Brandon Morrow

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."

Ranking Cubs players two months into 2018

Ranking Cubs players two months into 2018

Every month throughout the 2018 season, we'll rank our top Cubs players based off trends and overall impact to the team's pursuit of another World Series.

As a refresher, here's what the power rankings looked like after April:

10. Kyle Hendricks
9. Jon Lester
8. Carl Edwards Jr.
7. Albert Almora Jr.
6. Anthony Rizzo
5. Willson Contreras
4. Brandon Morrow
3. Kyle Schwarber
2. Kris Bryant
1. Javy Baez

The weather has finally cooperated for the Cubs and they've been able to fall into a rhythm in May on playing essentially every day. 

That hasn't necessarily been a good thing for the rotation, as Tyler Chatwood still hasn't cracked the power rankings and Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish remain outside the Top 10. The rotation as a whole has been a weakness for this team and one of the top reasons why they've been unable to go on a run.

Here's how the updated power rankings line up heading into June:

10. Addison Russell
9. Kyle Schwarber
8. Ian Happ
7. Jon Lester
6. Kyle Hendricks
5. Willson Contreras
4. Javy Baez
3. Albert Almora Jr.
2. Anthony Rizzo
1. Kris Bryant

The Cubs bullpen has still been fantastic, but hard to put anybody on individual power rankings right now given it's been such a tremendous group effort. 

Morrow was still very good in May but also didn't pitch much and blew his first save of the year early in May in St. Louis.

Edwards had a really rough month that ended with him on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. I very nearly put Pedro Strop at No. 10 since he had a phenomenal month (0.84 ERA) and worked as much as any reliever, but opted to go with Russell instead.

10. Russell has sidestepped the trade rumors and continued to play his elite defense at shortstop while also turning in a solid month at the plate (.280 AVG/.359 OBP). His power will come and once it does, he'll be a heck of a valuable player to this team.

9. Schwarber only has 3 homers and 6 RBI in May, but he still boasts a very good OBP (.363) and BB:K (16:22) ratio while proving 2017's prolonged slump was an aberration.

8. Happ actually was the Cubs' most valuable hitter in May (1.042 OPS) and while the strikeouts are still a part of his game, he's also walked a ton and the power has shown up in a big way. He still struggles in the outfield, however, as evidenced by Tuesday night's misplay in the first inning.

7. With the prolonged issues of Darvish, Chatwood and Quintana, the Cubs have needed to lean on Lester more than ever this month and the wily veteran has responded in a big way.

6. The Professor just keeps doing his thing and flying under the radar.

5. Contreras has started to heat up offensively but still needs to find more consistency with his bat.

4. Baez still leads the NL in RBI and is third on the Cubs in HR and RBI this month (behind Bryzzo). But he also didn't draw a walk until the final day of the month and had the third-lowest OPS of any regular in May.

3. There's a serious case to be made that Almora is the Cubs' team MVP this year. After all, they're 21-11 when he starts, 8-7 when he enters the game as a sub and 0-5 when he doesn't play at all.

2. Rizzo has FINALLY started to heat up, driving in more than a run a game in May and changing the landscape of the Cubs offense.

1. Was anybody actually concerned about Bryant's power (only 2 HR) in April? He's hitting the ball out of the ballpark now and continues to be a steadying presence in the lineup every single day.

Who knew? Statistical oddities from Ian Happ, Daniel Palka and others from the past week in Chicago baseball

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USA TODAY

Who knew? Statistical oddities from Ian Happ, Daniel Palka and others from the past week in Chicago baseball

This past weekend Ian Happ rocked Cincinnati harder than anyone since Dr. Johnny Fever, and the White Sox from last Sunday to yesterday posted a winning 4-3 record.

It’s Monday, so let’s examine the box scores from the previous seven days for another edition of Who Knew?

Leading off

Tim Anderson started this season 5-for-5 in plate appearances leading off games: double, single, single, home run, single.

He finally made a leadoff out on Sunday.

Déjà Vu

On Monday, Ozzie Albies hit a leadoff home run off José Quintana for the second time this season. 

It was rare enough that a batter had multiple leadoff home runs against the Cubs in the same season. The last batter to do that was Hall of Famer Craig Biggio in 2006 (one each off Greg Maddux and then-starter Carlos Marmol).

But multiple leadoff home runs against the same Cubs PITCHER in the same season? Quite rare. At first, I believed it to be the first such occurrence since at least the 1880’s, but there was one other time since that I initially missed.

