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The Cubs bullpen is currently like one of those 12-sided dice

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How will the Cubs handle relief pitching in the postseason?

Who will be sitting in these Cubs bullpen chairs in October?
Al Yellon

I quite enjoy talking about dice-rolling in regards to baseball. Why is that? Baseball is a “random number generator” if any game ever has been. All games are, to some extent, about matching long-term likelihoods against daily realities. However, baseball sort of lives in that irregularity zone. None more than relief pitchers, and no squad more than the current Cubs. With Pedro Strop questionable for return and reliability, and Brandon Morrow being roughly the same, this is a look at the current Cubs bullpen.

With many bullpens, the manager and fans put together a “pecking order.” One or two relievers are currently at the top. They get the ball in the most difficult, or final, positions. Whether you’re a Phil Regan Cubs fan, Bruce Sutter-type, a Lee Smith guy, or of Aroldis Chapman vintage, an ideal bullpen has a lock-down guy.

That appears to not be the case, at least for now, with the Cubs. That might carry through until next year. Which might piss off quite a few people. I doubt Joe Maddon “added” many loyalty fans over the Pedro Strop injury. However, most of the people who don’t like him as a manager now, simply have a new bugbear to point to.

When you think of a 12-sided die reliever, nobody springs to mind quicker than Carl Edwards Jr. When he’s on, he’s as good as most, and better than many. However, I haven’t been able to figure a rationale for which CJ is going to show up. It no longer seems to me based on proper rest, opposition, or time of game, regarding the inning. He either gets ahead in the count and records out, or struggles. With no telltale signs until he’s been announced.

Jaime Garcia’s Cubs debut wasn’t auspicious. He walked three, fanned one, and the Cubs lost his start in a blow-out. “Release him now” was a popular on-line refrain. I championed giving him a shot in the Reds series, to see if that negative and fatal prognosis was justified. He has since responded with two quality appearances.

Jorge De La Rosa has a 1.00 WHIP and a 1.59 ERA in 17 Cubs appearances, one of which ended with him recording his first MLB save. Earlier in the season, the Des Moines Variations performed nobly, keeping the Cubs in quite a few games through July, when their opportunities began to dry up.

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Perhaps you’re familiar with Jefferson Airplane/Starship or not. In the 1960s, they were presumed to be a drug band. As the years, progressed, they became a rather main-line rock group with the Starship moniker. At some point in their tenure, they had a few albums that somewhat pancaked. Eventually, they morphed a bit again, and had a rather nice resurgent album, entitled “Freedom At Point Zero”. They had a few more hits on a few more albums, then faded away.

Maddon has a bit of a history with rehabbing pitchers in the bullpen. His teams in Tampa were prone to getting quality from unexpected sources. For instance, Lance Cormier spent eight seasons (full or part) in MLB. Two of them saw him with an earned run average below 4.00. Both of those were toward his career’s close with Maddon, in 2009 and 2010. One of Burke Badenhop’s two best years in MLB were with Maddon.

It wasn’t necessarily that he was getting big name relievers. However, some of the relievers he would have would outperform their career norms when with Maddon. Fernando Rodney began a career renaissance with the Rays in 2012, and was effective for the Cubs in 2015.

Given a Freedom At Point Zero bullpen now, Maddon has a different way of looking at the relief corps the next two weeks. Everyone in the bullpen has a chance at the October roster, and they know it. No appearances are throwaway ones. If Dillon Maples has three of his next four appearances as good from here to the post, he might make the postseason roster. Because, why not?

People like to put relievers in one of two holes. Either the “He’s good” or “He’s bad” bins. That makes things incredibly easy. However, relief pitcher quality is rarely that easily assigned. Good pitchers have bad outings. Or even bad stretches. And pitchers that are struggling greatly can have good outings at least as often as not.

This is how I recommend you look at the Cubs bullpen in 2018. Probably a reliever has four possible gradations. One is elite. The Cubs don’t have that guy. He’s the guy that, when he enters to pitch a single inning, you roll the 12 sided die, and 1-9 are “relative ease”. 10 and 11 see “a bit of traffic, but no damage”. Only with a 12 do you see “Run(s) score”

The next-level up guy is almost as effective, but with quite a bit more concern. He’s more like 1-7 being “relative ease”, 8-10 being “a bit of traffic”, 11 being “Run(s) score” and 12 being “ruh-roh” .

Many of the guys in the Cubs pen now are more 1-6 being “relative ease”, 7-9 being “traffic”, 10 and 11 being “run(s) score” and 12 being “ruh-roh.”

A few are likely 1-5 being relative ease, 6-8 being traffic, 9-10 being runs, and 11 and 12 being ruh-roh.

That’s realistically my look at most relievers. Far too many baseball fans have next to no interest in crediting the opposition. If they’re familiar with the name (“Chris Archer” or “Madison Bumgarner”, for instance), they will cut their offense some slack. However, if the name is less well regarded, the offense should crush him. And if a reliever comes in to record a rather clean inning? Horrors. “Fire the hitting coach.”

Whereas, using my reasonably typical “return on investment gauge (which is admittedly rather basic and rudimentary), even a kid just called up from Triple-A, and fixing to get hit hard by the league, will be perfectly fine two times out of three.

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I have no idea who the Cubs should put in the bullpen in October 2018. It should probably be the seven guys that Maddon is most willing to bring in to get three outs, be that James Norwood or Brandon Kintzler. And, if someone is no longer reliable after one round, make a switch after if the Cubs advance.

As much as people think one guy is necessarily “better” than another out of the bullpen, I tend to think much of baseball will remain flukish. If the center fielder gets a good read on the fly ball, it’s an out. If not, it’s a three-run double. The results are recorded, and the pitcher gets the blame, or not.

Baseball fans tend to beat themselves up over the wrong things, in my view. The blooper on a check swing that plates two is unacceptable. Not realizing that the player on the other teams is actually looking like he might be a really good piece (if available) for the future, is entirely justified because he wears the wrong jersey.

I’m looking forward to the stress of the postseason. I think. The Cubs bullpen will be a hodgepodge, and most of us know it. That could end up rather well, or poorly, based on how much leeway the starting pitching, defense, and hitters provide.

More importantly, though, at some point, “it” will happen. Some reliever you’ve never heard of will enter to face a vaunted line-up. Perhaps the Cubs, or perhaps not. He’ll enter with an ERA north of 8.00, to face three really quality hitters. Perhaps it will be a leverage spot, or maybe not. For allI know, it may be a position player pitching.

This nobody will walk in, and get the side out in four hitters or less, with nobody reaching second. The person watching the game will ask “What did you say?” You’ll respond, “Oh, nothing. He just rolled a three.” Because relievers are flukish that way.