Put a couple beers in a Cubs fan right now, never that hard of a task, and I bet a good portion of them would tell you there’s a level of schadenfreude with the team right now. After they spent the offseason crying poor, the front office pointing fingers every outward but certainly not inward, and everything else, the Cubs are being undone by what they ignored and arrogantly thought would fix itself, the bullpen. And it being this early in the season, and only four games, it hasn’t come anywhere close to derailing the season. You can just see how it might.
At the top, and as I’ve repeated all offseason, you can remake a bullpen on the fly. The Nationals did it just two years ago (with Brandon Kintzler as part of that). The Red Sox simply ignored their bullpen in the postseason last year. There will be a bevy of guys on teams out of it who for no reason whatsoever are throwing 97 with a slider from nowhere that you can have for B-level and C-level prospects. This is probably what the Cubs will do, and most likely they’ll be fine. It just didn’t have to be like this.
I had wondered if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer knew about the budget Tom Ricketts was going to hand them at the outset of the offseason. But as was pointed out to me on Twitter, the fact that they sent Drew Smyly away to extend Cole Hamels probably indicates that they did. So one has to ask if that really was the right move. Because if the thinking was that the pen as currently constructed was going to just right itself, it makes you think that pitching isn’t just a spotty mark on the record of this regime, but a clear blindspot. Remember, we’re still waiting for the first pitcher Theo has drafted to actually come up for air and do something here. Hendricks and Edwards Jr. are trades, and we’ll get to the latter soon.
Because what did the Cubs have coming out of last year? Pedro Strop, who is wonderful and insane and I love him but also has missed big chunks of time with injury two of the past three years and turns 34 this season. It seems to me that the Cubs want to treat their signing of Brandon Morrow as something other than bad, but it very well may be. Morrow only has one full season of being a dominant reliever and a whole lot of injury problems. He’s far from a sure thing, and yet the Cubs are happy to tell you his absence is the main problem in order to do themselves credit, as well as blaming Joe Maddon for having the temerity to pitch him three days in a row at the end of May. The end of May is when a pitcher should be in peak health. If he can’t do it then, he can’t do it, and hence is not a plus piece to have around.
Carl Edwards Jr. is a basketcase and has never proven to be anything else. Brandon Kintzler has one good season, and his ground-ball rate, his main weapon, has been dropping for three straight years. Randy Rosario doesn’t strike anyone out and was bad last year and can only claim to throw with his left hand. They couldn’t honestly sell Tyler Chatwood as anything other than a lottery ticket bought while drunk and using consecutive numbers.
Perhaps they thought they could count on Steve Cishek. Here’s the problem: the history of relievers who crack 80 appearances over the age of 30 is not really encouraging.
Zach Duke did it three years ago at 33, and the next season saw his K/9 rate drop in half and his FIP double. In 2017 Bryan Shaw reached 79 appearances at 29. The next year his walk-rate doubled. Only Joel Peralta survived that threshold in 2013 at that age and came back fine the next year. Or at least his peripherals did, but his ERA was still over 4.00.
The Cubs front office has been acting like the smartest guys in the room for so long now that perhaps they’ve failed to realize they’re getting passed.
Now you can also throw this at the Ricketts, who even if they took the “Look what you’ve done with our money already” tact can’t then tell the front office to go stuff it with such a clear weakness. But is that $13M net-spend on Hamels worth more than two relievers right now? If the multi-year commitment to Andrew Miller made them nervous because he’s already in decline in skill and physically, that’s cool. Don’t want to blow it all on Zach Britton? Fair, or at least understandable. I wasn’t married to Jesse Chavez. He’s a guy.
It’s important to reserve judgement until we see what the Cubs do over the next few months. Maybe they hated the reliever market in the winter altogether and didn’t want to force it. Fine. But when they say they have the deepest crop of pitchers waiting in Iowa they’ve ever had, why should anyone take that at face value? Again, this isn’t a front office that’s produced a quality reliever or starter yet (Hector Rondon was their Rule 5 pick, but that just means he didn’t come through the system). The Cubs couldn’t wait to tell every beat writer about their technology and gizmos to measure their pitching in the system. But at this point, Cubs fans are more than excused for not wanting the labor pains, just the baby.
Actually, sounds a little like the Hawks and their blue line, doesn’t it?