Cubs’ bullpen falters in first opportunity of 2020

Relievers allowed six earned runs and five hits in the Cubs’ 8-3 loss to the Brewers.

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AP Photo/Paul Beaty

The biggest question for the Cubs in 2020 is which relievers will manager David Ross feel comfortable giving the ball to in certain situations.

They didn’t provide any answers in their first opportunity of the season Saturday at Wrigley Field. The bullpen allowed five earned runs in an 8-3 loss to the Brewers.

Ross turned to the pen to cover 15 outs after Yu Darvish, who allowed three earned runs, exited after four innings. The game was within reach when Darvish left, but the first three of five relievers put the Cubs in a deeper hole.

“You got to get guys in there and see how they look. That’s part of it,” Ross said of his bullpen. “I’ve said these guys got to continue to grow. [They’re] still learning, still pitching, still continuing to try to execute pitches. That growth is going to be a strong point for that group. There’s no way to find out until we get them in there.”

Right-hander Duane Underwood Jr. and lefty Brad Wieck were chosen first to keep the game close. Each served up long home runs, to Justin Smoak and Christian Yelich in the fifth and sixth inning, respectively. Then James Norwood allowed two runs and three hits in one inning.

Wieck plays a vital role as one of the Cubs’ three left-handers in the bullpen. While one home run won’t make or break a season, Wieck’s drop in velocity might be cause for concern.

He averaged 93.7 mph on his fastball in 2019, but he has seen a significant drop in velocity, hovering around 89-90 mph during summer camp. The Cubs hope he can recapture it as the season progresses.

“It’s something that we’re paying attention to,” Ross said. “We’re hoping for that. He’s been about 89 to 91 throughout this camp. He is coming back from some medical stuff, so we’ve got to continue to monitor that and continue to communicate with him. But, yeah, he’s working toward that.”

During summer camp, Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy stressed that their pitchers need to be prepared to go multiple innings. Covering 15 outs won’t be something Cubs relievers do regularly, but they might do it out of necessity as starters work back into game shape.

“We’ve got a lot of arms down there right now. You just want to get guys some action,” Ross said. “You don’t want these guys to sit in for too long. Get them in there, let them get back in the battle. Get that heart rate up a little bit. Get used to the environment.

“You need these guys, especially early on when you don’t want to stretch out your starters too far and tax them early in this shortened season. But that is a delicate balance that I’ve got to manage.”

Craig Kimbrel and Jeremy Jeffress are going to pitch high-leverage innings, but other relievers will have to pitch their way into more defined roles, including those big situations.

While there are no tryouts at the major-league level, Saturday provided a look into the Cubs’ search for reliability and consistency in the pen. With baseball’s first wave of roster subtractions coming in a few weeks, that search will have to quicken sooner rather than later.

“There are some electric arms in that bullpen with some absolutely plus secondary stuff,” said Kyle Schwarber, who hit a two-run homer in the fifth. “I was wowed facing these guys in our summer camp. I was like, ‘You guys didn’t throw this hard during spring training. Where’d this come from?’ Don’t sleep on this bullpen.” 

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