Real or Not? New pen problems could hurt Cubs, Braves

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Let's talk about National League bullpens. The Chicago Cubs announced that closer Brandon Morrow won't pitch again this season or in the playoffs, as he has been slow to heal from a bone bruise in his pitching arm. Pedro Strop, who has served as Morrow's replacement as closer the past two months, is also out for the rest of the regular season and maybe the playoffs after suffering a hamstring strain while batting last week. Jesse Rogers has the story on Morrow being shut down.

Yes, there is now obvious concern about the Cubs' bullpen down the stretch as they try to hold off the Brewers and then play deep into October. We all dislike the parade of relievers in today's game, but bullpen depth is vital, especially in the playoffs. Check out the percentage of innings pitched by relievers the past five postseasons:

2013: 34.8 percent

2014: 40.2 percent

2015: 39.5 percent

2016: 43.2 percent

2017: 46.5 percent.

This isn't a death sentence for the Cubs. They still have some depth with Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Wilson, all of whom have ERAs under 3.00 and have combined for 207 strikeouts in 168 innings. Jesse Chavez has been brilliant since coming over from the Rangers, posting a 1.44 ERA in 31 innings and a 34-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Veteran Jorge De La Rosa provides some lefty depth along with rookie Randy Rosario. Hey, and Anthony Rizzo has a 0.00 ERA on the season.

Plus, teams have proven you can win with bullpen issues. In 2006, the Cardinals lost closer Jason Isringhausen late in the season. Rookie Adam Wainwright took over and St. Louis won the World Series. The 2011 Cardinals had bullpen issues most of the season, but Jason Motte took over as closer down the stretch, the bullpen pitched well in October and that team won the World Series. Consider last year's Astros. Ken Giles blew up early in the postseason and A.J. Hinch basically had to wing it in October and ended up relying on using starters in relief.

Still, managers like to have some certainty in the pen. The Atlanta Braves are another playoff team that is scrambling a bit in the bullpen. The Cardinals led the Braves 2-1 in the eighth -- Anibal Sanchez, one of the season's big surprises, had another good start for the Braves -- and then St. Louis broke the game open off the Atlanta bullpen with four runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth. Braves manager Brian Snitker paraded four relievers out in the eighth (Jonny Venters and Dan Winkler allowed all four batters they faced to reach) to no avail. Not all parades are fun.

That's four straight losses for the Braves, although they still lead the NL East by 5.5 games over the Phillies. The Phillies won Tuesday but are 5-11 in September and 9-19 since the middle of August, so they don't seem capable of making a late push. But the Braves haven't buried them just yet and the teams have seven games left against each other. The Phillies are only four games over .500, yet remarkably they are still very much alive.

The Braves' bullpen has a 5.67 ERA in September, and the control issues that popped up Tuesday night have plagued them all month, as the relievers have more walks (49) than strikeouts (46).

It's not a surprise that the Brewers, Rockies and Dodgers all have winning records in September -- they rank 1-2-3 in the majors this month in bullpen ERA. The point here: With the NL playoff picture still up in the air and many starters tiring down the stretch (see some of the young guys on the Braves and Cardinals in particular), the best bullpens these final 10 games might determine the playoff seeds. May the victors celebrate with marching bands.

Yankees win in Judge's return: Aaron Judge was back in the lineup for the first time since July 26 and went 0-for-4 with a strikeout in the New York Yankees' 3-2 victory, but he did hit a 112 mph bullet when he lined out to right field in his first at-bat. Neil Walker's three-run homer in the seventh off Ryan Brasier was the winning blow and prevented the Red Sox from clinching the division:

Everyone will poke at the Boston bullpen that surrendered three runs in the seventh after a strong outing from Nathan Eovaldi, but the Red Sox offense has struggled in September, even though the team has gone 10-5. They're hitting .242/.319/.368 with just 11 home runs while averaging 4.2 runs per game, compared to an MLB-best 5.4 runs per game through August.

It's probably nothing, as even a good offense can have a little three-week blip like this, but some of the power slumps are concerning to Red Sox fans. J.D. Martinez has three home runs in his past 24 games. Mookie Betts, who didn't play Tuesday, has gone 13 starts without a home run and has just two in his last 116 at-bats. Mitch Moreland, who didn't start with lefty J.A. Happ going for the Yankees, is hitting .184 with one home run in his last 99 plate appearances.

For the Yankees, you have to think Happ is pitching his way into the start in the wild-card game. He's 6-0 with a 2.39 ERA in nine starts since joining the Yankees. Luis Severino simply hasn't found his first-half form. Masahiro Tanaka is certainly capable of a great game, and he's 5-3 with a 2.39 ERA since coming off the DL on July 10, but Happ's consistency might be what you want -- especially since you know the starter won't be asked to go deep given the Yankees' bullpen.

The wild-card starter might also depend on which guy you want lined up to start twice against the Red Sox in the division series. The Red Sox have hit much better against righties on the season (.806 OPS versus .723), so maybe you do plan on starting Tanaka against the A's and lining Happ up for a starts in Game 1 and possibly Game 5.

Snell wins his 20th: Yeah, yeah, yeah -- pitcher wins don't matter. Still, 20 wins is awesome and Blake Snell got there with five scoreless, one-hit innings in the Tampa Bay Rays' 4-0 win over the Rangers, tying David Price's franchise mark. He's 20-5 with a 1.97 ERA, and if Chris Sale doesn't qualify for the ERA title (he's at 150 innings with a 1.92 ERA and needs 162 innings to qualify), Snell could become the first AL starter with a sub-2.00 ERA since Pedro Martinez in 2000.

Snell has won eight starts in a row with a 1.17 ERA and hs control has become even sharper with just nine walks in 46 innings. It's perhaps worth mentioning that Sale has pitched just nine innings in that span. Should that factor into the Cy Young voting? Of course, Snell missed some time earlier in the season and has just 19 more innings than Sale. Snell has also been handled very carefully as you would expect for a young starter, and has pitched seven innings in just seven of his 29 starts (and never got through eight). Another note to consider: Against the five best offensive teams in the AL (Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Astros, A's), Snell has a 2.00 ERA over 72 innings.

It's a close race, but I think Snell's strong finish and Sale's lack of action the final two months puts Snell in front, with Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber -- who won his 19th game on Tuesday -- a close third and fourth.

Dodgers walk it off: The Cubs beat the Diamondbacks 9-1 to pick up a game on the Brewers, but the biggest win of the night goes to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who beat the Rockies 3-2 in 10 innings on Chris Taylor 's first career walk-off home run. They stretch their lead over the Rockies to 1.5 games and go for the sweep on Wednesday, with red-hot Walker Buehler (1.75 ERA over his past nine starts) drawing the start.

And speaking of bullpens: Four Dodgers relievers allowed one hit over three scoreless innings in relief of Clayton Kershaw. An interesting Kershaw note: He had five walks and three strikeouts, the first time he had more walks than K's in a regular-season start since September 19, 2010. (He had three walks and two strikeouts in Game 5 of the World Series last year.)

Nice tribute by the Orioles: The Baltimore Orioles played with Braille lettering on their uniforms:

Unfortunately, it didn't help. The Orioles lost 6-4 to the Blue Jays to drop to 43-108 and set a franchise record for losses in a season.

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