On Sunday, the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals completed their shortened two-game series. While it is only May, dare we say that this could be a possible World Series Preview? For the Cubs, it was certainly a litmus test on where they stand on this young season of improved play. The Royals are the defending American League Champions and there is certainly one area where the Cubs will have to address if they want to go as far as the Royals. Major changes need to be made on the North side of Chicago.
After the opening week of the season, the Cubs have made constant changes to try and improve their bullpen. In the first two months, the Cubs have made over a dozen adjustments to their bullpen setup to try and find that consistent combination. While Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have been good for the most part, they still suffer from the occasional hiccup as well. With Justin Grimm still working his way back into top form, the Cubs are also still searching to fill the middle-inning void left by the injured Neil Ramirez. Recently, Chicago has experimented with putting a career starter in a relief role in Travis Wood to try and fill that gap. The Cubs have also kicked the dirt on possibly signing veteran relievers Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour, a former Joe Maddon closer. If the Cubs hope to contend in the immediate future, something must be figured out on how to get those final out of a game on a regular basis.
With Kansas City in town, the Cubs are able to see first-hand how that process works. The Royals came within a game of winning the World Series a season ago, and while many experts predicted that Kansas City would regress, the Royals are still kings of the American League as the calendar turns to June. Kansas City is by no means a flashy team, or a high payroll team, but they have been able to master taking a nine inning game and making it shorter. Their bullpen is filled with hard-throwing power arms that shut down opposing offenses.
As of Sunday, the Royals have a team ERA of 3.53 which is third in the American League. The Cubs have a team ERA of 3.73 which is good for seventh in the National League. However, if you go beyond that, the difference lies late in games. Kansas City has a 1.91 bullpen ERA. The Cubs have a 4.08 ERA. Maddon himself admits that improving the bullpen is one of the things that can help the Cubs record match the type of play that they are having this season. “We have lost a few games late, and we need to build on that.” Even with Greg Holland struggling by his measures, the Royals continue to win games late and shorten scoring chances for the opposition. If the Cubs want to be in meaningful games come October, the final nine outs of the game is where the focus should be directed toward.
On Sunday, the Cubs’ bullpen certainly was up to the task as they matched the Royals inning for inning. According to Maddon, “Playing these types of games against playoff teams certainly gives you an understanding of exactly where you stand.” Due to Saturday’s rain out, the game is rescheduled for the final week of the regular season. If things progress, that game may very well be a meaningful one for both teams, and have an impact on potential playoff positioning. It will also be a final chance to see if the Cubs are able to correct their bullpen ways and become royalty in their own way closing out ballgames.