CHICAGO – You didn’t think they would start 25-6 again, did you? If so, you had unrealistic expectations for the Chicago Cubs this month. Joe Maddon had his club ready in his first two Aprils as manager, but they were bound to come back down to earth. Call it a hangover, or anything else you want, but it would have been more shocking if the reigning World Series champions lost only six of their first 31 games again this year. Instead, after a weekend sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates, they’ve lost six of their first 12.
Ok, maybe that’s a little shocking, as .500 is not exactly Cubs baseball these days, though the other World Series participant, the Cleveland Indians, are just 5-7 so far.
“More of our problem than anything is not getting a clutch hit and not holding a lead in the latter part of the game,” Maddon told reporters after the Cubs’ latest defeat, a 6-1 loss Sunday to the Pirates.
The storyline over the weekend revolves primarily around the bullpen (and a little on the offense). The Cubs were seemingly en route to two victories only to see a pair of wins scuttled instead. Sunday was particularly appalling considering a tight 1-0 game was blown open when Koji Uehara and Justin Grimm struggled in the eighth and ninth innings. Now, the Cubs find themselves 6-6 as a long road trip approaches.
Maybe there’s not much to worry about. The Cubs’ rotation has again been really good, ranking first in ERA – by a wide margin — in the National League. The club’s offense is still taking its fair share of walks, resulting in an OBP ranking third in the NL. But perhaps the most surprising stat has to do with their lack of power. The Cubs are dead last in the NL with just nine home runs, though one good day at the plate could change that. Plus, we know the Cubs are going to hit some home runs this season.
But the weekend sweep brought one possible concern, which reared its head on Saturday and Sunday, to the forefront, and it’s worth examining further:
There’s an axiom that gets applied to football teams that try to alternate quarterbacks, claiming they have two starters: If you think you have two, you might not even have one. Such thinking might apply to the Cubs and their bullpen arms before Wade Davis gets the ball in the ninth inning. Over the winter, the team worked hard to compile a pen that could throw in tight, high-leverage situations, as the Cubs rightly assumed they would probably be leading a lot of games heading into the late innings.
Uehara has that experience, and an emerging Carl Edwards Jr. qualifies for that role, as well. Add them to mainstays Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Grimm and Mike Montgomery and, on paper, it’s a decent-looking group. The thinking is if the Cubs go on a win streak, Maddon doesn’t have to use the same relievers every day. He can mix and match interchangeable arms who can get righties and lefties out.
But, just like the aforementioned quarterbacks proposition, perhaps if you have four or five arms you say you trust, you really don’t even have one or two. Look at it this way: If Andrew Miller were on the team as a setup man, there would be no mixing and matching. He would pitch every eighth inning in which he was available. Pick any of the top setup men and the same would be true. Think of the New York Yankees before their fire sale last year. Dellin Betances pitched, then Miller, who gave way to Aroldis Chapman. Those are the elite of the elite. When one couldn’t throw, there were others to pick up the slack. So as much as the Cubs say they are fortified with arms, they aren’t necessarily the best of the best.
All bullpens — even the good ones — can be volatile. But if we want to look at the glass half-empty, we can make a case that Strop and Rondon haven’t been the same since their injuries last year. Rondon might be coming around, but it doesn’t sound like many fans trust either one right now. The same probably goes for Grimm, who shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers after entering the game with the bases loaded and no outs earlier in the week, but then allowed the Pirates to build a lead — from 3-1 to 6-1 — on Sunday. You get the picture. It’s already volatile down there.
Wins and losses for pitchers has become an overrated statistic, but in this case, the relief staff’s 1-4 mark through 12 games is a little telling. Here’s the good news: Maddon took it easy on the entire pitching staff in spring training, so some of April is undoubtedly being used as a prep month more than a competition month. Plus, the Cubs have plenty of resources to get some help, just as they did last year in acquiring Chapman.
Usually, you can’t win the division in April, but you can lose it. The Cubs actually took control from day one last year, but this time around it might be different. And does anyone really think the seven or eight arms in the pen now will be the same ones come October? It’s a process, and the Cubs are at the beginning. Once May begins, let’s see who’s reliable and who isn’t.
Still, being patient doesn’t take away the frustration of losing leads, as the Cubs just did.
“Two days in a row,” Maddon said. “We just have to do a better job in the latter part of the game protecting leads.”