How the 2019 Cubs can avoid becoming the 2018 Bears

by - Staff Writer -
Epstein will more than likely make a free agent signing or a trade soon (Brett Davis - USA Today Sports)
Epstein will more than likely make a free agent signing or a trade soon (Brett Davis - USA Today Sports)

The Chicago Cubs are in the midst of one of the franchise’s most successful stretches in history.

Theo Epstein has been near the center of all the recent success as he has been pulling the strings that first led to the Cubs near the bottom of the league and then to the top of the world. The city is big enough for two kinds of the same animal as well. As the city’s football team, the Bears, look primed to embark on their window of winning, beginning with an extremely shocking, yet successful 2018.

The Bears season in 2018 saw great quarterback play from a young leader, a defense that resembled the ‘85 Bears’ dominance and 11 trips to Club Dub before an early exit in the playoffs. The team arguably could have had more than 11 wins, and gone further in the postseason if it wasn’t for its fatal flaw: the kicker. Cody Parkey missed 11 kicks on the season, none more gut-wrenching than the kick in the final seconds of a playoff game that sent Bears fans home bitter with ringing echoes of the double doink stuck in their ears. Parkey’s inevitable and easy to predict miscues should not overshadow how great of a season it was for the Bears, but Ryan Pace and the rest of the Bears’ front office should have been able not only to see it coming but avoid it.

Both the 2019 Cubs and last years’ Bears have similarities. Both teams are loaded with young talent, both sides look to be smack dab in the middle of a championship window, great coaches lead both, both draw great crowds, and both have one fatal flaw.

For the Cubs, it’s the bullpen.

The Cubs’ bullpen was a question mark before the season and remains so to this day, same as the kicking situation was to the Bears. To this day in the season, the Cubs have blown 11 saves (the same number as Parkey missed kicks) only 35% into the season. That is putting a team with World Series hopes on pace to blow nearly 25 games, over 15% of the games in the whole year.

For starters, their supposed closer, Brandon Morrow, has been injured since the middle of last season and looks nowhere close to pitching in a Cubs uniform ever again. That slides each pitcher in an already shaky bullpen into a higher leverage role, placing usual set up guy Pedro Strop into the closer role. Then he gets hurt and is still awaiting a return.

Strop’s nagging hamstring slides everyone even deeper, making Steve Cishek (usual seventh inning guy), Brad Brach and Brandon Kintzler closers by committee.

This not only puts each Cub pitcher in a tougher situation than usual but also forces young guys like Dillon Maples or guys who lack command like Tyler Chatwood and CJ Edwards into higher leverage situations. It also puts an added pressure on each pitcher on the starting staff to go six, seven, even eight innings in a league where that is not an easy thing to do.

In an already mentally tough game, this bullpen fiasco adds an unnecessary mental strain on pitchers who don’t know whether they’ll be used in the fifth inning or the ninth inning, all with the expectation to not become the latest example of the bullpen’s struggles. This flaw looks to be the Cubs’ inevitable doom come October or November, much like the Bears suffered in January.

But, there is hope.

The hope comes from the fact that the Cubs are only 35% through the season and that they have one of the best executives the MLB has ever seen in Theo Epstein. This is an issue that both Theo Epstein and the rest of the league know about; both parties are also well aware of the fact that the Cubs are in the midst of a championship window and in desperate need of backend bullpen help.

It is also nearly common sense at this point that the Cubs will add to their bullpen.

They will be looking for backend bullpen help, and maybe another reliever - perhaps a lefty specialist - to add some firepower and depth to the bullpen. The Cubs can look at the free agent market, trade for a bullpen piece, or acquire an arm through waivers - or any combination of the three.

One of the most intriguing messages has come from Ken Rosenthal in a recent article with The Athletic, reporting the Cubs are interested in Craig Kimbrel. One of the best closers in MLB history is not currently on a team, and it looks as though the Cubs finally have the budget to pursue him.

Kimbrel’s initial asking price was far too steep for the budget constrained Cubs, but also for every major league team as the 31-year-old sat through spring training in free agency and remains there now on June 3rd.

In signing Kimbrel after today’s MLB amateur draft, Rosenthal explains, would come without having to give up international pool money and a compensatory draft pick. Although the star closer would need some time to ramp up his game to be big league ready, the right-hander presents an excellent option to solidify this Cubs team as big-time contenders.

Since Kimbrel’s lack of recent pitching does come with a bit of a question mark, expect the Cubs to actively pursue some trade targets in Sean Doolittle, Brad Hand, Alex Colome, Will Smith or another pitcher. Former Cub and closer Fernando Rodney also remain available as he was recently designated for assignment.

With Ben Zobrist still on the restricted list dealing with his divorce and no time table set for return, the Cubs continue to save money off of his contract. That on top of the money that the budget generally sets aside for midseason deals mixed with the talent and character of Theo Epstein represents an excellent chance the Cubs will figure out their bullpen, and sooner rather than later.

If they don’t, they represent a very real chance at repeating what the Chicago Bears did this Winter: letting down a loyal fan base after a terrific year because of one fatal flaw.

So Theo, sign Kimbrel and avoid any double doinks along the way.

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