We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.
Next up: Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen to make another run at the World Series?
It’s 2999. Functioning civilization is but a distant memory, as the cities we once revered are now nothing but ashes and dust. You and your group of survivors are walking down the middle of freeway, littered with abandoned cars and overgrown weeds. Suddenly, movement! Down the ways some, a mysterious figure emerges. The figure approaches, and you cautiously hold your ground. You lock eyes, and after what feels like an eternity passes, the figure finally cries out:
“Kinda worried about the Cubs bullpen this year.”
No one likes their bullpen in March. No one really even likes their bullpen in April. The Cubs are no exception, though there’s reason for optimism — and you don’t even need to look *that* hard!
First, the obvious: right now, on March 23rd, the Cubs’ bullpen is an issue. Brandon Morrow continues to work towards his return from something yucky called an elbow debridement procedure, Xavier Cedeno/Tony Barnette are already out and Pedro Strop is a hard-maybe for Opening Day. Who knows what to expect from Brandon Kintzler and Brian Duensing. All of a sudden we’re at SIX bullpen arms without a sure bet, which is admittedly a bit alarming.
There’s plenty of silver lining, though. Kintzler looked much better with the Nationals early last season than he did with the Cubs, and is still an elite ground ball guy. Carl Edwards Jr. is going to get his strikeouts and Strop filled in admirably as the closer last year; even if he misses Opening Day, it sounds like he won’t be too far behind. Brad Brach was a sneaky good signing. A healthy, strike-throwing Tyler Chatwood is an intriguing long-man, and frees up Mike Montgomery and his elite groundball rate to be used more judiciously. Hell, even Allen Webster and Junichi Tazawa are turning heads in camp.
There’s a workable bullpen in there somewhere. How far a “workable bullpen” gets you in October is fair game for debate, but the Cubs have the arms to appease Joe Maddon and his anybody-pitch-at-anytime routine.
If the Cubs want an elite bullpen, the type that sucks the life out of teams after the 5th inning, it’ll be up to the Ricketts to revisit their favorite “we’re out of money” line from this offseason. Maybe Chatwood learns to throw strikes again, and maybe Morrow stays healthy. Kintzler could start breaking bats again and Duensing could be nails against lefties, and people would still be worried. Ultimately, the bullpen’s best case scenario still probably doesn’t preclude the team from shopping at the deadline.
Official prediction: The Cubs will enter the postseason with an established 7-8-9 routine, and one of those three pitchers is on another team’s roster right now.
Bullpens have always been important to a Major League Baseball team's success, but the focus on relievers has never been higher than it is right now. Between the use of openers (which turns into a "bullpen day") and how teams utilize their relievers to shorten games in October, it's a hot-button issue every day now.
It's pretty tough to put together a solid season without a good bullpen and there's no bigger source of frustration for a clubhouse or a fanbase than having the lead late in a game and blowing it.
All that being said, the Cubs bullpen entering 2019 might be the least inspiring group they've had for Opening Day in years and it's not just because of injuries (though that's a huge factor).
In 2017, the Cubs left spring training with brand new closer Wade Davis in tow, plus veterans Brian Duensing and Koji Uehara.
In 2018, it was Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and a full season of Justin Wilson.
This year, it's Brad Brach, Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette...and both Cedeno and Barnette are expected to miss Opening Day due to injury while Brach is getting over a bout of mono and fighting through a dip in velocity. Oh yeah, and Morrow is still hurt and will miss at least a month.
It's certainly not ideal, but there are worse bullpen situations out there among contending teams. Even the once-mighty Brewers are enduring adversity with their relief corps at the moment.
The Cubs certainly have question marks in their bullpen and while a shiny new toy like Craig Kimbrel would absolutely make things look a while lot better, there's no guarantee this current group is going to struggle. Cishek, Brach, Duensing, Pedro Strop and Brandon Kintzler are all established veterans with a reliable track record and even amid his late-season struggles the last couple years, Carl Edwards Jr. has still posted very good numbers.
Edwards putting it all together would certainly make things run a lot smoother in Joe Maddon's bullpen. Remember, too, that Cishek looked like the MVP of the entire pitching staff last year before seemingly running into a wall in late August — he had a 1.68 ERA and 0.97 WHIP through Aug. 24.
The Cubs can't count on Morrow settling in as closer even when he returns in late-April/early-May given his long injury history and the key will be making sure he — and the rest of the bullpen — is healthy and firing on all cylinders down the stretch in what figures to be a dogfight in the NL.
Plus, the Cubs finally have some young arms on the cusp of the big leagues who look like they may provide an in-season boost to the bullpen (Dakota Mekkes, Adbert Alzolay, etc.).
As Cam said, bullpens are impossible to predict in March. The Cubs felt great about their relievers in March 2017-18 and both units looked a whole lot different by the time September and October came along.
Could the Cubs have done more to bolster their bullpen this winter? Absolutely, and they probably should've given it's the clear weakness of the roster at the moment. But nobody knows how this will all play out over the next six months.
The complete 19 for '19 series:
19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
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18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?