keyboard_arrow_uptop

The Cubs’ on-field rebuild is complete, and they could be in for an almost unprecedented period of roster stability (within the modern era of player development and movement). For the next five years it’s a pretty good bet that when you go to Wrigley Field you’ll find Willson Contreras behind the plate, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo around the infield, and Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, and Jason Heyward spanning the outfield.

Off the field, though, the Ricketts family’s work continues. During the last six years Wrigley Field has changed just as radically as the team that calls it home. You know about the video boards and the bleacher reconstruction, and perhaps about the new, sprawling plaza project the team will complete this winter along the West side of the park. If you haven’t followed terribly closely, you may not have realized that (amid all those new creations) there have been a few things destroyed by this undertaking. To wit: Wrigley’s famous bullpens, nestled for 100 or so years along the foul lines just beyond the infield, are gone for good.

I can’t pretend that I won’t miss them, even as I join many others in acknowledging that this was inevitable. Moving the bullpens to the space below the bleachers, beyond the outfield walls, is an opportunity for the Rickettses to add a handful of new, premium rows of seating. And because the mounds have long been considered a safety hazard for outfielders charging after foul flares, they have plenty of cover for their cash grab.

There’s value in being able to monitor the bullpens from one’s seat, to say nothing of the value of being able to watch an ace hurler from extremely close proximity as he warms up before a start. That value is obliterated by this change and might be the first casualty, from the perspective of fan experience, of this generally much-needed and welcome endeavor.

Before games are actually played at Wrigley without them, I offer this thin eulogy for the foul-line bullpen mounds. Here are a handful of games in which, if you were paying attention, you could predict the game a bit better or get a bit more knowledge about the game because the action in the bullpens unfolded before your eyes. As it happens, telling the story of the bullpens’ final season in their former home also lends a bit of otherwise lacking suspense and melodrama to the Cubs’ run through the regular season.

***

May 4-May 11: Cubs closer Hector Rondon pitches six times in eight days, including on four straight days from May 4-7. Rondon had pitched just eight times over the previous 30 days and will pitch just eight times over the next 33 days. The inconsistent usage pattern necessitated by a rigid closer’s role will do that. There’s little doubt that that inconsistency is a problem. Rondon makes these six appearances virtually untouched, as the Cubs crest at 25-6. His ERA stands at 0.69. He’s faced 43 batters so far, striking out 21, walking none, and allowing no home runs. Over the rest of the season, however, he’ll post a 4.50 ERA.

The pitch counts of Rondon’s six appearances are small enough (16, 4, 10, 8, 12, 8) to avoid raising eyebrows. It’s clear, though, that the appearances themselves accumulate and that they bog Rondon down. A fan sitting on the Cubs’ side throughout this homestand can easily note Rondon’s changing body language as the draining sequence unfolds. The final appearance in the set is a two-batter mop-up job in a 1-0 loss, in the second half of a doubleheader forced by a rainout the previous day. He gets through it smoothly, but he never looks fully himself—not while warming, not during his brief appearance. He won’t completely bounce back until after the All-Star break.

May 31: The Dodgers win a 5-0 nail-biter, if such a creature exists, when an elevated pitch count pushes Jake Arrieta out of a scoreless game after seven frames. With his bullpen (it’s not just Rondon) still far from fresh, Joe Maddon asks for six outs from Clayton Richard, Adam Warren, and Trevor Cahill, and finds the cost of that gambit very high. Though amiable and good for the general morale in the left-field corner, the trio of middle relievers who let this game get away will all miss the playoff roster—and neither Richard nor Warren will even make it that far.

June 1: A Jon Lester complete-game victory saves Maddon and his weary relief corps. Two days earlier, Jason Hammel had been forced out of the game after two innings, so Travis Wood went long. Maddon also didn’t want to go back to any of the three hurlers who had struggled the following day, in that pitching duel-turned-laugher. Thus, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm warm up as failsafe options for Lester as the Cubs bat in the eighth, and throughout the ninth. Strop has appeared in nearly half of Chicago’s games to this point, because sometimes the only thing worse for your usage pattern than being the closer is being the best non-closer. Strop is also the hurler Maddon seems most inclined to get up and throwing in situations like this one.

