any bigger  what it is. Obviously it’s the last out, but the reality is it’s just another inning," Kintzler said. "You just try to be the closer of your own inning, and just treat it like that and do what you do and don’t make it bigger than what it is."

Randy Rosario picked up the last inning Thursday when Strop got hurt, but it is likely that Maddon will rely on his pitchers with greater experience in the 9th inning. Right now, it appears as though Morrow could return later next week, but a lot of that will depend on how well his sim game goes on Saturday. 

In the meantime, Cishek and others will have to step up, but even with the energy and pressure of the last three outs, they're ready for it.

"If anything, at this point in the season, it’s an encouragement when you go out there and fans are behind you screaming down the opposing team’s throat. It just gets you fired up, gives you the extra gear," Cishek said. "We rely a lot more on the fans than they think. The positive atmosphere in this stadium is something that a lot of stadiums don’t have, and we feed off of that. If you’re able to slow it down and take in that energy and enjoy it, you just go out there and make it happen."

Cishek added that the bullpen has been coming in and covering high-leverage innings all year, so there's no room now for gloom and doom.

"If we dwell on the injuries, that doesn’t really create a positive atmosphere," Cishek said. "For us, it stinks that it happened, but we still have a job to do. Stropy wouldn’t expect anything less from us."

 

 

Cubs not giving up on Brian Duensing yet

Cubs not giving up on Brian Duensing yet

No matter how many fans Tweet or comment that Brian Duensing should be desginated for assignment, the Cubs are not yet inclined to take such drastic measures.

Duensing was placed on the disabled list Friday morning with left shoulder inflammation. He missed two weeks in early July with the same issue.

The 35-year-old veteran is in the midst of one of the roughest stretches of his career. Since May 13, Duensing carries an 11.28 ERA and 2.28 WHIP, walking 21 batters and allowing 28 earned runs in 22.1 innings.

He had another tough outing Thursday night against the Padres at Wrigley Field, surrendering 2 runs on 4 hits and a walk over 2 innings.

After throwing 39 pitches, the Cubs opted to place him on the shelf the next morning, calling up young lefty Randy Rosario to take Duensing's place in the bullpen.

"He still has that discomfort there," Joe Maddon said. "You can see it. He just can't really finish things off like you'd like to. So we gotta back off.

"It's really important that we get him right for the latter part of the season — you saw what he did last year. There's so much ability here and he cares so much and he's such a big part of what we do and all of the above. 

"So we want to make sure that he's well and right, so wer'e gonna choose this route right now."

Just how much the shoulder issue has led to Duensing's struggles is unclear. After the first trip to the DL, he came back with three scoreless outings in a row before giving up runs in four of his next five appearances (including Thursday night). So that two-week rest last month apparently didn't do the trick in helping to turn his season around.

The Cubs signed Duensing to a two-year, $7 million deal over the winter to put the finishing touches on a revamped bullpen.

At the time, the move was greeted with almost unanimous praise, as Duensing was fantastic in his first season with the Cubs in 2017 — 2.74 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, career-high 8.8 K/9 across 68 appearances.

He began 2018 looking like that same steady veteran, making 17 appearances before he gave up his first run on May 13.

It's easy to point to the struggles that have led to Duensing's overall line this year, but it's not as easy to explain "why." Is the shoulder issue the reason why his strikeout rate has fallen off 10.3 percent since last year? Or that his walk rate is at a career-high 15.9 percent, more than double his rate from last season (7 percent)?

Either way, the Cubs aren't ready to cut ties with Duensing just yet, nor should they be.

The trade deadline came and went and the Cubs added two more arms to their bullpen, but both — Jesse Chavez and Brandon Kintzler — are right-handed.

While the Cubs have plenty of left-handed depth in their rotation — four of the five starters are southpaws — they're not as fortunate in the bullpen.

Justin Wilson has had some nice stretches this season, but he's still walking 6.3 batters per nine innings. Rosario has a 1.97 ERA, but the underlying numbers behind it scream that a regression is coming.

At some point, the Cubs may opt to move Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen to reduce the wear and tear on his arm as he approaches a new career high in innings pitched. They also have Drew Smyly ramping up in his return from Tommy John surgery.

But Smyly is still several weeks away from the big leagues in a best case scenario and Montgomery is currently needed in the rotation, so the Cubs can't be too picky when it comes to their left-handed options out of the bullpen. 

They might as well keep trying to get Duensing back to his 2017 form because at some point in September and October, the Cubs are going to need a reliable southpaw out of the bullpen. 

With Cubs in need of a reliable lefty in bullpen, Drew Smyly could be a wild card down the stretch

With Cubs in need of a reliable lefty in bullpen, Drew Smyly could be a wild card down the stretch

Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office are always trying to evaluate the franchise's major weaknesses, looking for potential leaks that could sink the ship.

It's only Aug. 2, but one such issue flew to the forefront Thursday evening.

