As currently constructed, the biggest X-factor in the Cubs bullpen isn't Brandon Morrow or even Pedro Strop.
It's Carl Edwards Jr.
Maybe that all changes in a couple weeks if the Cubs join the Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes or acquire an impact arm via trade.
But the season is only about one-quarter of the way completed and Theo Epstein admitted Monday it's probably too early to see any major deals take place. So right now, it's Edwards that looms as the potential key to the much-maligned Cubs bullpen.
Edwards was called on in the seventh inning to protect a 1-0 lead Tuesday night, but managed to get only two outs before leaving with runners on second and third. Brandon Kintzler came on to face Andrew McCutchen, who promptly singled home both runners, saddling Edwards with a blown save. He has now allowed 9 earned runs in 7.1 innings on the season.
"Getting Carl right is large," Joe Maddon said before Tuesday's game. "If we get Carl right, that really fills a big gap right there."
Many have drawn the parallels between the 2019 Cubs and the 2016 Cubs and like that World Series team, this year's squad seems destined to acquire a closer (or at least a high-leverage impact reliever) this summer.
In 2016, Hector Rondon had a successful run as the team's closer, but it was pretty clear the Cubs needed an impact arm at the back of the bullpen to make a World Series run and they got it in the form of Aroldis Chapman.
It's too early to talk about World Series runs right now, but it's once again clear that the Cubs would be best served making an impact addition to the bullpen.
The Cubs got good news on the Morrow front Monday as he threw from flat ground and reported everything OK, but the 34-year-old has already suffered one setback in his recovery and at this point, he's a complete unknown. The Cubs can't bank on him returning at all this year and have to approach the situation with the idea that any contribution Morrow lends to this bullpen is a bonus.
Strop could be nearing a return after throwing a successful bullpen Monday. But his health — especially with his now-problematic hamstrings — will obviously be a big factor in the overall success of the bullpen, as we can see right now with the way this unit has been set up in his absence.
With both Morrow and Strop down, Steve Cishek has been the next man up in the closer's role, but he was asked to work 2.1 innings Sunday night to close out the Cubs' win in Washington and was thus unavailable for the series opener against the Phillies.
So Brad Brach got the call for the ninth inning Monday night at Wrigley Field and wound up getting charged with the blown save. The Cubs then lost the ballgame the next inning when Kyle Ryan served up a home run to Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto.
That bullpen breakdown led to another round of sky-is-falling panic in the fanbase, calling for relief reinforcements like Kimbrel.
The Cubs are tied for second in baseball with 9 blown saves, though they actually came into Tuesday's game with the second-best bullpen in the league (2.72 ERA) since that rough 2-7 start to the season.
But now this unit has become a big concern once again. Getting by without Morrow is one thing, but between losing Strop to the IL and Edwards still not performing up to his potential, suddenly this bullpen is on some seriously unstable ground.
"This year to this point, we've lost some games late that we normally haven't lost in the past," Maddon said. "If we had just pitched somewhat up to our standards, our record would be crazy good right now. But I like the stuff that we have, I like the resiliency that we have. Like I said, Carl's a linchpin to this and I think Stroppy is, too."
Even with the shaky moments from the bullpen and the fact they're onto their backup backup closer (or is it the "backup to the backup closer?"), the Cubs still entered Tuesday's game with a 27-18 record and in first place in the National League Central.
They've managed to do all that with very little in the way of contribution from Edwards, who has the best stuff and the highest ceiling of any pitcher currently on the roster.
The Cubs already sent Edwards down to the minor leagues for a month to fine-tune his mental and physical mechanics and though the 27-year-old has been back in the big leagues for the last couple weeks, he's still not quite himself.
Prior to Tuesday's hiccup, Maddon thought Edwards might be getting close to that level — he was dialing his fastball up to nearly 96 mph Saturday as he retired the only two batters he faced on 11 pitches.
"He threw well the other day," Maddon said. "[On Saturday], the fastball was better, better command of it, better finish on it. I think with Carl, it's just a confidence thing. I just gotta keep putting him out there. He has a couple successful moments and I think he can turn it around.
"But stuff-wise, I saw the better velocity, I saw the cut and I saw the really good curveball."
Sure, adding Kimbrel or another proven, high-leverage arm would give the Cubs a better bullpen.
But no such move appears to be on the horizon and Morrow's future is still a giant question mark, so the Cubs have to work with what they have and Edwards pitching like he's capable of would change the entire complexion of the bullpen.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream
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As Jason Heyward stood at his locker Thursday afternoon, answering questions ahead of the biggest series of the season, the clubhouse TVs were tuned to ESPN's "Highly Questionable" where the graphic on the right side displayed the topic: "Cubs collapsing."
Jon Lester walked by, looked up at the TV and silently shook his head before moving on.
Heyward continued to talk to reporters about how his teams almost always make the playoffs while the soundless TVs displayed lowlights of the Cubs over the previous couple days and discussed the difficult position they're in with only a week-and-a-half left in the season.
That's exactly why Kris Bryant is sick of seeing ESPN and MLB Network on the TVs inside the Cubs clubhouse. He would prefer "Moana" or any other Disney movies (and Nicholas Castellanos would agree, though he drowns out the external chatter by carrying a little Bluetooth speaker with him wherever he goes).