June 20-21: The Cubs have kept winning, but there are deepening cracks in the foundations of that success. The front office, it’s clear, did not assemble their bullpen to suit the uber-modern pitching philosophy to which they hoped Maddon would adhere. Cahill, Warren, Richard, and Travis Wood were supposed to provide stability and a ton of innings as the bridge between the starters and the ace relievers. However, they’re all struggling and only Warren can be optioned to the minors. The roster crunch prevents the club from calling up any arms who might refresh the thinning pen and Maddon, noticing this, has leaned more heavily on his starters than he and his staff had planned.

The Cardinals come to town and sweep Chicago, largely thanks to a fresher bullpen that pitches brilliantly. In successive one-run wins, relievers Seung-Hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Jonathan Broxton, and Kevin Siegrist combine to deliver roughly .400 WPA per contest. A miniature Chicago tailspin begins, and for the Cardinals a possible way to overcome their shaky defense and disappointing rotation presents itself.

July 5-6: Now the Chicago rotation is under fire as everyone but Kyle Hendricks limps toward the All-Star break, but the ringing truth of the matter is that the bullpen isn’t keeping the team in games anymore. On the flip side, the visitor’s bullpen sees another sequence of bold strokes from a manager with a bit more flexibility and a couple of pitchers take a step toward prominent, permanent bullpen roles. The Reds are in town, and after injuries pushed two of their most promising starters out of the picture in the spring they’ve converted them into potentially valuable relief assets.

Raisel Iglesias enters the July 5 game in the sixth inning after an early, wide Cincinnati lead tightens to 6-5 on the watch of starter Brandon Finnegan. Iglesias made a few starts back in April, but it’s now clear that his shoulder won’t stand up to the strain of that gig. That’s OK, for now: The Reds’ bullpen has been a nightmare all season. Iglesias is bringing some stability to it.

Perhaps believing that the crafty, slender Cuban hurler is wasted in a classic role, manager Bryan Price is trying to get more from him. This is just the fifth appearance Iglesias has made in relief, so his role is far from defined, but Price will ask him to face more than nine batters as a reliever for the first time in this game. Iglesias answers that challenge: three scoreless innings, four baserunners, three strikeouts. He doesn’t enter with the calm assurance of a veteran reliever; he surrenders a bunt single and hits a batter before he can settle down. From then on, though, the Cubs have no chance against him, and Wood and Strop give up three runs over the Reds’ final three turns at the plate to put the game well out of reach.

The next day, the Reds trail until the top of the seventh when Tucker Barnhart lofts a cheap home run into the bleachers in left-center field against Cahill. With the pitcher’s spot due up on the heels of that homer and the Reds now leading 4-3, Price takes down starter Anthony DeSclafani for a pinch-hitter.

When Michael Lorenzen trots in it’s for his fifth relief appearance of the season, too. (He was hurt in spring training and his season is just getting started.) He’s never come into such a high-leverage spot before, but (perhaps because his initial assessment of the situation, when he got up to loosen, was that he would be pitching another mop-up frame) he’s much cooler than Iglesias. He pitches carefully (it’s a hitter’s day at Wrigley) and walks two batters, but also strikes out two and holds the Cubs without so much as a serious rally for two innings.

Lorenzen will hit 95 miles per hour with his slider later in the season. As a starter, he faced the dual problems of too much command trouble and too thin a repertoire. In relief he could be devastating and that role might actually exist for him. Because of the Reds’ glut of young starters, and because the team is being very honest with themselves and with their pitchers about their physical limitations, it’s likely that both Lorenzen and Iglesias have long-term homes in the Cincinnati bullpen.

These two games were the first hints at what would become fairly clear, by the end of the season: that both men have the potential to go more than one inning in high-leverage relief and make narrow leads stand up. That Price had the deft touch to help them realize some of that potential during a difficult season is the best (and maybe the first) sign yet that he really might be a good manager. (Or it might be a sign that he’s as good a pitching coach as we always believed he was, and that he should be given that job back.)

July 7: Today was supposed to be an off day for the bullpen mounds, and the regular mound, and the people who stand on them too. Instead, already mired in a 5-12 slump, the Cubs host the Braves for a makeup of an early-season washout. It looks like the Cubs will go meekly again, as the bats lie dormant until the eighth inning. Hendricks, the best starter on the team over the last several weeks, throws two innings in relief just to lighten the burden of the bullpen and to get some work as the All-Star break draws near.

