Cubs' bullpen needs some relief
If ever a team needed a day off, it was the Cubs.
They enjoyed a breather Monday in Denver, where they will open a three-game series Tuesday night against the Colorado Rockies.
It has been a busy stretch for the Cubs, who played 13 games over the last 13 days, including three extra-inning games and some long, drawn out, nine-inning affairs.
On Sunday, shortstop Starlin Castro did not start for the first time all season, but he did pinch hit against the Dodgers.
The players most needing a day off were the relief pitchers. They've been beat-up, beleaguered and overworked during this stretch and for most of the season.
If there is one thing we're learning about first-year manager Rick Renteria, it's that he will go to his bullpen again and again and again, and we're talking during the course of individual games and sometimes in individual innings.
There are a few reasons for this besides Renteria's penchant to overmanage at times. The July 4 trade of starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland forced the Cubs to rebuild their rotation for the third time in three years.
Partly as a result, the Cubs entered Monday with the third-fewest quality starts in the National League, at 55. When starters aren't going 6 innings or are getting hit after 6 and failing to get a quality start, it takes a toll on the bullpen.
But Renteria has made some odd decisions, too, such as using long reliever Carlos Villanueva for just one-third of an inning in Saturday's 12-inning loss at Dodger Stadium. Renteria came right back with Villanueva for 1 inning Sunday.
In some ways, it's difficult to believe the Cubs could have a bullpen crunch, since the front office has given Renteria a 13-man pitching staff, with eight relievers. Just a few years ago a 12-man staff seemed excessive.
Either way, Renteria has managed to burn through his pen to the point where team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer got caught recently trying to pull a legal fast one by demoting effective reliever Neil Ramirez to Class AAA Iowa to get "a breather."
It's difficult to imagine the players association sitting still for that, and the Cubs quickly relented and put Ramirez on the disabled list.
Relievers Justin Grimm and Brian Schlitter entered Monday tied for 10th in the National League with 51 appearances each, and Schlitter spent two weeks at Iowa in April.
Renteria will have to be careful with both pitchers over the final third of the season. It wouldn't be surprising to see either or both shut down in September.
Here's a look at Renteria's bullpen usage over the last 13 games:
• Grimm: He was used in six games. That included a stretch in which he worked four of five days, from July 29-Aug. 2.
• Schlitter: The Park Ridge resident worked in seven games, including three in a row and four of five from July 29-Aug. 2.
• Pedro Strop: The setup man appeared in seven games, including three in a row from July 27-29.
• Hector Rondon: The closer pitched in seven games and four of five from July 24-28. He was not available to work in the July 29 marathon against the Rockies, and Renteria had to turn to catcher John Baker to pitch the 16th. Baker got the victory by scoring the winning run in the bottom of the inning.
• Wesley Wright: The lefty figures to see even more action with the Cubs having traded fellow left-hander James Russell to the Braves on July 31. During the 13-game stretch, Wright worked in seven games, including three of four from July 22-25.
To be sure, the Cubs need to get some deeper outings from their starters. New ace Jake Arrieta and rookie Kyle Hendricks have pulled their weight, combining for 8 of the 10 quality starts the Cubs have turned in since the trade of Samardzija and Hammel.
Tsuyoshi Wada has 1 quality start in that time, and he was pulled with one out to go before getting a chance for another quality start Saturday, when Renteria turned to Villanueva for his one-third of an inning.
Edwin Jackson tossed a quality start Sunday in L.A., going 6 innings and giving up 2 runs. It was his first quality start since July 1 and only his sixth of the season. Tuesday's starter in Colorado, Travis Wood, hasn't had a quality start since June 26, and his ERA of 5.10 reflects that.
The Cubs have kept reliever Blake Parker on the Des Moines-to-Chicago shuttle to take some of the pressure off the rest of the pen.
Kyuji Fujikawa, who got a two-year contract before last season with an eye toward making him the closer, should be close to returning after missing most of two seasons because of Tommy John surgery.
Much of the problem should take care of itself when rosters can be expanded Sept. 1. We'll see if all of the Cubs' relievers can make it to that date with their arms still attached to their bodies.
• Follow Bruce's reports on Twitter@BruceMiles2112.
Cubs scouting reportCubs vs. Colorado Rockies at Coors Field
TV: Comcast SportsNet-Plus Tuesday; Comcast SportsNet Wednesday; WGN Thursday
Radio: WGN 720-AM
Pitching matchups: The Cubs' Travis Wood (7-9) vs. Brett Anderson (1-3) Tuesday at 7:40 p.m.; Jake Arrieta (6-2) vs. TBD Wednesday at 7:40 p.m.; Kyle Hendricks (2-1) vs. TBD Thursday at 2:10 p.m.
At a glance: The Cubs took three of four from the Rockies last week at Wrigley Field, including a 16-inning victory that lasted 6 hours and 27 minutes. This is a battle of last-place teams, with the Cubs owning a run differential of minus-39 and the Rockies being at minus-66. Because the Rockies play at Coors Field, it's not surprising they lead the NL in runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage and home runs. They're also second in on-base percentage. However, they are last in ERA (4.94). The Cubs are a bottom-half team offensively except for home runs and slugging percentage. The Rockies still are without shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who is on the DL with a hip-flexor injury. It's possible Jordan Lyles (recovering from a broken hand) will come off the DL and pitch Wednesday. The Cubs are 22-36 on the road. They're in a stretch of 33 games in 34 days.
Next: Tampa Bay Rays at Wrigley Field, Friday-Sunday
-- Bruce Miles