Is It Time to Shake Up the Cubs Bullpen? Is That a Rhetorical Question at This Point?

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Is It Time to Shake Up the Cubs Bullpen? Is That a Rhetorical Question at This Point?

Chicago Cubs

Back in Spring Training, if I were to have told you that on May 19, the Chicago Cubs would already boast FIVE position players with at least 1.4 WAR (t-3rd most position player WAR in MLB), you probably would’ve guessed they’d be doing pretty well, right?

Now what if I threw in the fact that their starting rotation features a legitimate Cy Young candidate, while the group (as a whole) ranks among the top-10 in WAR (3.7), ERA (3.91), and K/BB ratio (3.14)? You’d be over the moon! The Cubs have had issues with health (Jameson Taillon) and performance (Hayden Wesneski) beyond those three, but they have gotten studly performances out of the top of their rotation. That SHOULD HAVE gone a much longer way than it has, especially when paired with the offensive breakouts.

So, I ask again, if I told you all of that back in Spring Training, you would’ve been hard-pressed to project them as anything but contenders here on May 19, right?

And yet the Cubs are five games under .500, they’re tied with the Cincinnati Reds for third place in the NL Central, and have the same number of wins as the St. Louis Cardinals, who got off to a historically horrendous start.

NL Central Standings:

  1. Brewers: 24-19
  2. Pirates: 23-20
  3. Cubs: 19-24
  4. Reds: 19-24
  5. Cardinals: 19-26

So what the heck gives?

Well, we know they lost a lot of hard-luck, one-run games early on, but that’s hardly been the case lately. More frequently of late, the Cubs have lost because they played poorly.

But the real problem, overall, as I suspect you would have guessed from the intro or from watching the games, is the bullpen.

As a team, the Cubs bullpen has been tasked with only 155.1 IP so far this season (17th in MLB), which means they’re not exactly over-worked. But in that time, they’ve managed to post the sixth worst collective ERA (4.46).

It would be easy for us to point to David Ross’ bullpen management, which certainly hasn’t been perfect, but I don’t actually think that’s the root problem. Instead, I’m pretty sure it’s just as simple as too many poor individual performances. The Cubs have precious few dependable contributors right now.

And worst of all, the three guys the Cubs were counting on most to stabilize the pen, while the rest of the roles are sorted out, have been complete flops.

  • Keegan Thompson (21.1 IP, 4.22 ERA): Thompson has looked off from the start of the season, with nearly as many walks (14) as strikeouts (16) and next to no ability to pitch successfully on anything less than three days rest.
  • Brad Boxberger (14.2 IP, 5.52 ERA): Boxberger was forced into the closer’s role after Michael Fulmer flamed out, but it did not work. He’s also walking too many batters and has allowed way too much hard contact. Now he’s on the IL with a forearm injury.
  • Michael Fulmer (18.0 IP, 7.50 ERA): Came into the season as the closer-by-default but just can’t seem to get the results to match what LOOKS like mostly good pitches.

There are way more issues in the bullpen than just those three, but I’d argue that the complete lack of impact here has hurt the Cubs both directly (in their performance) and indirectly (in the lack of room they’ve given other Cubs pitchers to find their footing).

I’ll tell you what I would like to see at this point: Something radical. Something that shows some semblance of urgency. Because if the Cubs don’t turn their season around very soon, the front office is going to start making plans for the trade deadline. And although trading for an impactful reliever might eventually be an option, it’s not one right now realistically speaking. So you have to do it internally.

What do I think that means? In short, the Cubs need to (1) turn this bullpen upside down so that those expected back-end guys are in the low-leverage spots and vice versa, (2) move a couple of would-be-starters into pure relief roles, and (3) consider tapping into your prospect pool to contribute sooner than expected.

Specifically, something like this:

  • More (late-game) responsibility for Adbert Alzolay
  • More (late-game) responsibility for Mark Leiter Jr.
  • More (7th inning-ish) responsibility for Michael Rucker
  • More (7th-inning-ish) responsibility for Jeremiah Estrada. It is absolutely not guaranteed to work, but you’ve got to try.
  • Move Javier Assad to a dedicated relief role
  • Try Hayden Wesneski in the bullpen, where he can make his limited pitch mix play up while continuing to develop against big league hitters
  • Consider using Ben Brown in an exposure-to-the-big-leagues approach (a la Justin Steele a few years ago). His future may be as a starter, but the Cubs need relief help now, and it wouldn’t necessarily hurt his long-term development to get big league exposure.
  • PRAY that Codi Heuer can be an impact arm as soon as he’s eligible to come off the Injured List at the end of this month.

The only thing the Cubs simply cannot keep doing is continue turning to Thompson, Fulmer, and Boxberger (when he returns) for anything close to high leverage appearances right now. I think each of them could get back into the circle of trust, but until that happens, they just cannot touch meaningful moments in meaningful games.

The Cubs simply have WAY too many impressive individual performances in the batting order and starting rotation to waste on a bad bullpen. None of these changes are going to be immediate fixes. And I recognize that some of these can be classified as overreactions. But we’re already running out of time. It’s the only card left to play before trade season arrives.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami