Cubs’ 8-man bullpen looks increasingly like key to repeat effort

Just before the season began, Cubs right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. said his goal was to make the All-Star team.

It might have sounded bold coming from a relief pitcher who doesn’t have a defined role, much less the closer’s job.

It might even have seemed laughable to some on the outside, especially considering the skinny power pitcher is in his first full big-league season.

But, he said, “You never know.”

Carl Edwards Jr., the day after returning from bereavement leave (because of a death in the family), finishing his sixth scoreless appearance of the season Tuesday night.

It’s hard to know much of anything about a baseball team 15 games into a season.

But as the Cubs open a long road trip Friday night in Cincinnati, the early returns suggest Edwards’ goal at least isn’t laughable. In fact, he’s quickly becoming the key man in what’s looking more and more like the key unit for this team every day as it plays more close games into the late innings.

The Cubs have won four of their first five series, the only series loss coming in a three-game sweep against the Pirates last weekend.

For all the hand-wringing over the lack of early domination and the recent 4-5 homestand, the Cubs led every time against the Pirates with the bullpen in the game.

If the Cubs held on to those leads, they would be 11-4, the same record they had at this point last year.

Those happened to be the three games Edwards missed while on bereavement leave for a death in the family.

How much of a difference he might have made in any of those games can be debated.

What’s harder to debate is that a team built to lean harder on its bullpen from the start this year is finding that unit increasingly under a microscope.

It’s also looking increasingly important in the team’s efforts to repeat, given the short offseason and hangover look of some of the starters and the especially fierce play of improved rivals.

That’s part of the reason a roster move is expected Friday to assure the bullpen keeps the extra (eighth) man indefinitely.

“We’re going to be fine out there. It’s all about confidence,” manager Joe Maddon said after the first of two comeback victories this week to finish the homestand.

“You’ve just got to keep getting them out there because they’re really good. We have great arms. We’re able to get both righties and lefties out. Guys complement one another to the point that if we get this going properly that it could be, like, one day [Pedro] Strop [setting up in the eighth], the next day [Hector] Rondon, give a guy the day off, don’t push him two in a row. That would be an optimal situation.”

Strop and Rondon, who have been keys in closing down games the last three years, have struggled early.

But Edwards is on the rise. He might be the most trusted of all the relievers by the manager.

And the Cubs spent much of their offseason efforts on the bullpen. They traded for All-Star closer Wade Davis and signed left-hander Brian Duensing and right-hander Koji Uehara. Left-hander Mike Montgomery, who pitched once through the order in relief during the victory Wednesday, is a key swingman.

It’s all by design after nursing a depth-challenged rotation through two remarkably healthy seasons and deep playoff runs.

Some starting depth has been added (Montgomery through a trade last July; Eddie Butler, now at Class AAA Iowa, through a trade over the winter). But the deeper bullpen — with one declared closer and seven “setup” guys — is designed to be the key for winning the close games in a year the run differential is almost certain to go down.

So far, nine of the Cubs’ first 15 games have been decided by two runs or less, among the most in the majors. Four of their games have ended on walk-off plays.

“As these bullpen dudes start getting their confidence [it will take off],” Maddon said. “I see that showing up relatively soon.”

If that happens, keep an eye on Edwards, who hasn’t given up a run in six appearances, and Maddon, the manager of the National League All-Stars this year.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com