With tough decisions coming soon, Cubs' bullpen plan may be coming into focus


With tough decisions coming soon, Cubs' bullpen plan may be coming into focus

The Cubs have some intriguing decisions to make regarding their bullpen in the near future, but their plan may be starting to come into focus.

The way this season started, it would've been impossible to believe that by the first week of May, the Cubs would actually have the problem of boasting too many good options in the bullpen.

But that's what's going on right now, as left-handers Mike Montgomery and Xavier Cedeno are nearing the end of their rehab assignments and Carl Edwards Jr. looks to be righting the ship in Triple-A Iowa.

The current big-league bullpen has actually been the best in baseball the last three-and-a-half weeks and only two relievers have options remaining and are able to be sent back down to the minors — Dillon Maples and Kyle Ryan.

Ryan has been fantastic (3.38 ERA, 1.53 FIP, 13.5 K/9) and is currently the only southpaw in the Cubs bullpen. Maples still has to nail down his command, but he's also induced some flat-out silly reactions from some very good hitters like Adam Jones and Edwin Encarnacion over the last week.

So when Montgomery and Cedeno are ready to go, whose spot do they take in the bullpen? 

Montgomery began his rehab assignment from his strained lat on April 17 and has made 3 starts in the Cubs' minor-league system, getting all the way up to 68 pitches on Sunday. The 32-year-old Cedeno has thrown in 6 games — all with Double-A Tennessee — since his first outing on April 18, but has not been particularly effective (4 runs allowed on 8 hits and 4 walks in 5 innings).

One issue resolved itself in the short-term: Veteran Tony Barnette — who signed a big-league deal over the winter — was moved to the 60-day injured list Friday as he continues to experience issues with his balky right shoulder. He was also on a rehab assignment in the Cubs' minor-league system, but he has now been sent back to Arizona for further treatment. The earliest he could return would be the end of May.

Then there's the Edwards factor, as he's back on the right track with Triple-A Iowa after being sent down in the first week of April to work on his physical and mental mechanics.

He missed more than a week of action with a cut on his hand, but has made 3 appearances since returning, including a perfect inning Thursday in which he struck out a pair of hitters. 

In total (6 games and 7 innings), Edwards has allowed 2 runs on 3 hits and struck out 7. But more importantly, he's only walked 2 batters after issuing 5 free passes in 1.2 innings at the big-league level to start the season.

However, the Cubs have no intentions of calling Edwards back up to the big leagues in the immediate future.

"We haven't talked about it," Joe Maddon said Friday. "It's just about getting him right. I haven't spoken to Jed [Hoyer] or Theo [Epstein] about that. He had to come off that injury, also, so we had to get him back on the mound. 

"Listen, once he's ready to rock and roll, can't wait for him to get back. This guy has shown to be one of the best relief pitchers in the National League. I've talked about it before — I believe he's capable of being a solid closer. We just have to get him over the plate consistently and as we do that, he's going to continue to get better. So yeah, when he's ready to come back, I'm looking forward to it."

The Cubs have given no indication as to when Edwards will be "ready," but right now, they don't need him, Barnette or injured closer Brandon Morrow, who suffered a setback recently in his return from an elbow issue.

That may eventually change for the Cubs — these types of roster issues have a way of working themselves out with injuries and such throughout the marathon of a season — but at the moment, they have plenty of bullpen options and not enough space on the roster to accommodate them all.

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Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

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How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.