Cubs

The Cubs may be in a precarious position with their bullpen come Opening Day

The Cubs may be in a precarious position with their bullpen come Opening Day

The state of the Cubs bullpen looks bleaker and bleaker by the day.

We've known since December that the Cubs would begin the season without Brandon Morrow, as their closer is still recovering from an elbow debridement procedure after missing half of 2018 with a forearm bone bruise.

Things have taken another turn to the negative this week, as Pedro Strop suffered a hamstring injury that has cast some doubt over his Opening Day status.

It was also recently reported veteran lefty Xavier Cedeno — who signed with the Cubs in the first couple days of spring camp — will miss Opening Day with a left wrist injury that has kept him from pitching in Cactus League games.

On Friday, one more arm was added to the list of injuries, as Tony Barnette — another offseason signing — is dealing with a shoulder issue and probably won't be ready for Opening Day in Texas:

That was accompanied with some good news about Strop:

Still, it doesn't exactly paint a rosy picture of the Cubs bullpen heading into the first series of 2019.

As of right now, the Cubs Opening Day group of relievers might look like this:

Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Brian Duensing
Tyler Chatwood

And if Strop can't go, the Cubs would fill the final spot in their bullpen by selecting one of the following: Dillon Maples, Allen Webster, Junichi Tazawa, Kyle Ryan, Randy Rosario. (On Saturday, the Cubs assigned George Kontos, Dakota Mekkes, Matt Carasiti and Mike Zagurski to minor league camp. James Norwood and Rowan Wick were sent to Triple-A Iowa.)

Alec Mills could be an option, but as MLB.com's Jordan Bastian noted in his Tweet above, the right-hander is also dealing with a shoulder issue.

Montgomery's spring got off to a delayed start when he dealt with some shoulder tightness before Cactus League games began and he's only managed to appear in one game so far.

Brach has also had a suboptimal spring, with only 3 appearances after a bout of mono affected him early in camp. He's also dealt with velocity issues, topping out a good 5-10 mph below his in-season average, though the veteran insists that's normal for him in spring.

The aforementioned bullpen group also includes a trio of veterans — Kintzler, Duensing, Chatwood — who are coming off rough 2018 seasons. Meanwhile, both Edwards and Cishek faded down the stretch last fall after looking dominant for most of the first five months of the season.

So it's understandable why Cubs fans might be freaking out about the bullpen and it's certainly easy to empathize with anybody who wants Theo Epstein's front office to go out and add an elite reliever like Craig Kimbrel, who's somehow still available on the free agent market.

If Strop isn't ready for Opening Day, he may be only a few days behind and the Cubs are also afforded a pair of early off-days in the season which could help add time for Strop to heal and also provide guaranteed rest for the top healthy arms.

The situation isn't exactly dire, either, in terms of the group of relievers available to fill that final spot. 

Tazawa and Kontos have three World Series rings and 752.1 MLB innings between the two of them. 

Ryan also has some big-league experience, Rosario made 44 appearances in Chicago last year and Norwood got his first taste of "The Show" in 2018. Maples and Mekkes have been popular names in the Cubs minor-league system in recent years with the eye-popping numbers they've put up.

It's certainly not an ideal way for the Cubs to begin the season, but their bullpen was always going to be a work in progress in 2019. 

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MLBPA's Tony Clark: Players reject pay concessions, want to 'get back to work'

MLBPA's Tony Clark: Players reject pay concessions, want to 'get back to work'

Economic negotiations between MLB and the players association seem to be at a standstill.

After a conference call between the MLBPA executive board and more than 100 players on Thursday, the union stood its ground against additional salary reductions.

“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said Thursday in a union release, “Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone.”  

The owners had proposed an 82-game season and salary cuts on a sliding scale, with the highest-paid players taking the largest cuts. In a counterproposal earlier this week, the players association suggested a 114-game season, with expanded playoffs in 2020 and 2021. The plan allowed for some salary deferrals in the case of a cancelled postseason, partially addressing the owners’ fears of a second wave of COVID-19 wiping out lucrative postseason TV deals. The players dismissed the idea of additional pay cuts, on top of the prorated salaries they agreed to in March.

“Earlier this week, Major League Baseball communicated its intention to schedule a dramatically shortened 2020 season unless Players negotiate salary concessions,” Clark continued. “The concessions being sought are in addition to billions in Player salary reductions that have already been agreed upon.”

Clark is referring to language in the March agreement that owners reportedly believe gives commissioner Rob Manfred the power to set the schedule for the 2020 season if the players and owners cannot reach an agreement. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on Monday that the league was considering a regular season of about 50 games, during which players would be entitled to their full prorated salaries.

“The overwhelming consensus of the Board,” Clark said, “is that Players are ready to report, ready to get back on the field, and they are willing to do so under unprecedented conditions that could affect the health and safety of not just themselves, but their families as well. The league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.”

While negotiations between MLB and the players association slowed to a stalemate, both the NHL and NBA made progress toward returning to play Thursday. The NHL and its players union agreed to a 24-team playoff format for the 2020 postseason. The NBA Board of Governors approved a 22-team plan to restart the season in Orlando.

Return-to-play negotiations: How Rob Manfred and Adam Silver's roles differ

Return-to-play negotiations: How Rob Manfred and Adam Silver's roles differ

If the NBA, steadily plodding forward, is the tortoise in the race to restart sports, MLB is the hare, zigzagging across the road.

On Thursday, the NBA approved a competitive format to restart the season, during a contentious week for MLB negotiations. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the National Basketball Players Association’s team player representatives have a conference call scheduled for Friday to approve the proposal. There are more details to hammer out between the league and its players union for a comprehensive resumption plan. But for now, it seems the tortoise is gaining on the hare.

Compare the NBA’s progress to the baseball news this week: In response to the owners’ 82-game proposal that included pay cuts on a sliding scale, the players countered with a 114-game plan without additional pay cuts.

Then, the owners reportedly turned their attentions to the March agreement, which they reportedly believe gives commissioner Rob Manfred the power to set the 2020 schedule if the two sides can’t reach an agreement. The threat of a 50-game season went on full display in the media.

That move – the owners using Manfred as leverage – reveals an important distinction between the roles of the commissioners in return-to-play negotiations.

There are several reasons that negotiations have gone so differently for MLB and the NBA, including how much of the season had been played before the coronavirus shutdown, and the leagues’ unique structures and histories. Those are important. But the relationships Manfred and NBA commissioner Adams Silver have built with the players in their respective leagues have also played a significant role.

Silver, while by no means perfect, has been the commissioner of the NBA’s player empowerment era. He set the tone less than three months into the job, when he banned former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers or NBA. Audio of Sterling making racist remarks to his girlfriend had recently surfaced.

Manfred, on the other hand, has overseen a flattening of player salaries over the past five years, despite revenue growth. He also received criticism from several players during Spring Training for his handling of the Astros sign-stealing scandal.

So, it’s no surprise that Silver was the commissioner who sought consultation from players throughout the process of drafting a return-to-play proposal.

“In this way,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote this week, “the union has, in some respects, voted along the way.”

If the dramatic clash between MLB and its players association is any indication, the same was not true in baseball.

Three weeks ago, Manfred held a conference call with MLB owners to approve a return-to-play proposal. Since then, negotiations have covered a wide range of topics: health and safety, length of season, player salaries, deferrals. The union described the league’s first economic proposal as “extremely disappointing.” MLB rejected the players’ 114-game plan.

The NBA Board of Governors’ vote wasn’t held until Thursday. But at least this week, NBA’s view of the finish line appeared clearer than MLB’s.