Jen-Ho Tseng

After 'Murphy's Law' strikes bullpen, Cubs searching for answers at pivotal point in season

After 'Murphy's Law' strikes bullpen, Cubs searching for answers at pivotal point in season

A year ago, Theo Epstein was putting the finishing touches on his "disguise" and getting ready to sit with his front office buddies in the Wrigley Field bleachers.

The Cubs clinched the division on Sept. 15 last season but this year, they woke up on the same date getting ready for a battle with the St. Louis Cardinals with plenty still to be decided in the National League Central.

Instead of planning for a celebration, the Cubs were tasked with trying to find some answers for a bullpen with a plethora of question marks.

There's Justin Wilson, the left-handed flamethrower and former Tigers closer acquired from Detroit ahead of the trade deadline who has struggled with his command since donning Cubs blue.

Then there's Hector Rondon, who has elbow inflammation — though no structural damage — and has been shut down indefinitely. 

And of course there's 42-year-old Koji Uehara who has an infection in his knee and his status is up in the air.

Even with expanded rosters, Epstein, Joe Maddon and the rest of the Cubs front office and coaching staff have their hands full trying to figure out how to solidify the bullpen in the final two-plus weeks of the season. 

That's a big reason why the Cubs called up young pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng for his big-league debut Thursday night against the New York Mets, moving Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen in hopes of giving Maddon another reliable option with an all-important three-game set against St. Louis looming.

"If you look at the Cardinals games that we play, a lot of those games that we play are decided in the late innings in the bullpen," Epstein said before Friday's 8-2 win over St. Louis. "It was sort of an educated gamble — of all the games the rest of the season, that was the game we could maybe win and allow us to have an extra weapon out of the 'pen for the big games this weekend. 

"They're all big; we weren't doing that to lose the game. We wanted to win the game and have Monty available and it ended up working out."

Epstein and Co. knew it was a gamble, but the Cubs offense helped smooth things over by going off for double digit runs for the second consecutive night against the Mets.

Just like the Mets are a cautionary tale of how fickle pitching health is, the Cubs know all too well how fragile a bullpen can be, both in terms of health and performance.

"Bullpens go through peaks and valleys and we're in a valley right now, which is unfortunate because this is the time of year you wanna be clicking on all cylinders," Epstein said. "That can change quickly. You get one or two guys locked in, one guy throwing strikes, another guy feeling better with his stuff, next thing you know, you look up and you're in good shape.

"I think it's kind of a Murphy's Law type thing right now with our 'pen. But we can turn it around in a hurry."

The Cubs ranked 12th in baseball with a 4.00 bullpen ERA entering Friday's game, when they accounted for 4.1 shutout innings. Wilson got the first of those 13 outs after starter John Lackey was unceremoniously ejected from the game in the fifth inning. 

Wilson called the moment a "step in the right direction" and time will tell if the same could be said for the entire bullpen. 

Wade Davis got four outs as Maddon played things true to his word. Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm bridged the gap from Wilson to Davis, allowing four singles and striking out three batters in 2.2 innings.

The Cubs had weeks to figure their bullpen out in low-leverage situations as the 2016 season wound down and still found themselves unable to come up with all the answers by the time October hit with Strop and Rondon nursing injuries. 

This year, they're gonna have to figure things out on the fly with very little wiggle room.

"We're fighting harder than usual to get that depth," Epstein said. "That's just the honest assessment. But again, I think those things change in a hurry —not a permanent state of affairs.

"It's a tough time of year to be fighting that hard to have kinda normal depth back there. But it is what it is. You deal with the reality. You don't cry in your cereal. You look at ways to fix it."

Of course, Epstein and Maddon both agree there are more things to focus on than just the Cubs' bullpen, like the health of other players (Jake Arrieta, Addison Russell) or the offense trying to find consistency. 

But pitching issues are the last thing the Cubs want down the stretch.

"That's where we're gonna find out what guys are made of," Epstein said. "Guys are going to get the ball in big spots and have to perform. Any time you're in a situation where you have a very small margin of error, whether it's in a postseason series or in a pennant race or in the course of a game, it adds to the risk and it adds to the reward, too.

"Guys step up in big games and perform well and all of a sudden, you have something because you have some momentum from the most important time."

