Craig Kimbrel

Even Craig Kimbrel wouldn't solve the Cubs' current bullpen issues

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USA TODAY

Even Craig Kimbrel wouldn't solve the Cubs' current bullpen issues

Stop kidding yourselves — Craig Kimbrel wouldn't magically solve all of the Cubs' bullpen issues.

Even if the elite closer (who is still a free agent, by the way) walked through the door of the Cubs locker room tomorrow, that doesn't suddenly make this one of the best bullpens in the game. And it sure doesn't change anything in the standings — the Cubs can't retroactively add three more wins to their record.

Five games into 2019, the Cubs don't have a closer problem. They have a problem getting the ball to the closer. 

On Saturday in Texas, the Cubs gave up the lead in the 8th inning when Carl Edwards Jr. served up a 3-run homer to Joey Gallo. On Sunday, it was Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery giving up 4 runs in the 7th inning and then Pedro Strop throwing a wild pitch in the 9th to give the Rangers a walk-off win.

Then Wednesday, it was Steve Cishek who walked the first three hitters in the 8th inning before Randy Rosario was tagged for a 3-run double. 

Kimbrel would not have stopped any of those three bullpen meltdowns and the only part he may have been able to help was Sunday's game in that he likely would've pitched the 9th inning of a 10-10 tie instead of Strop.

But these guys — Edwards, Strop, Cishek — are supposed to be the guys. Even if Kimbrel was around or Brandon Morrow was back from injury, that wouldn't immediately have a positive trickle-down effect on the rest of the bullpen. 

Nobody predicted Cishek would walk 3 batters in a row. Edwards has faded down the stretch the last couple years, but he has been lights-out at the start of each season and was coming off a fantastic spring. Strop has been the Cubs' most consistent member of the bullpen for more than a half-decade and is one of the more underrated relievers in all of baseball.

This is a system-wide failure in the bullpen right now. The Cubs' problems go well beyond the closer. Kimbrel isn't signing on and throwing 3 innings every night.

Sure, if the Cubs had Kimbrel, Joe Maddon could've called Strop's number for the 8th inning, maybe things don't get out of hand and the Cubs improve their record to 2-3. But Cishek is one of the most trusted relievers and for good reason — he had a 2.18 ERA and 1.04 WHIP last year even including late-season struggles. And he had been dominant (4 Ks, only 1 hit allowed in 1.2 innings prior to Wednesday). 

Kimbrel or no Kimbrel, that doesn't change the fact that even reliable relievers are failing to come through for the Cubs right now. It doesn't matter what name Maddon calls and it wouldn't matter who he has back there waiting for the 9th inning. The Cubs haven't even gotten to the 9th with a lead since Opening Day.

Some numbers from the Cubs bullpen right now:

They've allowed 17 earned runs on 17 walks and 20 hits in 17.1 innings through five games this season.

That's a 8.83 ERA and 2.14 WHIP. 

The Cubs have an eight-man bullpen. Through five games, five of those eight pitchers have an ERA 16.20 or higher and six of those guys have a WHIP 2.00 or higher. 

This is an everybody problem.

The bullpen was the clear weakness on this team heading into the season and even if these last few games have had a different outcome, there was a legitimate case to be made that Theo Epstein's front office should've added another quality reliever or two to this group, even if it wasn't Kimbrel.

But nobody could've seen this coming.

The good news is: It's pretty safe to say there's no way this will continue forever. Every team has a stretch of bad bullpen meltdowns during the course of every season. It's highly unlikely guys like Strop, Cishek and the others are going to continue to struggle to this level when they have long track records of success. Mike Montgomery won't have a 40.50 ERA forever. 

But when there's less than a week's worth of action to judge a season on, the problem is certainly magnified.

Throw in the fact that this problem was the biggest concern all winter plus all the comments from players, coaches and front office members about the need for a hot start, and it's the perfect equation to send Cubs fans into an angry frenzy.

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No quick fix for Carl Edwards Jr. and the Cubs' bullpen roller coaster

No quick fix for Carl Edwards Jr. and the Cubs' bullpen roller coaster

ARLINGTON, Texas — Even if Carl Edwards Jr. had not blown the lead in Saturday's game, the Cubs bullpen was always going to be a work in progress.

Especially over the first month of the season.

The Cubs will be without closer Brandon Morrow until at least May and even if he were already in the bullpen right now, Joe Maddon wouldn't be able to definitively state where everybody fits. 

The Chicago skipper typically doesn't want to lock anybody into roles or situations in the bullpen until about a month into a season, mostly because relievers' performances are so volatile from year to year.

"You know the guys, you know what you think you got, but then you gotta keep throwing them out there because things change on a year-by-year basis," Maddon said. "I won't make up my mind too soon about anything. ... It takes a bit. You have your tried-and-trues and other guys may ease into roles maybe more prominent or less prominent based on what you're seeing right now. 

"But I've always believed it's about a month break-in period before you really understand how to use your guys."

With Morrow out, Maddon isn't trying to do anything differently to give guys new matchups or roles or anything like that.

While Maddon hasn't explicitly said it, Pedro Strop is the de facto closer with Morrow on the shelf, and the Cubs manager admitted he would've gone to Strop in the ninth inning Saturday if Edwards had been able to hold the lead in the eighth. 