The Cubs fight back to tie the game and force extra innings, a Pyrrhic victory in their predicament. Atlanta lets loose its new secret weapon, Dario Alvarez, who shuts down the Cubs for two frames. Alvarez had stints with the Mets in 2014 and 2015, each time posting an ERA north of 10.00. When he started the season with a similarly brutal line at Triple-A Las Vegas the Mets waived him and the Braves scooped him up, whereupon he discovered who-knows-what. He dominated in a short stint in the minors with the Braves and is now carving up big leaguers. He’ll be traded later in July, by which time he’ll have 28 strikeouts and five walks on the season. Then he’ll implode for the Rangers, turning right back into a pumpkin. Never trust a relief pitcher.

Alvarez might never set foot on the dirt of Wrigley’s bullpen mounds again, open-air or otherwise, but Mauricio Cabrera surely will. He blows away the Cubs for a save, flashing his triple-digit heat at the end of Chicago’s 20th straight game day. Cabrera is huge—250 pounds of rocket launcher thundering down the bullpen mound—and when the Braves plate a run in the top of the 11th fans watching Cabrera get ready know it’s over. The Cubs’ bats are much too slow, in this midsummer funk, to catch up to what this guy is preparing for them.

July 28: The cavalry has come. That’s the good news for Chicago. The bad news is that it’s about to be badly needed.

The front office has reshaped the bullpen hierarchy over the last fortnight. Mike Montgomery and Aroldis Chapman have joined the ranks. Carl Edwards Jr. had a dazzling setup performance right after the All-Star break and now seems to be a third head for the right-handed reliever monster the team is building. Cahill is in exile in the minors, working his way back from a dubious injury. Richard is gone. Warren is too, having been one part of the team’s big deal to land Chapman.

The Cubs win, and the pitching goes according to the new formula: Strop, Rondon, and Chapman for one inning apiece to lock things down. That will happen all of two more times before the end of the season, one in a blowout win and one in a final-weekend loss.

July 31: On a Sunday night with the Mariners in town the Cubs give a spot start to journeyman southpaw Brian Matusz, who promptly puts them in a 6-0 hole after three innings. It’s Edwards who sets the tone of the Chicago rally, as he comes in to relieve Matusz in the fourth, faces six batters and fans five of them. Half of his 30 pitches are either called strikes or swings and misses. That begins a parade of Cubs relievers who shut down the potent Seattle offense, while the offense chips away at the lead.

Only two Mariners pitch in the game without giving up a run: Drew Storen and Edwin Diaz. It’s a stark reminder of the speed at which things change for a reliever that Storen’s clean outing is the surprise. At the start of the season, he was the eighth-inning guy in Toronto, coming off six straight seasons with better-than-average cFIP and DRA figures for the Nationals. By mid-July the Blue Jays viewed him as jetsam and traded him for the flotsam of Joaquin Benoit and some spare cash.

While Storen was encountering the first sustained struggles of his career during the first half of this season, Diaz’s star was rising for the first time. Looking like the right-field bullpen’s reflection of the Cubs’ Edwards—tall but not gangly, rail-thin but strong enough to control even his violent delivery, blessed with both excellent velocity and a vicious breaking ball—Diaz enters with a runner on third in the seventh, gets the strikeout he needs to escape the jam, and then fans two more batters in a scoreless eighth. It’s his 24th appearance since reaching the majors in early June and he’s now fanned 49 of the 109 big-league batters he’s faced. Diaz was a promising but unpolished starting pitching prospect as recently as early May. Moved into relief, he’s taken off like a shot.

Less noteworthy Mariner moundsmen cough up the lead in the ninth inning and the game eventually goes 12 frames. Rondon warms in the ninth, sits down, watches Chapman pitch a scoreless 10th, then warms up again and pitches the 11th and 12th. It’s his fourth appearance in five days, something he’s now done twice since the All-Star break, and he throws 27 pitches. John Lackey, scheduled for a between-starts bullpen session the following day, is warming up to enter the game when the Cubs finally walk it off in the 12th. Rondon’s season will be permanently derailed, though. He’ll make 19 more appearances (12 during the regular season, seven in the playoffs) around two stints of rehab for a balky triceps muscle and will mostly be treated like a pinata.

August 10: That win against Seattle has launched an eight-game winning streak. Rondon is gone from the bullpen, but the starters are pitching so well that it doesn’t matter much and the offense is clicking. Jason Hammel gives the club seven innings and leaves with a 2-0 lead, and with Rondon down Strop takes the mound. Angels third baseman Yunel Escobar, leading off the inning, trickles a ground ball up the third base line. Strop slides to snare the ball barehanded, pops up with the thought of throwing across the diamond—and comes up lame. He leaves with what will turn out to be a torn meniscus in his left knee.

