ST. LOUIS – A series of roster moves the Cubs made before Tuesday night’s National League Central showdown at Busch Stadium showed just one more way the first-place Cardinals are a measuring stick for the aspiring Cubs.
And also might show the heightened importance of bullpen strength and depth in this era of declining offensive production in the major leagues.
Before the second of four games this week against the Cardinals in this litmus-test series, the Cubs expanded their bullpen strength to 13 arms for the second time this season.
They swapped struggling Gonzalez Germen (optioned to AAA Iowa) for newly acquired right-hander Anthony Varvaro in one move, then added recently signed left-hander James Russell from AAA Iowa when they placed outfielder Chris Denorfia (hamstring) on the disabled list.
“It was a pretty good debate for quite a while last night, just trying to figure out where we were from a pitching standpoint,” general manager Jed Hoyer said of a staff whose bullpen was torched for 13 earned runs in 16 innings during the team’s 1-4 skid through Monday.
“We’re a little bit gassed right now. I think we’ll go up and down all year [with 12 or 13 relievers]. I love being at 12 because it gives Joe more versatility on the bench, especially with three catchers. But it’s a luxury we don’t always have.”
The Cubs aren’t done making moves this week. Outfielder Matt Szczur on Tuesday flew into St. Louis from Nashville, where AAA Iowa is playing this week, and potentially looms over somebody’s roster spot Wednesday.
And Hoyer said last year’s bullpen workhorse, Justin Grimm (forearm), could be activated from the disabled list instead of making another rehab appearance after looking good in his inning Monday for Iowa.
“Things could change,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’ve got to see where we are after [Tuesday’s] game.”
Whether any of those changes also involve a trade or a rotation shuffle, one thing is clear: For a team that is trying to win for the first time in years, the importance of the bullpen has never been greater.
The Cubs learned that much over the final months of last season, when Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Grimm and Neil Ramirez were almost impenetrable in the late innings as the last-place Cubs went 28-27 the final two months of the year.
And if they didn’t figure it out then, the Kansas City Royals underscored it by riding their lights-out bullpen all the way to the World Series.
“We talk about it a lot,” Hoyer said of the trend in the game toward bullpen power and depth. “Certainly what Kansas City did with their great bullpen last year was obvious. Even Baltimore, they traded for Andrew Miller, and they had a dominant bullpen last year. And then when you look at what the Yankees have done so far this year with Miller and [Dellin] Betances at the end of the game, there’s no doubt that having a dominant bullpen is really important.”
It seems no accident that six of the teams with the top seven records in baseball – including five division leaders – had the top six-ranked bullpens in the majors through Monday: the Royals (1.00 ERA), Cardinals (1.52), Yankees (1.86), Dodgers (1.90), Astros (2.21) and Mets (2.77).
“As run scoring decreases, by definition games are tighter, and teams have less ability to spread games out,” Hoyer said. “And it’s really important right now to have a good bullpen.”
Case in point: The Cubs lost Monday’s series opener in St. Louis when the pen blew an 8-5 lead.
Getting the starters to average more than six innings a start will help a Cubs pen that already has been hurt by injuries (Ramirez, who’s in the DL with a shoulder injury, tests his rehab work off a mound Wednesday).
Russell, one of the more reliable relievers for the Cubs in recent years before he was traded away last July, could have an immediate impact. He debuted Tuesday, taking over in the sixth with the bases loaded and getting the final out of the inning — then allowing a run in the seventh on a pair of infield singles and a first-to-third piece of running by Jason Heyward on a groundout in between the hits.
“He’s throwing real well for us,” Hoyer said, of the veteran the club traded to Atlanta for catching prospect Victor Caratini last year. “We were excited he signed back with us after he was released by Atlanta. He was a tough guy to trade. We all liked him.”
To make room on the 40-man roster, the Cubs designated right-hander Blake Parker for assignment. Parker had recently gone on the Iowa DL with an arm injury.
Regardless of the immediate impact of any of the moves, the Cubs already have proven that even with all the upgrades they made to other areas over the winter, the bullpen will have a big say in what they can do this season – if not how well they can keep up with the Cardinals.
The first 11 days of the season, the pen led the National League with a 1.38 ERA (and the team went 5-3). The next seven games: 5.48 (3-4). Then came a four-game scoreless run for the pen (and a 4-0 record). Then these last five games: 7.31 (1-4).
“We’re going to get some guys well again,” Maddon said. “I have a lot of confidence in these bullpen guys.”