Cubs

Saving grace: How the Cubs created a 12-man bullpen

Saving grace: How the Cubs created a 12-man bullpen

The Cubs saw their bullpen run full-speed into a brick wall late last year.

After serving as a strength of the team in the first 4-5 months of the season, the Cubs bullpen fell off a cliff and struggled mightily toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. They simply ran out of gas.

It was one of the main areas the Cubs looked to improve this winter, even as they lost Wade Davis, Hector Rondon and Koji Uehara to free agency.

Theo Epstein's front office added Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to the relief corps and brought back Brian Duensing, but it's all the underrated moves that are really paying off for the Cubs bullpen right now.

Luke Farrell, Randy Rosario, Cory Mazzoni and Anthony Bass were all signed in the offseason in minor moves and Justin Hancock was acquired from the San Diego Padres for Matt Szczur last May.

Those 5 guys have combined to make 34 appearances for the Cubs in 2018 and to simply say they've been "successful" would be a massive understatement.

That group has combined for a 1.88 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 48 innings, striking out 49 batters and allowing just 4 homers. 

"One of the bigger differences this year is the other pitchers that have been chosen in the offseason to ride that train between here and Triple-A have done really well," Joe Maddon said. "There's a lot more to choose from, too."

The success of those guys has allowed Maddon to mix those 5 in with Brandon Morrow, Carl Edwards Jr. (who is currently on the disabled list), Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Mike Montgomery (who is currently in the rotation) and Duensing to form a 12-man bullpen of sorts.

In a day and age in Major League Baseball where so much emphasis is now put on the bullpen, that's a huge advantage the Cubs have carved out for themselves.

"Pro scouting is more than just like a big free agent sign or a big trade," Epstein said. "It's also a lot of depth moves and in that regard, it's been a really, really nice year for our pro scouting department and our organizational depth. 

"Not only are there a number of guys throwing well in the Iowa 'pen, but they've come up here and given us 50 or so innings of really good baseball collectively. Stepping into big games and high leverage spots and performing well. That — along with the performance of the core bullpen guys — has made it a really nice year in the 'pen so far."

The impact of all those under-the-radar guys has given the Cubs the best ERA in the National League (3.17) and second best overall behind only the Houston Astros. Only the Arizona Diamondbacks (2.50) and Milwaukee Brewers (2.65) have better bullpen ERAs than the Cubs' 2.67 mark in the MLB.

The numbers are good for the 5 guys, obviously, but even more than that, they've been able to give Maddon multiple innings and save arms for other days.

Of the 34 appearances by that group, 15 of them have resulted in more than 3 outs, including Farrell's inspired 5-inning performance in extra innings in New York earlier this month.

On top of talent, the "Iowa pitchers" have all complimented the way the clubhouse and coaching staff has embraced them, allowing them to feel comfortable from Day 1.

This is all by design. This is what the Cubs front office had in mind over the winter, but actually even before that.

They released Justin Grimm in spring training in part because he had no minor-league options remaining. 

Farrell, Rosario, Hancock and Mazzoni all entered the year with multiple options remaining, so they could conceivably fill a similar role next year if they continue to find success and remain with the Cubs.

More than half the season is left to be played, but for right now, these guys have done a heck of a job keeping the Cubs' top relievers fresh while trying to carve out a role for themselves moving forward.

"We've been trying to get to that point for a couple years where we can have optionable relievers that you can kinda shuttle in and out that we trusted," Epstein said. "The best way to make sure your key relievers stay fresh all year is to trust all your relievers so that you're using them all and spreading the workload around.

"And it's been hard to get to that point the last couple years. There was the year Grimm was kinda like that last guy when he was out of options. It's just nice to now have a situation where we have multiple optionable relievers that are doing a reliable job that Joe can trust a little bit. Maybe use the whole 'pen instead of just a handful of guys."

How a random pack of old baseball cards made the LA Times bestseller list

How a random pack of old baseball cards made the LA Times bestseller list

A few years after starting to cover baseball as a full-time beat writer many years ago, I ran into an old mentor at the ballpark I hadn’t seen in a long time and asked if he wanted to join a few of us for drinks after the game.

He’d be there, he said, but he didn’t drink anymore. Couldn’t. Not like he used to. Not after all those years covering baseball finally taught him what he didn’t want to know — just in time for a columnist job to come along and save him. 

“This beat will expose your demons,” he said. “Whatever they are.”

