I’d feel sheepish about criticizing the Cubs for their bullpen after the first three games of the season if not for the fact it was their biggest area of need in the offseason. I knew it, you knew it, your dog knew it and the Cubs knew it.
Yet they didn’t do a whole lot to address that need.
So here they are, with a whiff of panic emanating from people who normally know better. I know what some of you are thinking: It’s early April, fool! It’s way too early to worry about any part of the Cubs’ game.
You might be right. On the other hand, it’s not overreacting if the sky is showing early signs of falling.
The Cubs scored 10 runs Sunday and still lost to the Rangers, which isn’t impossible, but close. Their bullpen couldn’t hold a candle, let alone a lead. Ahead 8-5 at one point, Tyler Chatwood gave up three earned runs, Mike Montgomery gave up a triple and a home run to successive batters, blowing a save, and Pedro Strop threw a wild pitch to allow the game-winning run to score in the ninth.
The day before, Carl Edwards Jr. had blown a save and taken the loss in an 8-6 loss to Texas. Oh, and his velocity was down.
What should have been a time to celebrate the Cubs’ offense — 28 runs in the first three games — has turned into major-league fretting and incriminating over a shaky bullpen.
How did the Cubs get to this point so quickly? Their ownership has gotten very good at crying poor.
Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer knew that the Cubs needed bullpen help. They know it now. But they were told, and are being told, that there’s no money for it. This will come as a surprise to season-ticket holders who continue to fork over top dollar, to people who pay good money to stay at the Cubs’ luxury hotel and to networks that spend big bucks to televise games. They were under the impression that the Cubs were worth $2.9 billion as of last year, according to Forbes magazine. They also couldn’t help but notice that the Ricketts family bought the team for $845 million in 2009. That’s quite a profit.
The Cubs are a major-market franchise that isn’t acting like one. With so much on the line, including manager Joe Maddon’s job, you’d think ownership would do everything it could to keep the championship window open.
Help is out there. Craig Kimbrel has averaged 42 saves the last eight seasons. But because this is Major League Baseball, where money clings to the owners like metal shavings to magnets, he’s unsigned. He’s asking for a lot — some reports say he wants six years and more than $100 million. But if a shored-up pen is the one thing separating the Cubs from another title, it’s worth it.
All we hear from the Cubs is that their budget doesn’t allow for it. That it has reached its limit. That it’s spent.
No one wants to hear about the Rickettses’ artificial budget. Just because Epstein was handed a number to work with doesn’t mean there’s no money beyond it. All it means is that ownership doesn’t want to spend any more.
Cubs fans have invested more in their team than any other fan base in sports. They have given their hearts and their hard-earned cash, and for the longest time, received very little in return. The Ricketts family’s end of the bargain didn’t end when it delivered a World Series title in 2016.
The Cubs have enough offensive talent to make a run at another championship this year. They don’t have the bullpen to do so, something that was obvious in the offseason. Believing that Edwards is finally going to come around isn’t a belief. It’s a hope. You don’t build a bullpen with spackle. But that’s what it looks like the Cubs have done so far.
“We’re not going to panic,” Montgomery said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ve just got to stay with the process. We’re not going to lose confidence. We’ve got a good group of guys down there [in the bullpen]. … You can’t hang your head.”
If you think this is one big exercise in overreacting, you might be right. It was only three games, after all. But when the team president says that October starts in March, it’s hard not to overreact when March goes badly.
The Cubs are in need of some relief. Is anybody who can do something about it listening?