Cubs Bullpen, and Joe Maddon’s Handling of it, Drawing Serious Questions

Can you really call yourself a competitive team when you can only count on maybe 5 or 6 strong innings from your pitching staff each game? Is it possible to overthink in-game situations to the extent that you hamper both immediate and long-term performance? How does Edwin Jackson still have a roster spot?

These are just a few of the questions facing the Cubs and Joe Maddon after the Cubs’ third straight series loss, two of which came at the hands of the lowly Brewers. Much of the problem lies with a rotation that has failed to pitch deep into games with any consistency, an issue that was on full display this weekend.

Travis Wood couldn’t get past the 4th inning on Saturday night after allowing 6 runs (4 earned) on 6 hits over only 84 pitches. On Sunday afternoon, Kyle Hendricks was lifted after 85 pitches only one out into the 5th inning having allowed exactly zero Brewers to cross the plate.

Hendricks’ removal was met with a great deal of SMDH’ing from social media managers everywhere, but Justin Grimm walked a man before getting an inning-ending double play to effective prove his manager right. Besides, others argued, Hendricks had been hit pretty hard and has had a tough time when going through the lineup for a third time.

After a rookie season that drew (rough) comparisons to a former Cubs great, many believed that Hendricks was being undersold with a back-of-rotation projection. Now, however, he appears to have come back down to Earth and those early grades for him are looking painfully accurate.

But back to the more global situation. Fans were upset that the starter had been pulled early and the same was true of Grimm’s short outing, as the recently-return reliever pitched only the final two-thirds of the 6th. The rabble didn’t exactly die down in the wake of Zac Rosscup’s performance.

The lefty came in to face the bottom of Milwaukee’s order and promptly gave up back-to-back home runs to Martin Maldonado and Elian Herrera. It would be one thing if we were talking about Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun, but those homers by the pair to whom Rosscup fell prey raised their combined career total to 20.

Interestingly enough, Sunday’s shots represented the 2nd of the season for both Maldonado and Herrera and each hit his first in the same game too, a 16-10 loss to the Reds on April 21st.

Pedro Strop pitched clean innings in the 8th and 9th and James Russell held down the 10th before giving way to Jason Motte in the 11th. The former Cardinal gave up a leadoff double the presumably-clean Braun before issuing an intentional pass to Adam Lind. A Khris Davis flyout prompted another IBB to load the bases for, you guessed it, Martin Maldonado.

Against a drawn-in outfield, the Brewers backstop drove in the winning run in walk-off fashion. Then the Bulls lost on a last-second bucket to LeBron James and the Cavs. The White Sox actually managed to win their contest, interestingly enough also in walk-off fashion.

One could look to the fact that the Cubs are still floating around at .500 in spite of their recent stumbling, but this feels more like that floater you can’t can’t flush than it does a team that’s simply getting out-lucked. There are times when they look great, but then you lean in close to find that the roster is being held together by Bondo and duct tape.

Each call to the bullpen feels like a game of Russian roulette; you just hope each one draws an empty chamber and a harmless click. Trouble is, there are far too many live rounds going off and Joe Maddon’s going to start running out of answers as to the answers he’s running out.

“You just keep putting them out there, man,” the Cubs manager said. “You put your guys out there until it happens. You keep working with them. You keep showing a positive message to them. The work’s good. The work’s great, actually. For some of the guys, it’s just not playing all the way through yet. But it will.”

But will it, Joe? The more the rotation fails to carry the team through that 6th-inning danger zone, the bigger a problem this is going to become. And I don’t have confidence in either Wood or Hendricks to carry that load at the back end, nor do I put any faith in the ‘pen to pick it up for them when they inevitably tire.

So are the Cubs going to need to make a move in order to get it done? That’s a question not for Maddon, but for the front office; if it’s me making the call, I’m looking long and hard at the available options. Good thing for all of us, the guys pulling the trigger here are much smarter than me.

Unless improvements are made, however, this past week of games has placed a magnifying glass over some of the Cubs’ imperfections and cast serious doubt on the team’s seriousness as a legitimate contender. That’s not to say that the season’s over, just that we’re really starting to see what this team really is and just how important middle relief is.

But the Cubs are back in Wrigley on Monday, where they’ll be playing in front of fans in the bleachers for the first time all season. And Tuesday’s game will generate excitement from the matchup of their stud sluggers against the Mets’ stud hurler, Noah Syndergaard. Is it asking too much to get a few consecutive complete games?

Or maybe they can solve both the bullpen issue and the three-catcher quandary by simply DFA’ing E-Jax and moving David Ross into a relief roll. Boom!

Absent a string of 9-inning outings and the most unconventional roster move in recent history, the Cubs will continue to have a lot of unanswered questions. How they go about solving them may well determine the course of a season that started out very promising but has looked a bit shakier of late.


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