'Stropy wouldn't expect anything less from us': Who steps up in the bullpen now?


'Stropy wouldn't expect anything less from us': Who steps up in the bullpen now?

It was a little easier to answer the 9th inning question when Brandon Morrow hit the disabled list, but now that Pedro Strop is done for the rest of the regular season, things get a little murkier.

"We definitely have guys that are capable," Joe Maddon said prior to Friday's game. "[Justin] Wilson’s done it, [Steve] Cishek’s done it, [Jesse] Chavez has already done it with us. I think Carl [Edwards] is still eligible and capable to do those kind of things."

Prior to his mid-July injury, Morrow had notched 22 saves, and then Strop had 13 of his own. Strop was on his way to a nearly three inning save when he tweaked his left hamstring on Thursday. 

After that, the pitchers Maddon named do all come with some degree of closing experience. 

Wilson has 14 in his career, and all but one of those came last season before he was traded to the Cubs from Detroit. At the time, he showed potential to continue that task when spelling Wade Davis and then possibly to be considered for the closer's role in 2018, but he walked far too many batters in the second half of 2017 to be trusted with any high-leverage innings, whenever they came. 

That said, Wilson has been something of a better pitcher this year, dropping his WHIP to 1.37 from the disastrous 2.09 he had for the Cubs last season. That's still high, but he was holding that number below 1.00 while he was with the Tigers in 2017, so the potential is there. Thanks to an upper 90s fastball and a 30% strikeout rate, he can certainly close games if he can keep runners off of the bases.

With the Marlins, Cishek was their go-to 9th inning guy in 2013 and 2014, and he closed for the Mariners in 2016. In all, Cishek has 124 career saves. He has closed for the Cubs three times this season, but he has also logged 65.2 innings already, so he might be best saved for other duties.

If called upon though, Cishek said he is ready, along with the rest of the bullpen.

"A lot of us have pitched in the 9th inning before," Cishek said. "I’m always going to be ready from the 6th inning on. Whenever my name gets called, I’m going in, and that’s the approach I think all the guys have taken throughout the course of the year."

That flexible attitude is sort of the mantra of the bullpen this year. Chavez, who has picked up three saves for the Cubs since joining the team in late July, echoed Cishek's thoughts.

"That’s a quality of the bullpen we have, the group we have. The type of personalities we have down there that aren’t going to fret in situations they’re put into," Chavez said. "They’re going to go out there and treat it like it was a normal situation."

To the observer, it would seem that handling the 9th inning couldn't be as simple as just treating it like any other inning. The pressure of a close division race, the energy of the crowd amplify these moments more than most ballparks. 

But, the Cubs relievers say, the roar of Wrigley actually helps.

"It actually keeps you calm a little bit," Brandon Kintzler said. "With this stadium here, they’re up in the 6th inning and it feels like the 9th inning."

Kintzler closed games in 2016 and 2017 for the Twins and Nationals. He has yet to pitch in that situation for the Cubs this year, but he fits in with the mindset of the rest of the bullpen.

"From my experience closing you just have to you can’t treat it as any bigger  what it is. Obviously it’s the last out, but the reality is it’s just another inning," Kintzler said. "You just try to be the closer of your own inning, and just treat it like that and do what you do and don’t make it bigger than what it is."

Randy Rosario picked up the last inning Thursday when Strop got hurt, but it is likely that Maddon will rely on his pitchers with greater experience in the 9th inning. Right now, it appears as though Morrow could return later next week, but a lot of that will depend on how well his sim game goes on Saturday. 

In the meantime, Cishek and others will have to step up, but even with the energy and pressure of the last three outs, they're ready for it.

"If anything, at this point in the season, it’s an encouragement when you go out there and fans are behind you screaming down the opposing team’s throat. It just gets you fired up, gives you the extra gear," Cishek said. "We rely a lot more on the fans than they think. The positive atmosphere in this stadium is something that a lot of stadiums don’t have, and we feed off of that. If you’re able to slow it down and take in that energy and enjoy it, you just go out there and make it happen."

Cishek added that the bullpen has been coming in and covering high-leverage innings all year, so there's no room now for gloom and doom.

"If we dwell on the injuries, that doesn’t really create a positive atmosphere," Cishek said. "For us, it stinks that it happened, but we still have a job to do. Stropy wouldn’t expect anything less from us."



