Cubs

Even Craig Kimbrel wouldn't solve the Cubs' current bullpen issues

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USA TODAY

Even Craig Kimbrel wouldn't solve the Cubs' current bullpen issues

Stop kidding yourselves — Craig Kimbrel wouldn't magically solve all of the Cubs' bullpen issues.

Even if the elite closer (who is still a free agent, by the way) walked through the door of the Cubs locker room tomorrow, that doesn't suddenly make this one of the best bullpens in the game. And it sure doesn't change anything in the standings — the Cubs can't retroactively add three more wins to their record.

Five games into 2019, the Cubs don't have a closer problem. They have a problem getting the ball to the closer. 

On Saturday in Texas, the Cubs gave up the lead in the 8th inning when Carl Edwards Jr. served up a 3-run homer to Joey Gallo. On Sunday, it was Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery giving up 4 runs in the 7th inning and then Pedro Strop throwing a wild pitch in the 9th to give the Rangers a walk-off win.

Then Wednesday, it was Steve Cishek who walked the first three hitters in the 8th inning before Randy Rosario was tagged for a 3-run double. 

Kimbrel would not have stopped any of those three bullpen meltdowns and the only part he may have been able to help was Sunday's game in that he likely would've pitched the 9th inning of a 10-10 tie instead of Strop.

But these guys — Edwards, Strop, Cishek — are supposed to be the guys. Even if Kimbrel was around or Brandon Morrow was back from injury, that wouldn't immediately have a positive trickle-down effect on the rest of the bullpen. 

Nobody predicted Cishek would walk 3 batters in a row. Edwards has faded down the stretch the last couple years, but he has been lights-out at the start of each season and was coming off a fantastic spring. Strop has been the Cubs' most consistent member of the bullpen for more than a half-decade and is one of the more underrated relievers in all of baseball.

This is a system-wide failure in the bullpen right now. The Cubs' problems go well beyond the closer. Kimbrel isn't signing on and throwing 3 innings every night.

Sure, if the Cubs had Kimbrel, Joe Maddon could've called Strop's number for the 8th inning, maybe things don't get out of hand and the Cubs improve their record to 2-3. But Cishek is one of the most trusted relievers and for good reason — he had a 2.18 ERA and 1.04 WHIP last year even including late-season struggles. And he had been dominant (4 Ks, only 1 hit allowed in 1.2 innings prior to Wednesday). 

Kimbrel or no Kimbrel, that doesn't change the fact that even reliable relievers are failing to come through for the Cubs right now. It doesn't matter what name Maddon calls and it wouldn't matter who he has back there waiting for the 9th inning. The Cubs haven't even gotten to the 9th with a lead since Opening Day.

Some numbers from the Cubs bullpen right now:

They've allowed 17 earned runs on 17 walks and 20 hits in 17.1 innings through five games this season.

That's a 8.83 ERA and 2.14 WHIP. 

The Cubs have an eight-man bullpen. Through five games, five of those eight pitchers have an ERA 16.20 or higher and six of those guys have a WHIP 2.00 or higher. 

This is an everybody problem.

The bullpen was the clear weakness on this team heading into the season and even if these last few games have had a different outcome, there was a legitimate case to be made that Theo Epstein's front office should've added another quality reliever or two to this group, even if it wasn't Kimbrel.

But nobody could've seen this coming.

The good news is: It's pretty safe to say there's no way this will continue forever. Every team has a stretch of bad bullpen meltdowns during the course of every season. It's highly unlikely guys like Strop, Cishek and the others are going to continue to struggle to this level when they have long track records of success. Mike Montgomery won't have a 40.50 ERA forever. 

But when there's less than a week's worth of action to judge a season on, the problem is certainly magnified.

Throw in the fact that this problem was the biggest concern all winter plus all the comments from players, coaches and front office members about the need for a hot start, and it's the perfect equation to send Cubs fans into an angry frenzy.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

02:00 Jeff Passan predicts a significant trade or two for the Cubs this winter

03:00 Passan says the Cubs will be retooling, not rebuilding, because they still have good players

04:00 Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are the most likley to be traded

05:00 Passan explains the perception of Contreras around the league

07:00 How active will the Cubs be in free agency?

08:00 Any chance the DH will come to the NL soon?

09:00 What would a Cubs team with Anthony Rendon look like (even though it's very unlikely)

12:00 What are you more disappointed in? The haul the Cubs gave up to the White Sox or the results they have gotten from Jose Quintana?

19:00 Is Willson Contreras the most likely Cubs player to be traded this winter?

21:00 If the DH is eventually coming to the National League, is it worth hanging on to Kyle Schwarber even longer?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

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Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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