Jon Durr - USA Today Sports
Jon Durr - USA Today Sports

Commentary: Cubs own NL best bullpen in September

by - Senior Writer -

Wait. What!? You read that right. The Chicago Cubs own the best bullpen in the National League down the stretch run. How and when did this happen? After it was no secret that the bullpen was struggling since the very beginning, the Cubs appeared to turn a corner when they decided to bring in Craig Kimbrel in mid-June.

That only patched things up for a moment as Kimbrel has been a shell of what the Cubs expected and has found himself on the injured list twice. Chicago continued the revolving door of moving parts around the trade deadline by acquiring both Derek Holland and David Phelps with hopes a change of scenery would do them good.

Still, nothing changed as the Cubs bullpen continued to blow games late. Then injuries started piling up for Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, and Pedro Strop so the revolving door of AAA arms continued to flood the major league roster with hopes something may fix the leaking hole. Through all those turbulent times, the Cubs have still found themselves in contention all season long and are on the verge of a tightly contested wild card and division chase with just two weeks to go.

However, since the calendar flipped too September, something changed as the Cubs own the best bullpen in the national league this month. How did this happen, and how did it go unnoticed until now? Maybe it was because of the blowouts the teams sustained earlier, or because of the deep holes, the staff put themselves in. Perhaps it has been a situation where an inconsistent squad didn’t allow us to see how much a certain part of this team has turned it around. Whatever the reasons may be, the Cubs entered last nights contest with the Reds with an NL best 2.25 bullpen ERA in September that will go down again after two scoreless frames.

That is a remarkable feat considering they are without their closer Kimbrel, their most consistent reliever in Kintlzer, and a Pedro Strop who hasn’t been right all season and yet the results continue to improve in September. How can this be that a team with such a gaping hole suddenly puts things together this late in the year? I have a few reasons as to why things have turned around for this team.

1. September call ups. One of the big reasons the Cubs pen has been able to get on track has to be the addition of AAA arms, Duane Underwood, Alec Mills, Dillon Maples, James Norwood, Danny Hultzen and Brad Wieck from the minors. Not only have they lengthened the Cubs pen, but they have been able to give the Cubs conventional arms extra days off when starters don’t go the distance they would like.

As the season has gone on, it felt like the Cubs overused some of their bullpen, especially with Cishek as he has not been his dominating self in 2019. Whether that is because starters are not going deep enough or getting pulled too soon remains to be seen, but the addition of fresh arms has undoubtedly helped the original 25-man guys get extra rest which has paid dividends down the stretch.

Not only has the ERA gotten better, but the command of everyone in the pen has seemed to have gotten better also. Whether that all ties into extra rest will never be known, but this is the best the Cubs pen has looked all season long.

2. Pitchers finding their roles: Throughout the first few months of the season, Joe Maddon mixed and matched certain bullpen combinations hoping to find one that worked. After solving the 9th inning, the Cubs still needed to sort out the rest of the pen as many options repeatedly failed down the stretch.

Enter Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick. Both whom Chicago inked to minor league deals this offseason have played an essential role on this team as they have made a case to return to the north side in 2020. Ryan has been the Cubs most dependable lefty all year and has earned Maddon's trust in high leverage situations.

Wick took a while to come around but has the organization thinking big things for him in the future. The former catcher converted to pitcher has displayed some great potential and quickly solidified the Cubs 8th inning role ahead of Kimbrel due to a strong month of July and August in which he was nearly unhittable for stretches. If it wasn’t for these men, the Cubs bullpen might still be looking for answers.

3. Tyler Chatwood: Who thought we would be saying this man's name come this year. Well, I can tell you that the unsung hero of the Cubs pen in 2019 has been Chatwood as he may have found his true calling. Ideally, Chatwood would still love to start, but the work he has done out of the Pen cannot be ignored as the Cubs proved once again that he does have the stuff to thrive in Chicago.

Whether being used as a spot starter, mop-up duty in blowouts, or filling in for starters who don’t last long, Chatwood has done it all from the pen this season as he has saved many games for Chicago. Although the Cubs may not have been fortunate to win all those games, it has been his work of multiple inning outings that saved arms for later in a series in which it looked dicey at times.

I don’t know what the Cubs plan is going forward with Chatwood, but I do know the Cubs better consider hanging onto him in a relief role because he has certainly earned his spot in the pen. With Hamels coming off the books next season and possibly Jose Quintana, the Cubs will certainly need at least one starter this offseason and Chatwood could be that option should the team see him as a fit.

These three reasons are why the Cubs bullpen has turned it around and can now be counted on with the game on the line. Although I do expect tons of wholesale changes in 2020, the current group the Cubs have in the pen gives them plenty of options before making decisions on who to keep and who to part ways with. If you were to ask me, I would say five positions would be a lock next year with Ryan, Wieck, Wick, Kimbrel and Chatwood (depending on starter) situation all coming back. That gives the Cubs a good base while the front office can fill the rest the best way, they see fit.

Playoff baseball is all about pitching, and except for Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, Cubs starting pitching hasn’t been great of late. That is why the bullpen has been especially huge down the stretch as they have had to shoulder an even bigger load than before with critical injuries in play. Should this race go down to the final day of the regular season, all tricks will be pulled out the hat. It could come down to who has the best bullpen down the stretch and right now that pen is the Cubs despite not having a dominant stud like Josh Hader. May the best team win.

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