Not even Antonio Alfonseca has enough fingers to point at everyone in the Cubs organization who bears some measure of blame for the 1-6 start. Whether it’s the final results or just the up-and-down nature of the games themselves, fans have needed barf bags at the ready when watching these games.
And it’s not like no one saw this coming. As soon as the Cubs said in November that they weren’t going to spend big in free agency, it was evident the bullpen would have to be strapped together with duct tape. Once the season started, however, it was clear that there was only room in the restricted budget for generic masking tape that since pulled apart under the first signs of stress.
You don’t need to read the stats again to know how bad the staff has looked as a whole. Even if the starters outside of Jon Lester had been able to do anything, the bullpen has been atrocious. So Carl Edwards Jr. was sent down and Mike Montgomery was placed on the injured list, replaced respectively by Allen Webster and Kyle Ryan.
Joe Maddon has caught a lot of grief, understandably so, for continuing to run Edwards out there when he was just not in a good place (among other things). Tom Ricketts has caught a lot of grief, understandably so, for dictating a baseball budget that didn’t leave room for necessary improvements. And Theo Epstein has caught a lot of grief, understandably so, for overseeing a baseball operations unit that has failed to properly address the bullpen via either prospect development or player acquisitions.
Some of that grief has come from the Cubs’ baseball boss himself.
“There’s always a search for scapegoats when you get off to a slow start,” Epstein told members of the media, including Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic. “Tommy Hottovy is not the problem, he’s a big part of the solution. Tom Ricketts is not the problem. It’s not a resource issue. I know he’s another one who has taken a lot of heat. It’s not a resource problem.
“If people have a problem with the allocation of resources, then that’s me. And it has been since I got here. There’s been a lot of good and some bad. It’s a team-wide issue and we know we have to play better ball. The search for magic bullets and scapegoats, I don’t think that’s really productive. I understand it.
“But ultimately, it’s all my responsibility. How we play on the field, the talent that we have, the direction that we’re headed. And yet, I’m not in it alone, thank God. We have really talented people here, we have great players that we trust, and we’re all going to be a part of pulling out of this.”
Epstein isn’t just playing spin doctor or wearing one for the team. That’s part of it, sure, but he made it very clear in his end-of-season address that the front office was going to exert more influence this season when it came to on-field matters. He has also been acutely aware of their bullpen’s lack of strike-throwers since at least 2016, but now those deficiencies have become too big to gloss over.
“[The walks are] sort of systemic across the board,” Epstein admitted in October of 2017. “So we have to find a way to address that going forward, and we will. Some of it is obviously personnel based, and it will be important for us to bring in some reliable strike-throwers going forward out of the pen.
“I know our pitching infrastructure is awesome, and I love them and we do so many things right. But I think the fact that it’s been two years in a row where we haven’t really thrown strikes and that most of our relievers have taken a step back with their strike throwing, that falls on me. We gotta find a way to fix it through personnel and also looking at our approach a little bit.”
The good news is that Epstein isn’t shying away from the blame here. He’s owning it and setting the expectation that he’s going to lead the charge to make things better. And he’s got a team, both in the front office and on the field, behind him carrying the load. Whether or not they can get that done, well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.