Brad Brach

Everybody is trying to be the hero: One explanation for Cubs' early-season struggles

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USA TODAY

Everybody is trying to be the hero: One explanation for Cubs' early-season struggles

MILWAUKEE — We can sit here and rattle off stat after stat about the awful start for the Cubs bullpen in 2019.

You know what, actually strike out the word "bullpen" and the statement still holds up.

The Cubs certainly didn't envision they'd enter a big early-season showdown with the Brewers this weekend with a 1-5 record.

But the pressing question after the team's first week was simply: Why?

Why was this bullpen struggling to get anybody out? Why was the defense committing miscue after miscue? Why is the starting rotation struggling to hold up its end of the bargain? 

Why does the team continue to come out looking flat and tight?

The answer to every question may lie in the last query — maybe because these players ARE tight. They are pressing.

Everybody is trying to be the hero that gets the Cubs back on track. That's been especially true in the bullpen.

"That's typical what happens and you're gonna hear that [hero] line utilized all the time in moments like this, but right now, they are probably trying a little bit too hard and they're seeing the guy in front of them not being successful and maybe they're carrying the weight with them," Joe Maddon said. "It snowballs in a bad way."

That "snowball" phrase seems to be a common refrain around the Cubs these days.

It makes sense, too, as it's the best way to sum up the way things have spiraled downward the last five games.

"There was such an emphasis on getting off to a fast start that it kind of has snowballed here and it has been magnified extremely this first week," veteran reliever Brad Brach said. "That's just the way it is. If this happened in June, it probably wouldn't be that big of a deal. But because it's March and April and the season first started and we're going against the Brewers, it's definitely magnified.

"You can't really worry about it. You just gotta get back to doing what you do and just hope that one good outing leads to another good outing just as one bad outing could lead to another bad outing. Just get the ball rolling in the other way and hopefully we can turn it around."

Brach is in his first year with the Cubs, as the main addition to the bullpen this winter. 

The 32-year-old reliever is in his 8th season in the big leagues and is one of two Cubs relievers who didn't allow a run in the first two series of the season (Brandon Kintzler is the other, but the two pitchers were charged with a combined 4 runs Friday).

Brach hasn't struggled to the same degree as some of his fellow bullpen mates, but he has felt the same pressure and desire to be the hero.

He made two appearances in Atlanta earlier in the week, getting just 5 outs while walking 5 batters. He did not allow a run, but he did feel like he was trying too hard, especially considering it was against his former team (he was traded to the Braves midseason last year and joined them for their playoff run). It's something he chatted with Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy about recently.

"I think in Atlanta, facing the old team I was with last year, and just trying to impress these guys," Brach said. "Going out there in my second outing, I was trying to be the hero, trying to catapult the bullpen into pitching a little better. It's not something you can do as an individual. 

"I started rushing everything and the game sped up on me and I did a terrible job of keeping my emotions in check there. Just trying to get my teammates to trust me when I go out there and let the coaches know what kinda pitcher I am.

"I had a manager who always said 'you can't put the cart before the horse' and that's kinda what I was doing this past series [in Atlanta]."

So how do Brach and the Cubs figure out how to get the horse back in front of the cart?

"It's just taking it one pitch at a time and relaxing," Brach said. "You do it one step at a time. There's no way to put the result before the execution of the pitch. It's one of those things where you have to do it one pitch at a time, regardless of how hard or difficult that can be at times. 

"Because all you can control is before the pitch. Once it leaves your fingertips, there's nothing you can do. You just get the sign, try to get your arm where you want it to be and after that, there's really nothing else I can do."

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19 for '19: Do Cubs have enough in the bullpen?

19 for '19: Do Cubs have enough in the bullpen?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen to make another run at the World Series?

It’s 2999. Functioning civilization is but a distant memory, as the cities we once revered are now nothing but ashes and dust. You and your group of survivors are walking down the middle of freeway, littered with abandoned cars and overgrown weeds. Suddenly, movement! Down the ways some, a mysterious figure emerges. The figure approaches, and you cautiously hold your ground. You lock eyes, and after what feels like an eternity passes, the figure finally cries out:

“Kinda worried about the Cubs bullpen this year.”

