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The Cubs bullpen’s flaws — are they fatal?

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Can this bullpen improve enough to keep the Cubs a contender?

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

I used to be very good at playing Stratego against my brother. The board game with a spy/military slant gave each player a specific number of military units. They were positioned around the board in a modified chess/checkers arrangement. As the pieces were fighting over the same square, one of the attacker and defender would be removed from the board. The goal was to capture the opposition’s flag. My strategy was to clutter much of the front of the board with “lower priority” pieces, hiding a few of my better pieces there, as well. I would rarely show my good pieces until I had an advantage. That my method worked against my brother was a fatal flaw for him. And, our playing the game much. I fear the Cubs bullpen in 2021 will be a fatal flaw.

It’s not like the Cubs need a whole bunch of fatal flaws. The offense seems rather ordinary unless the opposition is starting its fifth or sixth starter, or he lasts fewer than a dozen pitches. The rotation has been a bit dicey, as well. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take many weak links to collapse the entire structure. Unless you have far more faith in the Cubs bullpen than I do, a non-elite offense and rotation that doesn’t munch innings doesn’t seem the solution.

Jake Arrieta has been fine. Kyle Hendricks figures to improve. Beyond that, getting length from starters has been problematic. Which leads to the bullpen. One way to phrase a question about trusting the bullpen is: How many relievers do you trust to start the seventh inning with a one-run lead? Phrase and parse “trust” however you want. Other teams are often bringing 96, 97 and up in the zone out of their pens. No bullpen is pristine. Most have a developmental guy or two. But, the question remains, again: How many Cubs relievers do you trust in the seventh with a one-run lead?

A few days back, Alec Mills was burned for three innings with a six-run lead. He’s one of the few I trust. As such, many games will see the Cubs look to the bullpen for nine or more outs with a slight lead, or even a deficit. That seems between precarious and borderline hopeless. On Saturday night, what would your “Cubs 2021 likely bullpen grade” have been?

Either way, with Rowan Wick and Jonathan Holder plopped on the 60-day Injured List the day after a Jason Adam meltdown, your mark for the “Cubs 2021 bullpen grade” should have dropped. If it was a C, now it’s a C-Minus or D-Plus. If it was a D, it should be closer to failure, with nothing much likely improving. Cast your vote in the poll below.

It used to be that teams could get by with three or four useful relievers. Once the pitch count revolution slowed game pace to a crawl, teams realized the seventh pitcher was often less reliable than the second one. Running up pitch counts became as important as hitting the cutoff man, and roster moves for a healthy reliever became a near-daily occurrence. Slow games are fine, as long as your half-innings of pitching are rapid.

But, with a rotation limited on “guys bankable for 18 outs,” the lefty specialists and the Iowa call-ups figure to get plenty of looks. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“Can’t the young guys be successful?” Possibly, yes. And hopefully so. However, if the team isn’t playing .530 ball by July, trading the present for the future might move some of the key players, adding more stress to the pen.

“Can’t I be wrong? Couldn’t the bullpen be a strength?” Of course, it could be, but injuries to right-handers and ineffectiveness from southpaws is a step in the wrong direction.

I still don’t believe Tom Ricketts was totally committed to the 2021 season. Spending being based on tickets sold isn’t a new idea. I recently ran into a YouTube gem from 1969 with Washington Senators owner Bob Short explaining finances back then. It sounds more similar than different. (The interview is before the first pitch, though crackly.) This team figures to struggle mightily, though I hope I’m wrong. Bullpens have gotten more important, and the Cubs seems less prepared.

Can this year’s Cubs survive without a stocked bullpen? It is baseball, so odd things can happen. I wouldn’t wager anything important on the team’s success. Enjoy, be supportive, and try to learn. That’s what I’ll try to do.

Poll

As of today, what is your grade for the Cubs bullpen?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A
    (1 vote)
  • 4%
    B
    (18 votes)
  • 34%
    C
    (141 votes)
  • 48%
    D
    (200 votes)
  • 11%
    F
    (49 votes)
409 votes total Vote Now