The Cubs have lost just three games this month. Whatever the reason for those losses, then, you can safely say the Cubs are playing really well.
That said, all three of those losses came after the Cubs had built a lead, and then the bullpen blew the game. While it isn’t difficult to imagine that the bullpen is in a good place come October – with health, roster optimizing, rest days built in, and a four-man rotation – it also isn’t too difficult to imagine the bullpen continuing to be a problem down the stretch.
Let’s discuss some bullpen items, since that’s probably the big “uh oh THING” on peoples’ minds …
- Pedro Strop is out following minor knee surgery last week, and the hope is that he’ll be back in about a month. Now, Hector Rondon is officially out, too, after battling triceps soreness for the better part of two weeks. He sat for 10 days, then finally got back into games earlier this week, and now is on the disabled list. Apparently the “injury” is just right there on the cusp of something that is fine to pitch through (Rondon says he’s always had a tight triceps, and he’s not feeling that much pain (Cubs.com)), and something that needs more rest, which is why this has played out as it has. He rested, gave it a go, but the soreness did not entirely dissipate, so now it’s time to be proactive and sit him for a good long while.
- Joe Maddon added that, if this were late in the year or the postseason, Rondon would probably still be pitching (ESPN). Hopefully with enough time to rest, he’ll be back to 100% well in advance of late September.
- I don’t want to play armchair doctor, so I’m not going to say there’s an injury issue here until I hear otherwise from the team; but I do feel obligated to point out that Aroldis Chapman’s velocity was down a few clicks in the 11th last night, and he seemed to be moving around on the mound more than usual. The last fastball he threw did hit 101mph, but was wild, he then shook his arm quite a bit like he was trying to stretch it out, took his time before throwing his last pitch, and then tossed a really ugly, loopy, 84 mph slider in the middle of the zone that got wrecked for what ultimately became the game-winner. To be quite sure, Chapman has had games this year – even back with the Yankees – where his average fastball velocity was down in the 97/98mph range. So that part would not be completely aberrant, even if it is rare. Perhaps it was just the chilly temperatures or the long wait for the game or an off night. Perhaps he’s just a little tired because he’s been used a lot lately. Or perhaps I’m extra sensitive about reliever health right now, since the Cubs are without their other two top relievers. In any case, I’d say there’s zero chance Chapman is available today, and hopefully there’s no issue beyond that.
- There could be a couple other guys unavailable today, too, which could make for a really rough day, given that the Cubs are going to the bullpen for the start. Mike Montgomery and Trevor Cahill will presumably combine for the bulk of this one, and Joe Maddon might be forced to let them pitch through struggles more than he otherwise might. That bullpen is taxed. Today could be a high-scoring affair, and hopefully the Cubs’ bats can keep up.
- Speaking of which, the taxed bullpen and the anticipation of today’s game probably combined to lead Joe Maddon to use his pitchers last night in a certain way. That included trying to wring multiple innings out of Travis Wood, the first of which included a run scored on a throwing error, and the second of which ended after just two batters when they reached base. Wood was taken out, Carl Edwards Jr. came in, giving up a double, and then getting three outs, two of which scored runs. By then, the Cubs’ lead was gone. An issue that has become clear at this point is that, although it was not the case last year, when Wood was a very successful full-and-multi-inning reliever, his splits this year *strongly* say he should not be facing righties: .156/.248/.289 against lefties (incredible!), .273/.355/.541 against righties (yikes!). Wood has also been so heavily used this year that it would not be surprising if he just needed a bit of a break. On the year, Wood has a 3.26 ERA, which is even better than last year. But the peripherals (5.06 FIP, 5.09 xFIP, 18.4% K rate, 10.4% BB rate, zone contact rate way up) are all pretty unnerving.
- As for the two rookies who debuted last night, each of Rob Zastryzny and Felix Pena have been pitching extremely well at AAA Iowa (Zastryzny lately, especially, though as a starter, not a reliever), and were you simply scouting the stat line, you could see how they could emerge as legitimate, quality middle relievers right now for the Cubs, if nothing else. But we’ve seen it time and again: sometimes, a guy’s performance at AAA translates well to the big leagues; sometimes, every little issue he’s had with command is exacerbated, and because the hitters are so much better, there’s a compounding effect that can take a dominant AAA pitcher and turn him into a completely unusable big league reliever. And the thing is, it’s not a copout to say that you often can’t know the difference between those guys until they actually get a chance in real big league games to pitch against real big league hitters. Maybe Pena and/or Zastryzny can be a guy whose stuff plays at the big league level, and who can keep the command together enough in the biggest of big moments to succeed just as well – or at least nearly as well – in the big leagues as in the minors. With each guy Rule 5 eligible after the season if they weren’t on the 40-man roster, and with clear needs in the pen, what better time than now to see what they’ve got?
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