Going into that series, the Cubs had a one-game lead over the Miami Marlins for the final Wild Card spot. Three games and three losses later, combined with the Marlins taking two of three from the New York Mets, the Cubs’ playoff chances were all but gone, entering the final series of the season in Milwaukee.
One thing I won’t forget from that series is how, no matter how many runs the Cubs scored or how big their lead was, it never felt like it was safe. They were a pitching staff that was completely running on fumes, facing a historicly good offense.
Of course, as we all know, that is exactly how things played out. In game one of that series, the Cubs failed to win after leading 6-0. Their lead in game two was a much less comfortable 3-1, however, they still managed to blow three saves in just that one game. If the Cubs hold those leads and win those games, they would have been playing in the playoffs.
Sure, there was the Seiya Suzuki play, though I am not sure it would have mattered. The Cubs still would have been facing the top of Atlanta’s order in the ninth inning, with likely only a one run lead. The fact is that the Cubs had absolutely no reliable options to get outs out of the bullpen down the stretch.
After watching the Philadelphia Phillies eliminate the Braves in four games in the NLDS, I couldn’t help but think about the gap between the bullpen with which the Cubs ended the season and the one that the Phillies have now.
Whereas the Cubs couldn’t hold leads of 6-0 and 3-1 over the Braves in must-win games, the Phillies preserved leads of 3-0 and 3-1. In Game One of the NLDS, the Phillies used seven different pitchers to shut the Braves out at home for the first time all season. In Game Four, they used six pitchers to hold the Braves to just one run and advance to the NLCS.
Overall, the Phillies used 11 pitchers to cover 35 innings in the series. They gave up just seven runs in those 35 innings. In their late-season series with the Braves, the Cubs also used 11 pitchers, but gave up 18 runs.
One could point to bad luck as the reason why the Cubs struggled with their bullpen so much down the stretch. Adbert Alzolay was hurt. So was Michael Fulmer. Brad Boxberger was either injured or ineffective for essentially the entire season. Keegan Thompson was expected to be a big part of this bullpen, but he struggled to get outs any time he took the mound.
My gripe with that line of thinking is that bullpens are volatile. Everyone knows this. The Phillies came into 2023 thinking that Andrew Bellatti and Connor Brogdon were going to be major parts of their bullpen, yet neither was with the major-league team by the end of the season, much less recording outs in the playoffs.
The Phillies gave themselves room for error by going out and acquiring power arms over the offseason. They added Craig Kimbrel, Matt Strahm, and Gregory Soto–all high-strikeout arms, who typically have a higher floor than pitch-to-contact bullpen types. They developed Jeff Hoffman into a swing-and-miss guy by having him double his slider usage. They developed Orion Kerkering into someone whom they trust in the eighth inning of a playoff game, despite only having three career major-league innings.
Maybe if Boxberger and Fulmer are healthy all year, we’re having a different conversation. Maybe it really is that simple. After all, the Cubs did steal Julian Merryweather from the Blue Jays, and he was fantastic for them at times. But even his 3.52 FIP is worse than four guys that the Phillies have coming out of their playoff bullpen. While Javier Assad gave the team more than anyone could have hoped, he isn’t exactly a power arm, by modernity’s preposterously high standards.
So, while some may chalk it up to poor injury luck, I say the Cubs didn’t give themselves enough room for error, either by bringing in more reliable arms or by finding more guys on the fringes of rosters or in the minors who could get outs for the big-league team. So much has been written about the new pitching infrastructure of this organization, and we finally started seeing some of that at the major league level this season. Yet, it wasn’t enough, and for this team to make the playoffs next season, it will have to continue to improve.
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