Why Cubs made the move now with Jen-Ho Tseng

Why Cubs made the move now with Jen-Ho Tseng

Trying to stabilize their bullpen, hoping for a spark and showing faith in their most advanced pitching prospect, the Cubs will drop Jen-Ho Tseng into the middle of a pennant race and start the Taiwanese right-hander on Thursday night against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field.

Tseng put himself in position to make his big-league debut with a breakthrough season, going 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA in 24 starts between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. The Theo Epstein regime – which is still waiting to fully develop a homegrown starter – sees Tseng as someone who can throw four pitches for strikes, keep hitters off-balance without overpowering stuff and follow a scouting report. Think Kyle Hendricks as an absolute best-case scenario.

But the Cubs also couldn’t ignore how far lefty swingman Mike Montgomery has already been pushed (116.1 innings) and how much lefty reliever Justin Wilson has struggled (6.39 ERA in 16 appearances) since getting traded from the Detroit Tigers at the July 31 deadline.

The Cubs made the surprise announcement around 5 p.m. Wednesday, or roughly two hours after naming Tseng as their minor league pitcher of the year for the second time since 2014, his first professional season after getting a $1.625 million bonus as an international free agent.

“I just sat down with him in my office,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I said: ‘I guess you’re here in town to accept an award.’ He just looked at me and I said: ‘How about you start tomorrow night’s game instead?’ He didn’t even blanch. Actually, his interpreter was more taken by the whole situation than Jen-Ho was. But I heard nothing but good things about this kid.

“We think right now – in order to get us all set up pitching-wise – it was the right thing to do.”

Bumping Montgomery from the rotation should help keep him fresh after getting the final out in last year’s World Series Game 7 and give Maddon another trusted option in a bullpen with too many question marks. Koji Uehara has been struggling and dealing with an infection in his right knee and may have reached his limit after making 49 appearances during his age-42 season.

By the time the Cubs finalized the Tseng decision, they hadn’t yet scheduled a next-step bullpen session for Jake Arrieta, who strained his right hamstring on Labor Day, the same day Iowa’s season ended. The Cubs sent Tseng to their Arizona complex to stay sharp and continue his throwing program. It’s unclear when Arrieta will be able to rejoin the rotation or if this will be a one-and-done situation for Tseng.

But Maddon recalled how the Tampa Bay Rays unleashed young pitchers in the playoffs, from using David Price as a reliever while winning the 2008 American League pennant and giving Matt Moore his second big-league start in a 2011 first-round win over the Texas Rangers.

“You just never know,” Maddon said. “On a different level, I went through that with Matt Moore with the Rays, also. I remember the meetings for that in Texas in the manager’s office, bringing in minor-league guys that had seen him more. They were absolutely adamant that this guy can do this – and he did.

“Lightning in a bottle happens, and you never know what happens after that with some young players. And even if it’s not a start that happens afterwards, maybe he’s going to help us in another way.

“David Price did it with the Rays out of the bullpen, also, in a pretty good run, so keep an open mind. I’m keeping a very open mind. I’m actually excited about seeing it.”

Cubs announce minor league player and pitcher of the year

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USA TODAY

Cubs announce minor league player and pitcher of the year

Wednesday, the Cubs announced Victor Caratini and Jen-Ho Tseng as the organization's minor league player and pitcher of the year, respectively.

Caratini turned 24 last month and boasted an insane .342/.393/.558 slash line (.951 OPS) in Triple-A Iowa this season, his first year at the upper level of the Cubs minor league system. 

The switch-hitting catcher also clubbed 10 homers and 27 doubles while driving in 61 runs and scoring 50 in 83 games. He has spent more than a month in Chicago with the big-league team, where he's appeared in 24 games and hit .250 with a .696 OPS.

Caratini was initially acquired from the Atlanta Braves at the 2014 trade deadline when the Cubs sent Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell to Atlanta.

Tseng, 22, is a right-handed pitcher who spent most of the year with Double-A Tennessee, but also made nine starts with Triple-A Iowa. All told, he went 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 24 starts, striking out 122 batters in 145.1 innings.

The Taiwanese pitcher has been in the Cubs organization since 2014, when he made 17 starts and two relief appearances for the Class-A Kane County Cougars. He has a career 3.17 minor-league ERA.