No relief from the relief. (Except Gregg and Russell.)

After Tuesday night’s heartbreaking 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 2013 Chicago Cubs record stood at 18-26 (now 18-27 after last night’s 1-0 loss to the Bucs). Now, through 44 games, I didn’t expect the Cubs to have such an “impressive” record, especially if you have actually been watching the games and not simply reading over the final box scores.

Through 44 contests, the Cubs’ Pythagorean win-loss record was a respectable 22-22, so that should tell you the Cubs haven’t exactly been a very lucky team so far in 2013. Throw in last night’s game, in which Jeff Samardzija pitched very well but got zilch for run support, and the Cubs have already played in 18 one-run games (losing 12 of them). Again, a bit of bad luck, the Cubs have been suffering thus far.

Yes, the Cubs still don’t hit well with runners in scoring position. Defensively, they’re arguably the worst team in all of baseball, and that’s even if you ignore catcher Wellington Castillo’s five errors in just 258 possible chances. The pitching staff has thrown the most wild pitches in all of baseball, and Castillo and backup catcher Dioner Navarro haven’t exactly helped the cause. Offensively, the Cubs have been…alright. Rightfielder Nate Schierholtz has been a pleasant surprise and centerfielder David DeJesus has posted an OPS of .879 from the leadoff spot. Anthony Rizzo has been monstrous over the last 4 weeks and you figure that Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano will get it turned around soon enough. Right? Maybe.

Besides a few hitters, what has given me the most joy about the 2013 Cubs season to date has been the starting pitching, including the mercurial righty, Edwin Jackson. Jeff Samardzija has been mostly very good as the de facto ace of the staff. I know there are some who have already considered Jackson a bust, but there’s no way he finishes 2013 with an ERA of near-6 and ERA+ of a measly 68. Lefty Travis Wood has been one of the best starters in baseball, and that can be attributed to a sizable portion of luck (BABIP of .195) and being stingier against righties than lefties (.524 OPS for righties, .569 OPS for lefties). Admittedly, I did not have a great deal of faith in righties Carlos Villanueva and Scott Feldman to do more than fill out the rotation, but they have been crucial at the back end. In his most recent start, Villanueva was knocked around for 12 hits and 7 earned runs in 5 innings, but before that, he was very good through his first seven starts. Feldman has a rotation-best ERA of 2.19, and in 4 May starts, is 3-0 with an ERA of 0.94 and WHIP of 0.80, or in other words, disgusting.

Now that Matt Garza is off of the DL, Villanueva has been relegated to the bullpen where he will serve as the team’s long reliever. This should provide the pen with a quality arm and depth, something it sorely needs. Manager Dale Sveum is still learning his way around this Cubs team, and his bullpen management sometimes shows that. It’s somewhat difficult to properly manage a bullpen when it’s filled with so much ineptitude, though.

Carlos Marmol, who was almost dealt this offseason for starter Dan Haren, lost his closer’s job and hasn’t been that much better as a short reliever/setup man. Michael Bowden was actually very good in his role until late April, and has now given up 5 earned runs in his last 6 appearances. Shawn Camp, who gave up the go-ahead pinch-hit grand slam on Tuesday night, has an ERA of 7.56 and 3 blown saves through over 16 innings, and is now headed to the 15-day disabled list after finally telling the club about a sprained big right toe that he has apparently been dealing with for a month. Riiight. Hector Rondon has shown flashes of decency. That’s it; flashes. Kameron Loe, never one to miss a party, has a WHIP of 1.92, K/BB ratio of 1:1 and allowed 3 homers in just 8.1 innings pitched. Perhaps Kyuji Fujikawa hasn’t been as bad as the rest, but he won’t be mistaken for Dennis Eckersley or Goose Gossage anytime soon.

Saving the pen from complete malaise are closer Kevin Gregg (yes, that Kevin Gregg) and lefty James Russell. Gregg, who in his 2009 run with the Cubs annoyed me with his funky windup, stupid-looking glasses and 7 blown saves, has been great in 2013 so far. He has still not given up an earned run and allowed only 6 hits in 11 innings. There haven’t been too many close calls in the 9th, either, which is always a good thing for the hearts of Cubs fans. Most importantly, he has not yet blown a save. Russell was one of the few bright spots in the Cubs’ 2012 campaign, and he’s upped his game this season. Sporting a 1.04 ERA and and .865 WHIP in 23 appearances, the 27 year-old southpaw has been the pen’s most reliable arm over the last season and change.

I do not believe that with a decent bullpen, the Cubs would be legitimate World Series contenders. But, something about that group needs to either be changed or improved. Immediately. Cubs starters have been better than most imagined, and too many of their performances have gone to waste because of a shoddy bullpen and some questionable management decisions (Russell facing only one hitter in Tuesday night’s loss being one of them) that have left us scratching our heads. Fujikawa is the victim of two appearances in which he gave up 3 earned runs, obliterating his ERA early in the season. Marmol has basically stunk, but he’ll come back to Earth, eventually, and maybe Bowden will become a bit more consistent down the line, too. Maybe the pen continues to find ways to fail, and the Cubs descend towards selling everything not bolted down as well as finishing 2013 with 100+ losses. It’s certainly plausible.

There’s probably not a great sense of urgency to fix what is wrong with this pen, as again, even with a strong pen, this is still a Cubs team more than a few pieces away from being a serious contender. Still, it’s disheartening to see blown saves and pinch-hit homers happen with any sort of regularity. The 2013 Cubs are flawed in every department, but the bullpen could be the early death of it.


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