No one likes their bullpen in March. No one really even likes their bullpen in April. The Cubs are no exception, though there’s reason for optimism — and you don’t even need to look *that* hard!

First, the obvious: right now, on March 23rd, the Cubs’ bullpen is an issue. Brandon Morrow continues to work towards his return from something yucky called an elbow debridement procedure, Xavier Cedeno/Tony Barnette are already out and Pedro Strop is a hard-maybe for Opening Day. Who knows what to expect from Brandon Kintzler and Brian Duensing. All of a sudden we’re at SIX bullpen arms without a sure bet, which is admittedly a bit alarming.

There’s plenty of silver lining, though. Kintzler looked much worse with the Nationals early last season than he did with the Cubs, and is still an elite ground ball guy. Carl Edwards Jr. is going to get his strikeouts and Strop filled in admirably as the closer last year; even if he misses Opening Day, it sounds like he won’t be too far behind. Brad Brach was a sneaky good signing. A healthy, strike-throwing Tyler Chatwood is an intriguing long-man, and frees up Mike Montgomery and his elite groundball rate to be used more judiciously. Hell, even Allen Webster and Junichi Tazawa are turning heads in camp.

There’s a workable bullpen in there somewhere. How far a “workable bullpen” gets you in October is fair game for debate, but the Cubs have the arms to appease Joe Maddon and his anybody-pitch-at-anytime routine.

If the Cubs want an elite bullpen, the type that sucks the life out of teams after the 5th inning, it’ll be up to the Ricketts to revisit their favorite “we’re out of money” line from this offseason. Maybe Chatwood learns to throw strikes again, and maybe Morrow stays healthy. Kintzler could start breaking bats again and Duensing could be nails against lefties, and people would still be worried. Ultimately, the bullpen’s best case scenario still probably doesn’t preclude the team from shopping at the deadline.

Official prediction: The Cubs will enter the postseason with an established 7-8-9 routine, and one of those three pitchers is on another team’s roster right now.

-Cam Ellis

Bullpens have always been important to a Major League Baseball team's success, but the focus on relievers has never been higher than it is right now. Between the use of openers (which turns into a "bullpen day") and how teams utilize their relievers to shorten games in October, it's a hot-button issue every day now.

It's pretty tough to put together a solid season without a good bullpen and there's no bigger source of frustration for a clubhouse or a fanbase than having the lead late in a game and blowing it. 

All that being said, the Cubs bullpen entering 2019 might be the least inspiring group they've had for Opening Day in years and it's not just because of injuries (though that's a huge factor). 

In 2017, the Cubs left spring training with brand new closer Wade Davis in tow, plus veterans Brian Duensing and Koji Uehara. 

In 2018, it was Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and a full season of Justin Wilson.

This year, it's Brad Brach, Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette...and both Cedeno and Barnette are expected to miss Opening Day due to injury while Brach is getting over a bout of mono and fighting through a dip in velocity. Oh yeah, and Morrow is still hurt and will miss at least a month.

It's certainly not ideal, but there are worse bullpen situations out there among contending teams. Even the once-mighty Brewers are enduring adversity with their relief corps at the moment.

The Cubs certainly have question marks in their bullpen and while a shiny new toy like Craig Kimbrel would absolutely make things look a while lot better, there's no guarantee this current group is going to struggle. Cishek, Brach, Duensing, Pedro Strop and Brandon Kintzler are all established veterans with a reliable track record and even amid his late-season struggles the last couple years, Carl Edwards Jr. has still posted very good numbers.

Edwards putting it all together would certainly make things run a lot smoother in Joe Maddon's bullpen. Remember, too, that Cishek looked like the MVP of the entire pitching staff last year before seemingly running into a wall in late August — he had a 1.68 ERA and 0.97 WHIP through Aug. 24.

