Forget Kimbrel, Cubs seeking relief from within as bullpen injuries mount

MESA, Ariz. — Chicago Cubs camp has been quiet so far. Perhaps that’s because the team is returning essentially the same group that bowed out of the postseason on Day 1 last October.

Much to the dismay of fans, there isn’t a Bryce Harper, Manny Machado or Craig Kimbrel livening up the Cubs’ landscape. Instead, it has been status quo save for one area of the team: the bullpen. A rash of small injuries this spring have slowed some newcomers while mainstays Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop are nursing ailments as well, leaving the bullpen in a state of flux.

Strop is supposed to be the closer while Morrow recovers from minor elbow surgery, but Strop injured his right hamstring throwing a pitch last weekend. The Cubs hope he’ll be ready for Opening Day, but Strop’s latest injury adds to a list of nagging ones he has experienced over the past couple years. He has injured himself fielding a swinging bunt (knee), running to first base (left hamstring) and now throwing a pitch. His injury history emphasizes the need for more depth, but it won’t come in the form of Kimbrel — no matter what Cubs fans say on social media.

“I don’t foresee [adding] anything significant at all at this time,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said earlier this week. “I think we have better overall bullpen depth than we’ve had in the past.”

So once again, with an opportunity to fill a need solely by spending, the Cubs won’t pony up for Kimbrel who’s still a free agent. But Epstein isn’t necessarily wrong. On paper, the Cubs look to have better pitching depth than in the past, but much of it is unproven at the major league level. Minor injuries to Brad Brach, Tony Barnette and Xavier Cedeno — on top of Strop and Morrow — have opened the door for others.

“Some of the arms in the Triple-A bullpen are guys we’ll be comfortable calling up,” Epstein said.

Dillon Maples, James Norwood, Randy Rosario, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick, Allen Webster and 6-foot-7, 24-year-old Dakota Mekkes are among the names Epstein is referring to. It’s a larger list than they’ve had coming out of the spring in the past.

“That’s something you like to hear, especially from your president of baseball operations,” Mekkes said, referring to Epstein’s confidence in the team’s depth. “I hope everyone is healthy and hope my performance speaks for myself. I try not to look at what others are doing.”

It’s significant that the Cubs believe they can look from within; it’s been a glaring weakness for an organization which has yet to draft and develop a starter, or even a mainstay bullpen arm, since Epstein & Co. took over in 2011. Maybe, finally, this is the year.

Still, manager Joe Maddon isn’t going to hand the ball to one of his newbies in the ninth inning if Strop isn’t ready March 28. The job will most likely fall to veterans Steve Cishek or Carl Edwards Jr. or possibly former All-Star closer, Brandon Kintzler. Everyone’s role will move up at least one spot if the nagging injuries persist. It’ll put extra pressure on the Cubs’ depth while Tier 2 guys will have to step up. The team thinks it has enough to survive until Strop and Morrow are healthy.

So Epstein has a simple hope regarding the bullpen ailments as the team inches toward the regular season — especially if they don’t add help from the outside.

“It’s better to have them [minor injuries] now,” he said, “and hopefully it leads to a period of health later on.”

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