Prior to Ozzie Albies (off Quintana), the last batter with multiple leadoff home runs against a single Cubs pitcher in a season was Heinie Sand of the Phillies, who led off two games in 1924 with home runs off Cubs right-hander Vic Keen.

Before Sand, you DO have to go back to the 1880s. Hall of Famer Buck Ewing hit two leadoff home runs off Fred Goldsmith (who claimed to have invented the curveball, but likely did not) in 1883.  It may have happened in 1884, but there are some missing details in the home run database and I can’t be certain. But it’s rare!

Saves without Strikeouts

Cubs closer Brandon Morrow has 10 saves this season. In half of them (including his latest save Tuesday), he did not record a strikeout.

Only Wade Davis, who closed out games for the Cubs last season, has more strikeout-less saves in 2018 (no punchouts in seven of his 16 saves). Davis, for the record, saved 32 games for the Cubs last season, but in only nine of those 32 did he not strike anyone out.

Meanwhile, up in the Pacific Northwest, Edwin Díaz of the Mariners has 15 saves this season and has at least one strikeout in all 15.

National Treasure

Leury García took Jameson Taillon deep Wednesday in Pittsburgh, giving him 13 career home runs, all in a White Sox uniform.

The thing is, seven of those 13 home runs have been against National League teams!  Check out his career splits with the Sox:

Versus NL 26 games .325/.373/.636 7 home runs
Versus AL 225 games .227/.267/.306 6 home runs

Uncanny!

Hit Bonanza

The Cubs started Friday’s game in Cincinnati like this:

Zobrist single, Bryant double, Rizzo single, Contreras single, Russell single.

It was the first time the Cubs started a game with five straight hits since Sept. 8, 2009 when they had EIGHT straight hits to start a game. They started that game as follows:

Ryan Theriot single, Milton Bradley single, Derrek Lee single, Aramis Ramírez single, Jeff Baker single, Geovany Soto double, Kosuke Fukudome double, Bobby Scales single. A Ryan Dempster sacrifice bunt snapped the streak, giving up an out in the first inning with a 6-0 lead.

Palka Dots

Sox slugger Daniel Palka has made an impact so far in the Majors. Half of his 16 hits have been of the extra-base variety.

In only 18 career games, Palka already has multiple doubles (three), triples (two) and home runs (three). Through 18 career games, Frank Thomas could check off two of those three boxes, although maybe not the two that you think.

The Big Hurt had six doubles and THREE TRIPLES in his initial dozen-and-a-half career games, but no home runs! The last White Sox player who had at least two of each type of extra-base hit through his first 18 career Major League contests?

Go back to Greg Walker, who collected two doubles, two triples and three home runs in an 11-game taste of the Majors in 1982 and his first seven games of 1983.

Ace of On-Base

Ian Happ returned to his old stomping grounds (kind of… he attended the University of Cincinnati) over the weekend and had quite a four-game series:

Friday 1 hit 3 walks
Saturday (Game 1) 3 hits 1 walk
Saturday (Game 2) 1 hit 2 walks
Sunday 0 hits 3 walks

Now granted, there aren’t as many four-game series as there used to be, but Happ was the first Cub to reach base at least three times in each game of a four-game series since Mark Grace during a four-game set versus Mets at Wrigley Field Aug. 9-12, 1991.Five hits and nine walks; Happ reached base at least three times in all four games!

Happ’s season slashline was boosted from .233/.301/.417 to .254/.361/.509 in those four games alone. His nine walks (five intentional, four unintentional) in the series is better than Javier Báez (six walks: four intentional, two unintentional) has for the entire season.

Happ on Friday became the first Cub to be walked three times intentionally in a game since Andre Dawson (FIVE times) on May 22, 1990. Back then, it actually required pitches to intentionally walk a batter.

Happ was also the first Cub to homer in both ends of a doubleheader since Chris Coghlan July 8, 2014 – also at Cincinnati. But Happ was able to do something Coghlan didn’t: in both games, Happ hit the lone Cubs home run! That’s something no Cub had done since Alfonso Soriano hit the lone Cubs' home run in each game of a doubleheader in St. Louis on Sept. 15, 2007.

Extra Extra!

José Abreu continues to produce. He doubled and homered Saturday night, making him the 23rd player in White Sox history to reach 300 career extra-base hits. He reached 300 extra-base hits in only 655 career Major League games, a number surpassed in White Sox history only by Frank Thomas (626). 

It was also Abreu’s 222nd career multi-hit game in a White Sox uniform, matching our “Beltin’” Bill Melton.