The Cubs can't count on Morrow settling in as closer even when he returns in late-April/early-May given his long injury history and the key will be making sure he — and the rest of the bullpen — is healthy and firing on all cylinders down the stretch in what figures to be a dogfight in the NL. 

Plus, the Cubs finally have some young arms on the cusp of the big leagues who look like they may provide an in-season boost to the bullpen (Dakota Mekkes, Adbert Alzolay, etc.).

As Cam said, bullpens are impossible to predict in March. The Cubs felt great about their relievers in March 2017-18 and both units looked a whole lot different by the time September and October came along.

Could the Cubs have done more to bolster their bullpen this winter? Absolutely, and they probably should've given it's the clear weakness of the roster at the moment. But nobody knows how this will all play out over the next six months.

-Tony Andracki

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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The Cubs may be in a precarious position with their bullpen come Opening Day

The Cubs may be in a precarious position with their bullpen come Opening Day

The state of the Cubs bullpen looks bleaker and bleaker by the day.

We've known since December that the Cubs would begin the season without Brandon Morrow, as their closer is still recovering from an elbow debridement procedure after missing half of 2018 with a forearm bone bruise.

Things have taken another turn to the negative this week, as Pedro Strop suffered a hamstring injury that has cast some doubt over his Opening Day status.

It was also recently reported veteran lefty Xavier Cedeno — who signed with the Cubs in the first couple days of spring camp — will miss Opening Day with a left wrist injury that has kept him from pitching in Cactus League games.

On Friday, one more arm was added to the list of injuries, as Tony Barnette — another offseason signing — is dealing with a shoulder issue and probably won't be ready for Opening Day in Texas:

That was accompanied with some good news about Strop:

Still, it doesn't exactly paint a rosy picture of the Cubs bullpen heading into the first series of 2019.

As of right now, the Cubs Opening Day group of relievers might look like this:

Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Brian Duensing
Tyler Chatwood

And if Strop can't go, the Cubs would fill the final spot in their bullpen by selecting one of the following: Dillon Maples, Allen Webster, Junichi Tazawa, Kyle Ryan, Randy Rosario. (On Saturday, the Cubs assigned George Kontos, Dakota Mekkes, Matt Carasiti and Mike Zagurski to minor league camp. James Norwood and Rowan Wick were sent to Triple-A Iowa.)

Alec Mills could be an option, but as MLB.com's Jordan Bastian noted in his Tweet above, the right-hander is also dealing with a shoulder issue.

Montgomery's spring got off to a delayed start when he dealt with some shoulder tightness before Cactus League games began and he's only managed to appear in one game so far.

Brach has also had a suboptimal spring, with only 3 appearances after a bout of mono affected him early in camp. He's also dealt with velocity issues, topping out a good 5-10 mph below his in-season average, though the veteran insists that's normal for him in spring.

The aforementioned bullpen group also includes a trio of veterans — Kintzler, Duensing, Chatwood — who are coming off rough 2018 seasons. Meanwhile, both Edwards and Cishek faded down the stretch last fall after looking dominant for most of the first five months of the season.

So it's understandable why Cubs fans might be freaking out about the bullpen and it's certainly easy to empathize with anybody who wants Theo Epstein's front office to go out and add an elite reliever like Craig Kimbrel, who's somehow still available on the free agent market.

If Strop isn't ready for Opening Day, he may be only a few days behind and the Cubs are also afforded a pair of early off-days in the season which could help add time for Strop to heal and also provide guaranteed rest for the top healthy arms.

The situation isn't exactly dire, either, in terms of the group of relievers available to fill that final spot. 

Tazawa and Kontos have three World Series rings and 752.1 MLB innings between the two of them. 

Ryan also has some big-league experience, Rosario made 44 appearances in Chicago last year and Norwood got his first taste of "The Show" in 2018. Maples and Mekkes have been popular names in the Cubs minor-league system in recent years with the eye-popping numbers they've put up.

It's certainly not an ideal way for the Cubs to begin the season, but their bullpen was always going to be a work in progress in 2019. 

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