Justin Wilson

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Well, we got a look at what life is like without Brandon Morrow.

The Cubs closer and the anchor of the bullpen all season was unavailable for the first game of Tuesday's day-night doubleheader due to back tightness, leading to Justin Wilson taking on closing duties in the ninth inning.

The end result was a 4-3 Dodgers win as they rallied for a pair of runs off Wilson on Kyle Farmer's pinch-hit, 2-run, 2-strike, 2-out double just past the glove of a diving Kris Bryant.

Joe Maddon said he obviously would've planned on using Morrow for the ninth inning if the Cubs closer was healthy but due to the back tightness suffered early Monday morning, Morrow is down for both games of the doubleheader (assuming the night game isn't also rained out).

That leaves the Cubs pitching staff in an even tighter spot than they already were as they're currently in a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Monday's rain/light-out.

Let's start with the bullpen, which will be "raggedy" for Game 2, to quote Maddon, who admitted starter Mike Montgomery would have to be ready to go deep into the game.

Tyler Chatwood was only able to account for 5 innings in Game 1, leaving Steve Cishek to throw 14 pitches, Randy Rosario to throw 10 pitches and Pedro Strop 29 pitches before Wilson tossed 27 in the final frame.

That probably means Strop and Wilson are down for the rest of Tuesday and may make it a bit of a toss-up for either guy's availability Wednesday even with the surprise off-day Monday.

Cishek and Rosario should be able to throw Wednesday for sure and may be able to go in a limited capacity in Game 2 Tuesday.

That leaves Luke Farrell, Anthony Bass, Rob Zastryzny and Justin Hancock as the guys that are completely fresh at the moment. Hancock is up from the minors as the 26th man for the doubleheader and Zastryzny replaced Brian Duensing for this week while the veteran went on the bereavement list.

Without Morrow and with a loss already under the belt to open the Dodgers series, the Cubs bullpen is in a bad way and no scheduled off-day until July 2.

The starting rotation is in a bind, too, as now they'll need a starter for Saturday's game in Cincinnati assuming there are no more rainouts along the way.

With Chatwood's start pushed back to Tuesday instead of Monday, the Cubs now need an extra guy in the rotation.

The Cubs' probable starters for the rest of the week: Jon Lester (Wednesday), Kyle Hendricks (Thursday), Jose Quintana (Friday) and then a question mark Saturday before Chatwood would be ready to throw again on Sunday.

One option could be a "bullpen day" for the Cubs, but given how much they'll need to lean on that unit with the doubleheader and no off-days this week, that seems like a risky option.

The Cubs could also call somebody else up from Triple-A, but the options, such as Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills or Duane Underwood Jr.

Tseng has an ugly 8.21 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in the minors this year and gave up 3 runs on 4 hits in 2 innings in a spot start earlier this season.

Mills has limited big-league experience and had been pretty solid for a while with Iowa, going 3-3 with a 3.39 ERA averaging nearly 6 innings an outing over a 10-start span from late-April to early-June. But he got shelled his last time out (6 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks in 2.2 innings on June 17).

Underwood — the Cubs' second-round pick in 2012 — also had a really nice stretch with Iowa for a while (3.08 ERA over 9 starts from April 14 to May 28), but has regressed in June (14 runs on 18 hits and 7 walks in 13.1 innings).

Either way, this is a really tough stretch for a Cubs team that was just beginning to find its groove and get on a roll.

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."

Are the Cubs doomed to repeat history with a dynamic bullpen?

Are the Cubs doomed to repeat history with a dynamic bullpen?

There were several reasons why the Cubs ran into a wall in the National League Championship Series last fall, but maybe none moreso than the ineffectiveness of the bullpen.

In fact, well before the 2017 postseason even started, the Cubs bullpen was already wearing down.

They posted a 4.48 ERA in the second half, including a 4.96 ERA in August and a 4.36 ERA in September. That coming after a 3.26 ERA from the unit before the All-Star Break.

The main reason for the downturn in performance — by the own admission of Joe Maddon and the Cubs front office — is how heavily the team needed to lean on that bullpen.

It's still early May, but it appears the 2018 Cubs are doomed to repeat history.

This year's bullpen ranks third in baseball with a 2.71 ERA, but at what cost?

Here is the list of Cubs relievers on pace to set a new career high in appearances this season:

1. Brandon Morrow
2. Carl Edwards Jr.
3. Pedro Strop
4. Brian Duensing
5. Steve Cishek
6. Mike Montgomery

Edwards, Strop and Cishek are also on track to set new career highs in innings pitched, as well.

The Cubs have been very careful with Morrow, who has had injury issues each year since 2011.

Still, the new Chicago closer is on track for 67 games and 62 innings pitched. He's only touched 60 appearances in a season one time in his career — back in 2007. He last threw more than 62 innings in a season in 2012 when he threw 124.2 innings as a starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Edwards is on pace for 76 games and 81 innings, up from his career marks of 73 games and 66.1 innings set last year.

Strop (pace of 71 games, 71 innings) last made 70 appearances in 2012, the same year he set a career high in innings pitched (66.1).

Cishek's workload is even more worrisome, on pace for 81 games and 76.2 innings, well above his career mark of 69 games and 69.2 innings (both in 2013). He's worked in half the Cubs games this year already.

The main culprit for the overworked bullpen is a starting staff that ranks 24th in baseball in innings pitched as of Thursday morning.

Simply, the rotation has not worked deep enough into games on a consistent basis either because of inefficency (racking up 100 pitches in only 5 or 6 innings) or ineffectiveness.

It's also the nature of the game nowadays, with every organization "woke" to the idea that starting pitchers struggle when facing a batting order for the third time.

And it's hard for Maddon not to want to turn to a bullpen that features five guys with an ERA under 2.20 (Duensing, Edwards, Morrow, Strop, Cishek).

"The bullpen's actually coming on right now," Maddon said. "If we can continue to parcel out the work and not beat anybody up, I think we can continue to see them get even better. You're gonna see velocity numbers up."

The Cubs are currently using their eighth and final spot in the bullpen as a shuttle from Triple-A Iowa, bringing up guys who can give them innings and permit more rest for the main guys.

The Cubs bullpen could also receive an overall boost if Justin Wilson continues to find his form.

Wilson is used to the workload he's on pace for (67 games, 62.1 innings) out of the 'pen and has really come on strong lately. After walking 11 batters in his first 8.2 innings in 2018, the veteran lefty has not walked a batter the last five times out, permitting only a run on five hits in that span (4.2 innings).

When the Cubs traded for Wilson last summer, there was talk of him joining the conversation as the 2018 closer. But head-scratching control issues have plagued him since.

If he can be more like the pitcher he was in Detroit or Pittsburgh, Wilson can take pressure off guys like Cishek, Strop, Edwards and Morrow in tight games.

"You look at Wilson — that's what I'm talking about," Maddon said. "You saw with Justin [Tuesday]. That's so intriguing. He's been like that the last couple times out.

"If he's able to nail it down like that, he gives us so many more late-inning options, which he's done before. I believe it's there and it's going to happen, so I've said it before — he's a linchpin.

"If he really gets to that point — that strike-throwing with that incredibly lively stuff at home plate — he can make a big difference."