The Cubs know what's being said about them right now. They've always known.
The only thing is...ESPN's tagline for the topic turned out to be more true than anybody knew at that time.
"Collapse" might be a generous word for how the weekend played out, with the Cubs losing all four to the Cardinals by a combined total of 4 runs.
"Unbelievable" was the word Joe Maddon used.
Yu Darvish couldn't even find the words and instead just motioned to his mud-stained locker, where he took out his frustrations after Sunday's disastrous ninth inning.
Whatever words you want to use, the end result is clear — the Cubs are not going to the playoffs in 2019. They're not mathematically eliminated yet, but their postseason odds sit below 3 percent and they are 4 games behind the Brewers and Nationals in the NL Wild-Card race with only six games remaining.
Soon enough, Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. will find out what it's like to play in games that don't have any playoff implications for the first time in their careers.
This isn't how anybody saw the 2019 season playing out. The expectations were World Series or bust, especially after the way 2018 ended and all the talk in the winter and spring about urgency and how every game matters.
They certainly haven't gotten the results anybody within the organization or fanbase was hoping for, but to a man, they said all the right things throughout this recent homestand, preaching the need to stay one day at a time and in the present tense (a popular Maddonism). Entering the four-game series with the Cardinals, the Cubs fielded question after question about how big the whole weekend is and they all answered it the same — "We want to win today. We're not worried about anything beyond today."
"It's like trying to go 4-for-4 in your first at-bat," Bryant said.
It sure doesn't seem like the mindset was the problem.
But their mindset from Thursday or Friday doesn't really matter right now. Teams are judged on wins and losses and there is no way to spin the fact that the 2019 Cubs fell short of everybody's expectations.
"Certain things don't look as good after you've won more games than anyone else over a four-year period, won a World Series, gotten in [the playoffs] four years in a row — they don't look as good as they would've otherwise," Theo Epstein said last week. "That's how it should be. It's understandable. We have a high bar for our organization. I think we all are invested in it and take it personally when we don't get there.
"At the same time, you know it's not gonna be perfect. Working through down periods is an important part of the job of getting the ultimate success and sustaining success. Eight years ago, what were we hoping to do? Have sustained success. By definition, you're always looking forward. You want to see how long you can sustain it. It's been pretty good so far, but we have a lot of work ahead."
Those lofty expectations are why this 2019 season has been so maddening for the fanbase and those within the Cubs front office. They have one of the highest payrolls in baseball, an extremely talented team on paper and a core of players who won the World Series in 2016 and made it to three straight National League Championship Series.
Yet these guys are still subject to the pressure and trying to do too much. For whatever reason, they just have not been able to put it all together this season despite the talent and experience.
"I think we're all trying too hard sometimes," Lester admitted early in the homestand. "I'm guilty of it; I think everybody in that clubhouse is guilty of it. You want to win the game before the game is even played. That's part of the grind of playing 162 games. You get into those funks sometimes.
"Whenever you struggle, you always try to make up for that in that one instance. For [pitchers], it's that one pitch — 'I'm gonna make this perfect pitch, I'm gonna get him out and it's gonna be over with and move on to the next guy.' Well, sometimes that puts you 1-0 [in the count] as opposed to being 0-1 with just a quality pitch.
"Same thing with hitting — 'Oh, I'm gonna try to hit a 4-run homer with nobody on right here.' You get into those funks where you just almost have to play yourself out of it."
It's fascinating that there is so much pressure surrounding this club with all they've accomplished over the last few seasons.
Since the start of 2015, only the Dodgers and Astros have more regular season wins than the Cubs' 469 (and both teams passed the Cubs just this season).
This is also the group that pulled off the greatest story in American sports history, ending the 108-year championship drought three falls ago.
So where is this pressure coming from?
"It's just trying to meet up to expectations," Maddon said. "The expectations have been raised from Day 1. I've always talked that you should run TOWARDS expectations and not away from it. You should run toward the word pressure, not away from it. When you have that, normally there's something good attached to it on the other side. When you don't have those words attached to your daily grind, it's no fun."
Maddon believes pressure comes from how each person processes or analyzes the moment and referenced one of his favorite phrases that is now painted in big white letters on the wall of the tunnel leading from the clubhouse to the dugout — "do not permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure."
That's not the easiest thing for young players to do — even young players who have been in the big leagues for a few years.
But the expectations surrounding this club aren't going to just disappear after a disappointing season. That means the pressure is here to stay, too.
"It's cyclical, I think," Maddon said. "As our group gets through these moments, they're gonna be better for it. And then I'm guessing more than likely, moments like this will not be impactful in a negative way with them in the future. But you gotta go through it. You gotta live it.
"And you come out the other side and you realize how foolish it was to analyze the moment in a certain way and, 'man, the next time I'm faced with that, I'll never do that to myself again.' And then there's gonna be some that will realize, 'man, I handled that pretty well and I got through it pretty well because I thought I saw it clearly.'
"I think that's exactly what goes on right now. My job is to try to illustrate the perspective from my perspective which would be to embrace all that stuff. That's pretty cool, actually. And love the idea that you gotta win today, love the idea that you have to perform today. And that's how you become great. I think that's the method I've tried to imbue within the group since the day I got here."
That perspective will be put to the test now, as the expectations for this team move to the offseason and what should be a very interesting winter.