Cubs see light at the end of the tunnel with bullpen

/ by Tony Andracki
Presented By Cubs Insiders

The Cubs always knew they were going to need more than the eight relief pitchers they broke camp with, but they weren't necessarily expecting to have to dip into the reserves before they even played a home game.

Theo Epstein's front office tries to plan for everything and they understood this was a possible scenario, with Carl Edwards Jr. being sent down to the minor leagues to hit the reset button on his career and Mike Montgomery hitting the injured list with a left lat strain.

In their place, the Cubs called up left-hander Kyle Ryan and righty Allen Webster and after a tough debut Saturday, the pair of relievers combined for 2.2 shutout innings in Sunday's ballgame.

Who knows how long these two pitchers will stick, but the entire bullpen has started to look better of late and will take a string of 12 straight scoreless innings into Wednesday night's game with the Pirates at Wrigley Field.

That streak was boosted by a great outing from the group in Monday's home opener, as Brad Brach, Brandon Kintzler, Randy Rosario and Pedro Strop combined for 7 scoreless innings after Jon Lester left with an injury.

Could this be a sign of things to come for this bullpen?

"The good pitching can be contagious, but at the same time, the bad pitching can be contagious,"  Brach said. "I think now we're ready to get on a little bit of a role and hopefully 7 innings can go a long way to the next game."


"That'll build their confidence," Joe Maddon said. "They need that, the group needs that. They're all really good. ... I want to believe that an afternoon like today is gonna help build that confidnce out there that they sorely need."

Prior to this scoreless stretch, the Cubs bullpen carried a 9.85 ERA and 2.26 WHIP on the season. They're now at 6.92 and 1.86, respectively, which are still unsightly numbers, but obviously starting to trend in the right direction.

"There's a clear path to us having a really good bullpen and the primary factor in that is there's a lot of talent up here and we have depth and options, too," Epstein said Monday morning. "We'll just try to use good judgement and move along that path as quickly as we can. I think we're gonna get there."

Ryan and Webster could be part of the solution. The Cubs like how Ryan pounds the zone and induces a lot of weak contact and Webster has great stuff — an upper 90s fastball and a hard slider — plus the pedigree of a former top prospect. 

There's also more help on the way eventually, as injured veterans Brandon Morrow, Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette are all on the comeback trail. 

Morrow is recovering from November surgery on his elbow to clean everything up after a forearm bone bruise knocked him out of action for the second half of the 2018 season. He was expected to miss the first month of the season and is still on track for that.

"There's been no change to his timetable," Epstein said. "It would be impossible to say right now because a lot of it will be determined by how it responds to game action. He's completed all his 'pens so far without incident."

The Cubs will have more information on Morrow's next steps later in the week, though they don't have a set plan for a rehab stint yet. 

Cedeno (wrist) and Barnette (shoulder) were two of the Cubs' free agent additions to the bullpen this winter and Epstein confirmed Monday they're each nearing a rehab assignment.

It's still unclear how all these pieces will fit into the bullpen when they're all healthy (and nobody knows when or if Edwards will be back up in Chicago), but adding reliable veterans to this group of relievers is far from a bad thing.

Morrow is expected to serve in a high-leverage role upon his return, but the Cubs will exercise caution and don't plan on using him on back-to-back days initially. So even if he slides right back into the closer's spot, it won't be on an everyday basis.

The Cubs don't care as much about the names or roles in the bullpen so long as the production is there, which it wasn't for the first eight games. Some pitchers have admitted they're pressing and all trying to be the hero to lift the group out of the rut, and manager Joe Maddon believes they might be attempting to do too much at times.


For the Cubs to put their 2-7 start behind them and move forward, they're going to have to lean heavily on their relievers. 

"The stabilization has to come out of the bullpen," Maddon said. "We do have to pitch better in general, but we've done a lot of good things on the field. We've swung the bats pretty well. We have to stabilize the bullpen. 

"... So as you continue to move it forward, you're always looking for that formulaic method of playing the game — you get on top, your bullpen does the right job, you finish it off in the end. Always looking for that."

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