Cubs Bullpen Strategy Pinned on Positive Regression, Good Fortune

Whatever your belief system allows in the way of positive thinking — be it prayer, good vibes, or just the agnostic influence of sheer dumb luck — the Cubs are going to need you to send whatever you can spare in their general direction. After a season of bad breaks, it appears as though they’re relying on Brad Brach to serve as a linchpin for the bullpen.

That probably wasn’t the plan heading into the offseason, but the front office seems more content to cross their fingers than they are names from their wish list. Not that they have much of a choice, what with restrictive budgetary parameters essentially forcing them to shop at Goodwill rather than donating their old relievers to a less fortunate team.

Other than Brach, a 2016 All-Star whose performance has faded along with his velocity in the two seasons since, the Cubs really haven’t made any notable moves to bolster the ‘pen. Not unless you count a slew of minor league signings that includes George Kontos, Junichi Tazawa, Allen Webster, and Danny Hultzen. And who could forget Conor Lillis-White, the Cubs’ return for sending Tommy La Stella to Anaheim.

And that list of castoffs could grow longer, with word that the Cubs have worked out former Nationals closer Drew Storen. They’ve also reportedly been watching former Twins prospect Zach Jones and even attended a showcase in North Carolina that featured Rookie Davis and Adam Liberatore. You’ll be forgiven if your cup overfloweth not with confidence at the mention of such pitching paragons.

Hell, just looking at the glass as half empty would represent a more optimistic view of the Cubs bullpen than most folks have at this point. Most seem to believe the glass is half full of crap.

But…what if it works? What if Brandon Morrow avoids any further pants-removal injuries and is able to bounce back from his November elbow surgery to become the pitcher he was for the Dodgers? Well, before Dave Roberts rode him hard and put him up wet. That’s who the fireballing righty was before Joe Maddon similarly chose to overuse him last season.

As a brief aside prompted by the notion of pants, how about Vikings GM Rick Spielman putting his trousers on after his socks and shoes? What kind of monster would even consider such a heinous act, let alone carry it out as part of a daily routine? I bet he prefers his toilet paper hanging over the back too. Monster.

Anyway, back to the patchwork bullpen that is going to have to rebound like Dennis Rodman in order for the Cubs to be legitimate contenders again this season. As Patrick Mooney wrote ($) for The Athletic, that’s more or less the plan. Theo Epstein said the lineup “broke at some point along the lines” last season, but the bullpen just sort of crumbled away as though victimized by the Infinity Snap.

And just like all those Marvel heroes, there are all manner of theories as to how the Cubs’ relievers can re-emerge as though the events of last season never happened. Part of that will be Maddon’s bullpen usage, perhaps the most criticized aspect of his tenure in Chicago. As much as he’s been given the directive to maintain urgency throughout the season, he’d do well to avoid throwing Steve Cishek eleventy bajillion times this season.

As difficult as it is to balance all the various aspects of relievers’ workloads, Maddon’s got to be better at backing off at times and letting guys push through at others. It’s as though he’s got too much or too little faith in his pitchers, but at inopportune moments both ways. Does that change with Tommy Hottovy as pitching coach and Craig Breslow as director of strategic initiatives? The only way to see that clearly is with hindsight.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the ‘pen will be the arrival of a prospect or three, something Cubs fans have been waiting on for years now. And though Rob Zastryzny and Dillon Maples have flashed on occasion, neither has established himself as a consistently reliable option. Alec Mills could be a dude, then you’ve got Adbert Alzolay, Dakota Mekkes, and James Norwood at Triple-A as well. There’s reason to be hopeful about who’s got next.

As for who’s got now, however, I can’t tell you not to be Schleprock. I can’t tell you not to be Pollyanna, either, since there are far more questions than answers at this point. And that may persist well into the season, what with Morrow probably sitting out at least the month of April. So, uh, fun times.

I don’t doubt in the least that the Cubs can get an excellent collective performance from the bullpen this season, since everyone knows how fickle those units can be. But if you’re asking me to paint a sunny picture based on hope alone, you’re gonna end up with Bizzaro Bob Ross. There’s a lot of time between now and the start of the season, though, and even more time after that for things to improve.

That said, maybe get those thoughts and prayers warmed up.

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Evan Altman

Evan Altman is the EIC and co-founder of Cubs Insider and has proclaimed himself Central Indiana's foremost Cubs authority. He is a husband, father, homebrewer, and award-winning blogger with entirely too much pop culture knowledge. Evan's greatest accomplishments include scoring 400 points in Magic Johnson's Fast Break, naming all 10 members of the Wu-Tang Clan in under 3.5 seconds, and winning the Meese Literary Award at Hanover College.

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