Bullpen depth provides Chicago Cubs with lots of options
When it comes to their bullpen, the Cubs have options -- in more ways than one.
Entering Thursday's break ahead of a weekend series at St. Louis, Cubs relief pitchers had the third-best ERA in the National League at 2.67.
On top of that, they have been getting contributions throughout the bullpen, and they are in a situation where they have up to 14 relief pitchers at their disposal.
Here's why: During the off-season, the front office obtained several mostly unheralded relievers with minor-league options. Since the season began, the Cubs have operated what amounts to a shuttle between Chicago and Des Moines, site of their Class AAA Iowa farm team.
That shuttle has worn a path between the two cities. Luke Farrell, Cory Mazzoni, Justin Hancock and Randy Rosario have made the back-and-forth trips, and they recently added reliever Anthony Bass to the passenger list.
"We've been trying to get to that point for a couple years, where we have optionable relievers that can shuttle in and out and who we trusted," team president Theo Epstein said this week in Milwaukee. "The best way to make sure your key relieves stay fresh all year is to trust all your relievers so that you're using them all and you're spreading the workload.
"It's been hard to get to that point the last couple of years. There was a year where (Justin) Grimm was that last guy, and he was out of options. It's just nice now to have a situation where we have multiple optionable relievers who are doing a reliable job who we can trust a little bit."
So far, so good. The Cubs have given closer Brandon Morrow (15 saves) a rest since June 7 as he battles what manager Joe Maddon termed "fatigue." Setup men Pedro Strop and Steve Cishek have picked up saves since then, and veteran lefty Brian Duensing has been mostly reliable in his second year with the Cubs.
Maddon also has given important innings to Rosario (3-0, 0.71 ERA) and the rest. Farrell, picked up on waivers from the Reds last fall, gave up a game-winning home run in St. Louis on May 6, but he saved the Cubs' bacon with 5 shutout innings of relief in a 14-inning game at New York on June 2 and got the win.
"There's definitely some pride involved because you realize, especially with this team, how important every win is and how important every game is," Farrell said. "I guess the other side of it is, that's my role. It's my job to eat innings and to be that long guy. To keep us in a ballgame like that is important."
Farrell, a Northwestern graduate, is the son of former Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell. His two brothers work in the Cubs organization, so it wasn't a total surprise that the Cubs picked him up.
"Not entirely," he said. "I know there had been interest in the past. The thing I was surprised about was that I was on waivers. I didn't know that I was. That phone call to find out that you have been sent to another team is certainly a shock. To come here has been a great experience."
Of course, somebody has to find those relievers, and that's where good scouting comes in.
"Pro scouting is more than just a big free-agent sign or a big trade," Epstein said. "It's also a lot of depth moves. In that regard it's been a really, really nice year for our pro scouting department and our organizational depth. Not only are there a number of guys throwing well in the Iowa pen, but they've come up here and given us 50-so innings of really good baseball collectively, stepping into big games in high-leverage spots and performing well."
The guy who has to use the relievers properly is Maddon. With starting pitchers having some trouble going deep into games, there is more work for the relievers. Maddon acknowledges that it's not fun when the younger pitchers must go back to Iowa, but the goal is to have a strong bullpen for the final two months of the season and the postseason, should the Cubs make it.
"You don't win a championship without a great bullpen," he said. "And you have to have depth. We have depth. The guys that you see, the guys that have been running the shuttle between Triple-A and here have done a great job, also.
"That's a big part of success for me, not to bang on guys too much right now. Try to not get too heavy-handed with anybody. I'm still big into August and September and I want to make sure that they feel good by then, too."
• Twitter: @BruceMiles2112