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How the Cubs plan to attack their bullpen issues

3 weeks agoAndy Martinez

Jed Hoyer is well aware of the Cubs’ bullpen woes this season.

They have the second-most blown saves in baseball (8) and their bullpen ERA (4.57) and WHIP (1.40) are 9th worst in the majors. But he sees all these woes with a tempered mindset, while acknowledging it hasn’t been good enough so far.

“I think we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to make it better, ways to make adjustments,” the Cubs president of baseball operations said Monday afternoon.

San Diego, the Cubs’ rival for a 3-game set at Wrigley Field this week, shocked the baseball world this weekend when they pulled off a rare May trade, acquiring Luis Arráez from Miami for 4 players, including 3 prospects.

The natural question then arose — should the Cubs be looking outward for relief help, especially if a team like Miami is willing to part with players this early in the season?

“I don’t expect that to kick off like a ton of early deals,” Hoyer said. “I think it’ll maybe be earlier than usual, but it’s not going to be all sudden in mid-May everyone’s making a bunch of trades. I don’t expect that to happen.”

So, at the moment, internal improvement is the Cubs’ best path to bullpen success.

Despite the concern, there’s some signs that progress is occurring amongst the Cubs’ reliever corps.

Take Michael Fulmer last season as an example. From mid-April until late May, Fulmer had a 20-game stretch where he was 0-4 with a 9.35 ERA, 2 blown saves and a .950 OPS against.

Then, things clicked. Over his final 35 games, he had a 2.48 ERA and became a key cog in the bullpen before injuries cut his season short.

“Guys go up and down in the bullpen, it just happens,” Hoyer said.

[WATCH: Hoyer addresses the media at Wrigley Field]

That’s certainly the hope the Cubs have with Adbert Alzolay. The Cubs’ closer last year, Alzolay has struggled to recapture that form and has been moved off that role as he tries to recapture his form.

For the Cubs’ bullpen to thrive, Alzolay will need to return to some semblance of the pitcher he was in 2023. The Cubs can’t continue to rely on a small core of arms in leverage situations if they hope to have success this season.

Part of the Cubs’ struggles late last season was the fatigue that bogged down some of their reliever corps. Fulmer, along with Alzolay, Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather, were the Cubs’ most trusted leverage arms and, by the end of the season, only Merryweather was healthy.

Finding other arms that the Cubs can rely on is imperative.

That’s been a struggle so far this season. Héctor Neris has assumed the closer role in Alzolay’s place, but he’s struggled with some command, posting a 1.69 WHIP with 12 walks in 13 innings. He is getting results, though — going 6-for-7 in save opportunities.

Leiter (0.59 ERA) and Yency Almonte (3.68 ERA) have developed into important leverage options for manager Craig Counsell this year. But other options must emerge for Counsell.

Richard Lovelady looked like an intriguing option from the left side, pitching 3.1 scoreless innings in his first three games. But the 28-year-old reliever had some bad luck Monday, allowing 3 runs on 3 hits in 0.1 inning. All 3 hits had an exit velocity of 86 mph or less and had an expected batting average of .230 or less, per Statcast.

Daniel Palencia has an electric pitch mix that makes him an intriguing bullpen arm, but has struggled to find consistency — here’s his last 4 outings since being recalled from the minors:

Monday: 1 inning, 3 hits, 3 earned runs, 1 walk, 1 strikeout
Sunday: 1 inning, 1 hit, 0 runs, 2 strikeouts
May 2: 1 inning, 1 hit, 2 runs, 1 earned run, 1 strikeout, 1 hit-by-pitch
April 28: 2 innings, 0 hits, 0 runs, 3 strikeouts

The flashes have been good, but until he shows consistency, it will be hard to continue to use him in leverage situations.

Colten Brewer has a 3.38 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 10.2 innings but has been primarily used in low-leverage situations. Monday, he threw 2 shutout innings after Palencia and Lovelady with the Cubs already trailing.

The X-factor could come in a pair of starters.

Ben Brown and Hayden Wesneski have been great for the Cubs as starters, filling in when the injury bug struck. But their rotation roles could be short lived as Justin Steele returned to the rotation on Monday and Kyle Hendricks not too far from a return, either.

Regardless, the Cubs were always going to want to monitor the workload for their young arms, so Brown, Wesneski and Jordan Wicks weren’t likely to be pitching 150 or more innings this season. Being able to use Brown or Wesneski in relief would allow them to control their workload while still utilizing their ability to get major league hitters out.

“I do think getting healthier in the rotation can add to that,” Hoyer said. “I think we can continue to improve. I think last year, the same exact guys struggled for a period, kind of going through May, and then they kind of gelled later in the season and pitched well. So hopefully that can happen.

“Then obviously we’ll be looking for external stuff. But that stuff is generally not available this time of year. And so, the focus right now is on getting healthy and improving guys that might be struggling.”

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