MILWAUKEE – When the Cubs’ top setup man, Hector Rondon, returned from the disabled list Tuesday to pitch a 97-mph seventh inning against the Brewers, it underscored a big part of what this final month of the season is about for the Cubs’ decision makers.
With the former closer back and looking healthy, the Cubs suddenly have something they didn’t have a year ago as they approached that postseason: a group of power relievers and matchup guys so thick the average playoff pitching roster won’t fit them all.
“It depends on how many you want to keep,” said manager Joe Maddon, whose playoff roster last year had seven in the bullpen. “We’ll have a lot of difficult decisions to make based on the versatility and how good a lot of our guys are.
“But you have plenty of time to worry about stuff like that.”
So buckle up, Joe Smith, Trevor Cahill – and maybe even Rob Zastryzny – because the rest of the regular season is a lot more about the final seven outs pitched by the Cubs’ bullpen than the 5 2/3 by starter Jason Hammel in Tuesday’s 12-5 loss to the Brewers at Miller Park.
If the Cubs go with a seven-man playoff bullpen again – and don’t count on eight – the locks, barring injury, appear to include closer Aroldis Chapman, Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm, along with, likely, a pair of non-closing lefties in Travis Wood and Mike Montgomery.
And this guy: rookie Carl Edwards Jr., whose late-season work has basically been a process in grooming the unflappable right-hander for playoff moments.
“I remember how impressed I was how he looked at me,” Maddon said of handing Edwards the ball for his first career save, against the Giants on Thursday – before Edwards struck out Hunter Pence on the way through a 1-2-3 ninth.
“He could potentially be a premier reliever in this league, period,” Maddon said. “the fastball velocity and cut is an unusual combination. And combine that with a curve ball that’s good against righties and lefties. The next level for me for him is to really nail down his command with the fastball.”
Other than what Maddon calls a four-walk “blip” against the Cardinals last month, Edwards has issued only one walk since July 25 and allowed only one run since July 20.
“I just see a calm on the mound when he comes in,” Maddon said. “He believes he belongs here now and can do this.”
Grimm, too, has come on strong in the second half despite two brief minor-league demotions. He’s allowed only one run since June 26 and said that’s as much about taking pressure off himself as being more refreshed after an early heavy workload.
“I think that helps a lot of people turn the corner, when they learn to just kind of say, `Screw it,’ “ said Grimm, who also said he corrected an early season problem with missing spots horizontally instead of “up and down.”
“Life is good now,” he said.
Assuming Strop returns at full strength from his knee surgery and subsequent groin strain, the Cubs figure to have some so-called good problems, and potentially tough decisions, to assemble the October bullpen they expect to take them to November.
Which adds some September intrigue to the bubble performers, if not the playoff race.
“If you want to deny that, that’s just denial,” Maddon said. “Everybody wants to make a good impression. Everybody wants to keep playing this year. That’s great. That’s part of it.”
And with that in mind, here’s a snapshot look at who’s going strongest in the bullpen with less than four weeks to go in the season:
Sun-Times Power Rankings: Bullpen Edition
The Cubs have enough relievers pitching well, along with their top two setup men returning from the DL Tuesday (Hector Rondon) and expected back this month (Pedro Strop), that painful roster decisions could loom. This week’s bullpen power rankings:
- Carl Edwards Jr. (2.89 ERA) Big-moment rookie looks like closer in the making
- Justin Grimm (3.61) Has allowed 1 run since June 26 (24 G, 20.2 IP)
- Aroldis Chapman (1.45) Saves: 12. Blown: 2. MPH: 10. Beyond Game 7: pricey
- Rob Zastryzny (0.79) If he keeps this up, everybody will be able to spell it
- Joe Smith (3.52) Since DL return: 12 up, 12 down (5 Ks) in 3 games