For five weeks, the Cubs’ rotation piled up innings, and the lineup binged enough to help a weak-link bullpen look sharp after an early slump.
But a quick glance across the field this week and during next week’s series in Houston is all it should take for the front office to confirm what it already knows: The Cubs aren’t going to get far in October without significant bullpen upgrades — if they get to October at all.
“To this point, we’ve lost some games late that we normally haven’t lost in the past,” manager Joe Maddon said. “If we had just pitched somewhat to our standards, our record would be crazy good right now.”
Maddon said this Tuesday afternoon even as he praised the work of his pen — before Carl Edwards Jr. and Brandon Kintzler blew a one-run lead in the seventh inning of an eventual 3-2 walkoff victory over the National League East-leading Phillies.
“I like the stuff that we have,” Maddon said. “I like the resiliency that we have. Carl’s a linchpin to this, and of course Stropy, too.”
Edwards and Pedro Strop have the top swing-and-miss stuff among Cubs relievers (not counting demoted starter Tyler Chatwood). Edwards is still working back to form from a slow start. Strop is on the injured list for at least two more weeks because of a hamstring injury.
Meanwhile, a bullpen that opened the season as the Cubs’ biggest question mark has also been without closer Brandon Morrow (elbow) since July, can’t be sure Morrow will return at all, and has performed about as well as could be expected as a mix-and-match crew.
Even with setup man Brad Brach pitching well Monday night, the Cubs lost a one-run lead late, couldn’t do much against the Phillies’ big-armed bullpen and lost in 10 innings.
Brach became the sixth different Cub from a closer-less bullpen to blow a save this season. One night later, Kintzler became the seventh. The pen has blown half its 18 save chances this season.
Two occurrences tell the rest of the story of the bullpen’s depth issues: veteran Steve Cishek’s seven-out save Sunday in a one-run victory, and the decline in starter innings the last week, which has strained the pen and revealed a few of its warts after a collective 2.16 ERA over five weeks.
If the Cubs want more comparison points, they just need to wait until Monday, when they open a series against the Astros, who have the best record in the majors and the top bullpen.
Entering play Tuesday, the Cubs’ bullpen was needed for at least four innings in three of the previous six games and wound up with two losses, two blown saves and a 2-4 stretch against the Reds, Nationals and Phillies.
Almost every team’s bullpen goes through stretches like that (and worse) during a season. And Strop’s return is sure to provide a boost for this group. But the Cubs have walked a fine line with their back-end bullpen depth since doing little over the winter, when their biggest acquisition was Brach.
Speaking of do-little, don’t be surprised to see the Cubs target somebody like the Nationals’ loquacious left-handed closer, Sean Doolittle, if the Nats continue to struggle into the middle of June while the Cubs go after bullpen help.
They might also pursue any of a dozen big relief arms that might become available from American League teams that already appear out of contention.
Cubs president Theo Epstein, whose front office already is at work identifying targets, acknowledged that the Braves’ trade for struggling Mariners veteran Anthony Swarzak might be an indicator that the market will move early because of the AL tankers.
“Especially with the way the American League might be shaping up,” Epstein said. “It could be a factor.”
The trade season also is expected to be more active leading up to the July 31 deadline, with August waiver trades no longer allowed this season.
Epstein said during the spring that October starts in March.
Maybe. But right now it looks like it might start in June or July.