The Cubs’ Tattered Bullpen Might be Their Downfall in the Postseason

Poor relief pitching has been the Achilles heel for the Chicago Cubs all season. Injuries and bad free-agent signings have hurt the Cubs all summer long. With several relief pitchers getting injured in August, the Cubs went into a tailspin that included losing six of 10 games. How bad have injuries and poor performances hurt the Cubs’ relief pitchers? And will those problems keep them from making the MLB postseason?

Poor performances in the Cubs bullpen

Much of the Cubs struggles stem from two free-agent signings that didn’t work out. They were expected to have a good bullpen this year, especially with some notable free-agent additions. However, those signings didn’t work out. 

This offseason, the Cubs signed Brad Brach to help bolster their bullpen. Brach had a high walk rate (21 walks in his first 24-1/3rd innings), then had his ERA rise to 9.82 in his last 16 outings. The team released him earlier this month.

In June, the Cubs signed Craig Kimbrel to a big deal. Because of the late signing, Kimbrel missed training camp and had 15 shaky appearances before injuring himself at the start of August. Kimbrel wasn’t as bad as Brach, but he wasn’t playing up to his usual standards before he got hurt.

With both of these signings not working out as expected, it hurt the Cubs’ bullpen. These poor performances really hurt the relief efforts during the summer.  

Injuries to key relievers 

Injuries haven't helped the Cubs bullpen, including issues with Craig Kimbrel.
Injuries haven’t helped the Cubs bullpen, including issues with Craig Kimbrel. | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In addition to poor play, the bullpen has been suffering from injuries all year long. Pedro Strop has been pitching pretty well until a left hamstring injury in early May. He has been struggling since. The injuries got worse in August. In addition to Kimbrel’s injury, Brandon Kintzler was doing well until a pectoral injury in early August. Steve Cishek has also spent much of August out due to a hip injury. Combined with poor performances, these injuries have kept the Cubs from having consistent play from the bullpen.

The Cubs might still be able to make the MLB playoffs

Despite their relief pitching problems, the Cubs are still contending for an MLB postseason spot. As of August 19, they are mere percentage points behind the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals. Despite not leading the division, the Cubs are in the thick of the wild card race.

There is still a month left, so anything is possible. However, the Cubs will have to change to keep their wild card lead and to win the division. With seven games remaining against the Cardinals, Chicago can take the division lead by winning both series. They also play a series against two of the fellow wild card in the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers.

It seems like the Cubs relief pitching may recover in the next few weeks. Kimbrel, Kintzler, and Cishek are coming back from injury. Chances are that one or more of those three will get back to their old form. If that happens, it should go a long way to helping the team win crucial games down the stretch.

Also, when their relief pitching is failing, the starting pitching is picking up the slack. Since June, stud starting pitcher Yu Darvish has cut down dramatically on his walks. In his last four games, he has recorded at least eight strikeouts per game without any walks. Jon Lester has been pitching well, most recently winning an August 17 game despite several defensive errors. Jose Quintana was struggling earlier this year, but he has improved his pitching in the last four games. In August, he has a 1.38 ERA, 33 strikes, and only one walk. Kyle Hendricks has also been pitching really well this year. 

The starting pitching has allowed the team to stay in the playoff race. If some of the relievers can come back from injury and pitch productive innings, Chicago a great chance of making the playoffs.