The air is sucked out of Wrigley Field, even more than one might expect. This is a team on a long winning streak that seems to have put the division title on ice with nearly two months left in the season. They made three trades to bolster their relief corps before the trade deadline (Chapman, Montgomery, and right under the wire, right-handed sideslinger Joe Smith). Perhaps because of those things, though, the fans have shifted their focus beyond this moment, and with Rondon shelved and Strop now hobbled roughly 40,000 people are watching their hopes of a World Series title flash before their eyes.

Wood comes on to face Kole Calhoun and gives up a sharp double to left-center field. The tying run is now in scoring position with no outs and the terrifying duo of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols due up. As Wood trotted in to relieve Strop, Maddon had gotten both Smith and Edwards up to throw. It’s hard to say exactly why he chooses Edwards. It might be because the double makes a potential strikeout an extremely valuable outcome and lessens the potential value of the ground balls Smith is so good at inducing. It might be a matchup thing. It might be a simple question of logistics: Edwards is younger, his arm looser. When the TV cameras find each man during Calhoun’s at-bat, Smith is still crow-hopping throws to his bullpen catcher from 70 feet, while Edwards is standing serenely on the mound, taking a beat between warmup tosses to follow the action.

It’s clearly the right choice. Edwards trots in from the foul line and promptly makes Trout, Pujols, and Andrelton Simmons look terrible. Trout whiffs on a half-swing at a fastball that was by him before he could fully pull the trigger. Pujols stays alive after falling behind 0-2 with a couple emergency hacks and works a full count, but then grounds out. Simmons chops weakly to Addison Russell to end the threat and the Cubs still lead 2-1. Along the way, Edwards brings the crowd from utter silence to standing ovation and chants between pitches. On the same night that sees the Cubs lose their second sterling setup man in as many weeks, a new one announces himself.

August 13: Finally, the Cubs’ winning streak comes to an end at 11. The biggest reason turns out to be the Cardinals’ new not-so-secret weapon. Alex Reyes came up less than a week ago and has only made one appearance, but the Cubs score twice against fellow rookie right-hander Luke Weaver over the first four innings and with a dominant Hendricks on the mound for Chicago manager Mike Matheny asks his electric rookie swingman to keep his team in the game. He does it, for three solid innings over which he strikes out three and faces the minimum. Earl Weaver (no relation to Luke) counseled introducing rookie hurlers to MLB in long-relief roles. It’s no longer common practice, but with the Cardinals in dire need of a dominant arm flexible enough to minimize the damage done by their inconsistent rotation, Matheny found just the right balance with Reyes.

***

You know all of the good stories after that, so retelling them in the painstaking detail employed above would waste our shared time. There’s the two-inning save by Kenley Jansen in Game 2 of the NLCS, the five-out save by Chapman in Game 6 of that series, and Jansen’s futile but noble three-inning finish to that contest which saw him get up in the Cubs’ half of the fifth and come on to start the sixth.

There’s also the unbelievably taut Game 3 of the World Series, which played out as beautifully as it did because both managers were so proactive with their relief units. With the Indians’ best hitter (Francisco Lindor) due up and the bases loaded in the fifth, Maddon had Justin Grimm come in to induce a double play that shook the place. Then Andrew Miller started stirring in the Cleveland bullpen, and ended up entering in the fifth to relieve Josh Tomlin. Finally, there’s the final reliever ever to depart the left-field bullpen that belonged, in turns, to Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Rod Beck, Ryan Dempster, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Marmol: Chapman, taking over directly from Lester to get eight outs and keep the Cubs’ season alive in Game 5.

At Wrigley, from almost anywhere in the park, a fan with good eyes has generally been able to see which reliever gets up to stretch when the bullpen phone rings. Hell, they’ve been able to watch the bullpen coach answer the phone in the first place. There has generally been no waiting for the removal of a warmup jacket or for an electronic ad to dissolve so that the ribbon board can identify the guy now doing arm circles and tugging at the strings of his glove. All of that changes in 2017. It’s likely that some fans won’t notice and many who notice won’t care. Still, there will be some good stories that play out just a bit further from the spotlight.