"We have really good arms in the bullpen," Maddon said. "I don't worry about that; it's just really matching them up right so they get off to a good start and then once Brandon comes back, it'll shift again. But that's only gonna be for the better, I think. 

"This is really gonna be a good bullpen this year. Whose gonna settle in where right now — whose gonna be better than anticipated, who might be down just a little bit? And then try to figure it out moving forward. And then hopefully once Morrow gets back, then you can really settle into something good at that point."

So Maddon won't read too much into Edwards' one rough outing...no matter how rough it was. 

Edwards did not retire any of the four batters he faced, giving up a single on an 0-2 hanging curveball, a walk, a 3-run homer to Joey Gallo on a pitch in the middle of the plate and then another walk before Maddon went out for the hook.

As alarming as the results were, it was also worrisome that Edwards' velocity was down — the homer came on a 92 mph fastball when he normally sits in the mid-to-upper 90s — but that also might be because he had no idea where his fastball was going. 

Edwards might've taken a bit off his fastball to Gallo just to get a pitch in the zone. He's also trying out a new delivery, where he changes up his timing to home plate and sometimes does a pause where his foot comes down to the ground and then he delivers.

"There's different things he's working on within his delivery and just to probably nail that down and have that become more consistent," Maddon said. "I just think he had too much going on mentally [Saturday]."

Edwards wasn't worried about his velocity after Saturday's game, saying he anticipates better numbers next time out because "I got a lot of anger in me right now."

Regardless of when Morrow returns or how often he'll be able to be utilized when he is off the injured list, the Cubs are going to need to lean heavily on Edwards in the bullpen this year. The 27-year-old right-hander has the potential to be the most dynamic reliever on the Cubs roster.

He just has to make good on that potential now in his fourth big-league season.

"Just strikes," Maddon said. "Consistently in the strike zone, being able to throw a strike when he wants to is so important. Because that's the area that really prevents him from being great. He's a really good relief pitcher right now and as he gains better command of his fastball, he can become great at this. 

"...It comes down to, a major-league pitcher — one of the best definitions I've heard is the ability to throw a strike when you want to. There are times you don't want to, like if you're pitching around somebody and you want to get the guy to chase out of the zone. You don't want to throw a strike.

"But when you do want to, you should be able to have that rhythm and that release and all that other good stuff that permits you to do that. That's what I want of our guys. I want them to be able to throw strikes when they want to."

There's no denying this Cubs bullpen would be a lot better off if they signed Craig Kimbrel. 

But this is the group Maddon has to work with and he found a way to get results out of the group last year despite Morrow missing half a season, Strop, Edwards and Steve Cishek all injured or fading down the stretch and needing to rely heavily on scrap-heap pickups like Jesse Chavez, Jorge De La Rosa and Jaime Garcia.

That's not to say fans aren't justified in their anger and despair from Saturday's bullpen meltdown. But in the "Year of Reckoning," it doesn't appear Kimbrel is walking through that door, so Cubs fans have no choice but to sit back and see how it all plays out.

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Brewers dealt a huge blow with closer Corey Knebel done for the season

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USA TODAY

Brewers dealt a huge blow with closer Corey Knebel done for the season

ARLINGTON, Texas - The season is just one day old and the reigning NL Central champs have already been dealt a big blow. 

Milwaukee closer Corey Knebel has a torn ligament in his elbow and as a result, has chosen to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair it instead of the riskier option of rehab:

Knebel, 27, is a big part of the Brewers bullpen, breaking out with a 1.78 ERA in a league-leading 76 appearances in 2017. That included 39 saves, 11 holds and an absurd 126 strikeouts in 76 innings. 

Last year, he dealt with some injuries and general ineffectiveness, even getting sent down to the minor leagues for a little over a week in August. But he was still a huge piece in the Brewers bullpen, leading the team with 16 saves and striking out 88 batters in 55.1 innings.

Knebel was absolutely lights-out following his demotion to the minor leagues. After being recalled, he did not allow a run in all of September (16.1 innings) and permitted just 8 baserunners (5 hits, 3 walks) while whiffing 33 batters. He carried that right into the postseason as he allowed only 1 run on 2 hits in 10 October innings against the Rockies and Dodgers.

Over his career, Knebel has a 2.77 ERA against the Cubs in 26 innings, striking out 38 of the 107 batters he's faced. He picked up the win in Game 163 at Wrigley Field last October.

This leaves the Brewers shorthanded in the bullpen, which was a major area of strength for the team last year. Josh Hader is still around and was his usual dominant self in Game 1 Thursday, but now Knebel won't be able to provide anything in 2019 (and who knows how he'll bounce back for 2020) and fellow high-leverage reliever Jeremy Jeffress is on the injured list with a shoulder injury.

Milwaukee also opted this spring to move up-and-coming young right-handers Corbin Burners, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta into the starting rotation, which further weakened the relief corps. All three were effective out of the bullpen down the stretch last season.

Maybe this Knebel news will push the Brewers to go out and get Craig Kimbrel, as it's been reported the team has been in talks with the elite free agent closer. 

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