MLBPA's Tony Clark: Players reject pay concessions, want to 'get back to work'

MLBPA's Tony Clark: Players reject pay concessions, want to 'get back to work'

Economic negotiations between MLB and the players association seem to be at a standstill.

After a conference call between the MLBPA executive board and more than 100 players on Thursday, the union stood its ground against additional salary reductions.

“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said Thursday in a union release, “Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone.”  

The owners had proposed an 82-game season and salary cuts on a sliding scale, with the highest-paid players taking the largest cuts. In a counterproposal earlier this week, the players association suggested a 114-game season, with expanded playoffs in 2020 and 2021. The plan allowed for some salary deferrals in the case of a cancelled postseason, partially addressing the owners’ fears of a second wave of COVID-19 wiping out lucrative postseason TV deals. The players dismissed the idea of additional pay cuts, on top of the prorated salaries they agreed to in March.

“Earlier this week, Major League Baseball communicated its intention to schedule a dramatically shortened 2020 season unless Players negotiate salary concessions,” Clark continued. “The concessions being sought are in addition to billions in Player salary reductions that have already been agreed upon.”

Clark is referring to language in the March agreement that owners reportedly believe gives commissioner Rob Manfred the power to set the schedule for the 2020 season if the players and owners cannot reach an agreement. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on Monday that the league was considering a regular season of about 50 games, during which players would be entitled to their full prorated salaries.

“The overwhelming consensus of the Board,” Clark said, “is that Players are ready to report, ready to get back on the field, and they are willing to do so under unprecedented conditions that could affect the health and safety of not just themselves, but their families as well. The league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.”

While negotiations between MLB and the players association slowed to a stalemate, both the NHL and NBA made progress toward returning to play Thursday. The NHL and its players union agreed to a 24-team playoff format for the 2020 postseason. The NBA Board of Governors approved a 22-team plan to restart the season in Orlando.

Return-to-play negotiations: How Rob Manfred and Adam Silver's roles differ

Return-to-play negotiations: How Rob Manfred and Adam Silver's roles differ

If the NBA, steadily plodding forward, is the tortoise in the race to restart sports, MLB is the hare, zigzagging across the road.

On Thursday, the NBA approved a competitive format to restart the season, during a contentious week for MLB negotiations. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the National Basketball Players Association’s team player representatives have a conference call scheduled for Friday to approve the proposal. There are more details to hammer out between the league and its players union for a comprehensive resumption plan. But for now, it seems the tortoise is gaining on the hare.

Compare the NBA’s progress to the baseball news this week: In response to the owners’ 82-game proposal that included pay cuts on a sliding scale, the players countered with a 114-game plan without additional pay cuts.

Then, the owners reportedly turned their attentions to the March agreement, which they reportedly believe gives commissioner Rob Manfred the power to set the 2020 schedule if the two sides can’t reach an agreement. The threat of a 50-game season went on full display in the media.

That move – the owners using Manfred as leverage – reveals an important distinction between the roles of the commissioners in return-to-play negotiations.

There are several reasons that negotiations have gone so differently for MLB and the NBA, including how much of the season had been played before the coronavirus shutdown, and the leagues’ unique structures and histories. Those are important. But the relationships Manfred and NBA commissioner Adams Silver have built with the players in their respective leagues have also played a significant role.

Silver, while by no means perfect, has been the commissioner of the NBA’s player empowerment era. He set the tone less than three months into the job, when he banned former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers or NBA. Audio of Sterling making racist remarks to his girlfriend had recently surfaced.

Manfred, on the other hand, has overseen a flattening of player salaries over the past five years, despite revenue growth. He also received criticism from several players during Spring Training for his handling of the Astros sign-stealing scandal.

So, it’s no surprise that Silver was the commissioner who sought consultation from players throughout the process of drafting a return-to-play proposal.

“In this way,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote this week, “the union has, in some respects, voted along the way.”

If the dramatic clash between MLB and its players association is any indication, the same was not true in baseball.

Three weeks ago, Manfred held a conference call with MLB owners to approve a return-to-play proposal. Since then, negotiations have covered a wide range of topics: health and safety, length of season, player salaries, deferrals. The union described the league’s first economic proposal as “extremely disappointing.” MLB rejected the players’ 114-game plan.

The NBA Board of Governors’ vote wasn’t held until Thursday. But at least this week, NBA’s view of the finish line appeared clearer than MLB’s.