After trade deadline pickup Jesse Chavez gave up a 3-run homer (the first runs he's allowed as a Cub), the game was still in shouting distance for the Cubs. But a pair of lefties — Justin Wilson and Brian Duensing — combined to allow 3 runs in the final three frames to break the game wide open for the Padres.

Wilson walked a batter and gave up a pair of hits in one inning of work. Duensing also walked a batter and gave up 4 hits over 2 innings. 

Right now, the two are the only left-handed options out of the Cubs bullpen and they've each endured their various level of struggles this season.

As the Cubs get down to the most pivotal part of the regular season and hope to roll it into the playoffs, can they get by with the pair of question marks in the bullpen?

"Justin's been good," Joe Maddon said after the Cubs' 6-1 loss. "We've been having to get Duensing straightened out for a bit, but I do like [Carl] Edwards against lefties and I like [Brandon] Kintzler against lefties. 

"But I did not want to use them in those situations tonight. I think Justin's been fine."

Wilson has certainly pitched better than he did in his two-month debut with the club last fall. But he still has 30 walks in 42.2 innings and carries a worrisome 1.43 WHIP despite a solid 3.38 ERA. He ran into major control issues last year and was a non-factor for the Cubs in the postseason because of it.

Duensing has struggled for months and now sports a 7.34 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season with more walks (26) than strikeouts (22). 

If the Cubs have to face Bryce Harper or Freddie Freeman or Cody Bellinger in the playoffs or need some big outs against Travis Shaw and Christian Yelich in September, Wilson and Duensing may not inspire a whole lot of confidence in the fanbase watching on the edge of their respective seats.

Rookie lefty Randy Rosario was just sent down to Triple-A Iowa earlier in the week to clear room for Brandon Kintzler on the big-league roster and while his stats were good (4-0, 1.97 ERA), the underlying numbers indicate he was due for a pretty serious regression — 1.34 WHIP, 5.10 FIP, almost as many walks (16) as strikeouts (19) in 32 innings.

Rosario will undoubtedly be back up in Chicago soon and could be a factor out of the Cubs bullpen come playoff time. But that's a lot to throw on the shoulders of a 24-year-old with only 28 MLB games under his belt.

The answers, ironically, may come in the form of the two left-handers who pitched before Wilson and Duensing Thursday.

Drew Smyly threw a simulated game at Wrigley Field before the Cubs and Padres faced off and could be set to go on a rehab assignment in the very near future.

Mike Montgomery started for the Cubs and got 16 outs, continuing his trend of solid work in the rotation over the last couple months. But the Cubs also want to be cautious of Montgomery's innings and don't want to run the tall southpaw into the ground before what they hope is another run into late October. 

At some point in the regular season, they may opt to move Montgomery back into the bullpen to limit those innings. And even if they don't, it's possible the Cubs opt to flip Montgomery back to the swingman role in the bullpen for the postseason, choosing to fill out the potential playoff rotation with the likes of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels.

Smyly and Yu Darvish are the wild cards here. 

The Cubs aren't counting on anything from Darvish the rest of this season, but almost two months remain until the first playoff game. If he can actually kick this arm injury, he figures to have a spot in the rotation locked up and Montgomery is the natural choice to move back to the bullpen given he has plenty of recent experience in that role.

Smyly is recovering from Tommy John surgery and hasn't thrown a pitch in a big-league game since 2016, but he could fill a variety of roles for the Cubs down the stretch — a left-handed reliever capable of going multiple innings, a starting pitcher or something else entirely.

It's impossible to just assume a guy will find his form and command in less than a month of actual game action on a rehab assignment before the minor league seasons wrap up.

But Smyly and the Cubs were encouraged after his 30-pitch sim game Thursday.

"Good. I thought he finished strongly," Maddon said. "He agreed with that. His fastball started to jump that second 15 pitches. Little bit of command issues with his curve and his changeup. Not sharp, but only threw three in each set.

"But fastball got better and it finished really strong and he felt good about himself. ... Smyly left smiling."

The Cubs clearly believe in Smyly enough to give him a 2-year, $10 million contract last winter despite a guarantee he would miss at least the first four months of the 2018 season.

The 29-year-old lefty pitched for Maddon briefly for the Tampa Bay Rays at the tail end of the 2014 season. He has also worked with first-year Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey the last three-and-a-half seasons between Tampa Bay and Chicago.

Epstein said on the last homestand the Cubs plan to stretch Smyly out whenever he's able to get down to the minors and start a rehab assignment. So that leaves open the possibility that he can serve as some rotation depth.

But the most likely scenario is Smyly contributing in some form out of the Cubs' bullpen. It's been a few years, but he has a solid track record as a reliever — 7-0, 2.47 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.7 K/9 in 71 appearances out of the bullpen.

When it comes time for a big at-bat by a dangerous left-handed hitter in September or October, it may be Smyly that Maddon turns to out of the bullpen, not Wilson or Duensing.