It looks like history is repeating itself on the north side of Chicago. As the Cubs are finally figuring out how to string a few hits together, their dreaded bullpen is doing them in on the other side of the ball. The main Achilles’ heel of a very poorly constructed team one year ago, the Cubs’ bullpen is taking over where it left off last season. In 2013 Cubs’ relievers suffered 31 losses and countless blown saves to accompany an earned run average well over four. This year’s incarnation of a bullpen has already surrendered late inning leads in six games including a stretch last week where they coughed up four out of five games that the Cubs led going into the seventh inning or later.
Just when rising stars such Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Welington Castillo are starting to show some glimmers of hope on the offensive side of the ball, and the starting pitching, aside from Carlos Villenueva, is pitching lights out, Cubs relievers are finding new ways to cost the club valuable games in the standings. Rizzo, Castro, Castillo and, in fact, six of the eight regular starters in the Cubs lineup are all batting .316 or better over the last seven games, and aside from Villenueva’s disastrous eight innings of work this season, the Cubs’ starters have an earned run average under three. If not for the awful relief pitching, the Cubs could easily be 7-5 rather than 4-8.
The biggest scapegoat so far this young season is former closer Jose Veras. Cubs manager Rick Renteria had “the talk” with Veras on Saturday morning letting the 33-year-old right hander know that he will be relieved of closing duties right now and instead will be used in non-save situations to try to regain his rhythm. In four appearances this season, Veras has just given up two hits, but control issues have hounded the reliever. He yielded seven walks in four games leading to two blown saves and an earned run average of 12.27. Renteria’s decision came on the heels of another blown save against the Cardinals on Friday night. Thanks to some extra inning heroics from Welington Castillo, who connected on a go-ahead home run in the 11th inning, the Cubs were able to escape with the victory. Vera’s blown save, however, cost the tired bullpen another two innings of work.
Renteria and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer both have said, at least publicly, that they still have confidence that Veras can be the team’s closer. Hoyer said that he has proven when he consistently throws strikes he is very tough for opposing batters. Unfortunately so far this season he simply has not thrown strikes. The situation is eerily similar to the closing situation at the start of last season. Former all-star Carlos Marmol lost his closing job after the first week of the season after having control problems and blowing three saves. The job was given to Kyuji Fujikawa, who promptly hurt his pitching elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Even with the injury, though, Marmol did not get his old job back. Instead he was traded.
For those eternal optimists, one bright spot to focus on is the rehabilitation of Jake Arrieta. The 28-year-old right hander from Texas Christian University threw three innings of no hit ball for the Cubs’ double-A affiliate, the West Tennessee Smokies on Saturday. Arrieta threw just 41 pitches and struck out three in his first live action since joining the disabled list with shoulder tightness. He is on track to make a return to the starting rotation at the end of April, sending Villanueva back to his role as a middle reliever.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika GLV Sports Writer for the Chicago Cubs
Major League Baseball