It’s a haunting truth for any of the countless, often faceless, people who ever have subjected themselves and their families to the lifestyle of baseball’s traveling circus, whether as one of the stars of the Big Top, one of the carnies, or even one of the media clowns.

And whether Brad Balukjian sought that particular truth when he set out on a seven-week, cross-country journey to track down the stories of 14 players from a single pack of 1986 baseball cards, he found it along with chapter after chapter of surprisingly candid interviews, emotional revelations and sharply written observations in "The Wax Pack," which reached the Los Angeles Times bestseller list last week.

RELATED: Even Giants legend Willie Mays can’t catch ‘em all — just ask the Cubs

“The reality is everybody has something,” said Balukjian, who joined the Cubs Talk Podcast to talk about the book. “Whether it’s physical, mental, [you’re] famous, not famous, none of us get off without having something to deal with, and so that’s kind of what I wanted to tap into in the way that I approached the book.”

The book, which features a Hall of Famer (Carlton Fisk), two Cy Young Award winners (Rick Sutcliffe, Dwight Gooden), a one-time All-Star (Lee Mazzilli) and Balukjian favorite Don Carman, is like 14 mini-biographies woven through an autobiography you don’t see coming as it unfolds across 11,000 miles of highway and 123 cups of coffee in the summer of 2015.

On his website, the author said the book in part turned into a “meditation on the loss of innocence [and] what it means to grow up.”

It’s also about fathers and sons, strength and frailty, success and failure, humor and a lot of very personal, sometimes odd details.

We learn, for instance, that both Steve Yeager and Garry Templeton abruptly stopped drinking once they finished big-league careers that included a lot of it.

“One of the themes in the book is about the importance of behavior vs. thoughts and feelings,” said Balukjian, who centers much of the book’s thematic wisdom in the chapter spent with his childhood idol, Carman — now a sports psychologist who works for agent Scott Boras.

“Don Carman makes a big point to say you can’t control your thoughts and your feelings. you can only control your reaction to them. What these players were really good at was … essentially knowing that all they can control is their behavior. Someone like Yeager and Templeton recognizing their own demons, or their potential to be consumed by drinking, made that decision that, ‘OK, I’m just going to stop.’”

As much as anything, the book was the result of an inspired concept and a labor of love — emphasis on labor during a process to find a publisher that consumed the lifespans of two book-agent relationships and included 38 rejections over five years.

“The idea using a pack to get a random sample came to me very quickly and suddenly,” said Balukjian, who already had a fascination with typically lesser-light players and a desire to take on a where-are-they-now project. “It just seemed like it was this device that captured the excitement of the unknown that we all remember from opening packs as kids.”

But that might have been the only part that came easily during a project he pulled off with a 13-year-old car, a tight budget and a list of players that included one who had died too young (Al Cowens) and another who proved nearly as elusive (Fisk).

“For Fisk — well, for any of the guys — I decided I was still going to try to find them and tell their stories,” said Balukjian, who devoted two chapters to stalking the Red Sox and White Sox legend, including an undercover operation at a Florida country club.

“I found out from a source where he golfs at this really exclusive resort,” said Balukjian, who then posed as a wealthy snowbird looking for a home on the golf course. 

“It may not have been the most well conceived plan thinking that I could pass myself off as a multimillionaire coming in with a 2002 Honda Accord with 100,000 miles on it and peeling paint,” he said. “But it was one of the more fun chapters. The book has a lot of heaviness and some very somber moments to it. The Fisk chapter was a sort of fun diversion.”

Balukjian did not find Fisk at the resort. In fact, attempts by the Cubs Talk Podcast to have Fisk on with Balukjian also were unsuccessful.

Which is not to say the author did not get his face time, however brief. And it’s definitely worth reading about.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB owners and players are still far apart

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB owners and players are still far apart

David Kaplan and Gordon Wittenmyer discuss the back and forth between the MLB owners and players, and just how far are the two sides are in coming to a deal.

Later on, Wittenmyer interviews Brad Balukjian, author of "The Wax Pack," to discuss the book about baseball cards and the players connected to them.

(1:25) - If a deal gets done, it should happen this week

(5:15) - Are the Cubs/MLB owners exaggerating the potential losses?

(10:20) - If a deal doesn't get done, will the players take the blame

(17:05) - Interview with Brad Balukjian author of "The Wax Pack"

Listen here or below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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