Cubs see light at the end of the tunnel with bullpen


Cubs see light at the end of the tunnel with bullpen

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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As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame and affected anything in that regard.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs Tuesday as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of this team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying exactly when that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here


Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.