Flash forward to 2016. The Cubs’ high-powered offense — led by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and more — has pounded opponents so thoroughly that Chicago is running away with the division as the regular-season winds down. The team starts setting up the lineup and rotation for the playoffs. All is good on the North Side.
The playoffs begin amid unparalleled hype that THIS COULD BE THE YEAR that the Cubs finally win another World Series. This team is young but stacked after Theo Epstein augmented his offensive juggernaut with veteran free-agent pitching studs.
And then the Cubbie occurrences begin. Reliable starters can’t get out of jams in the seventh inning. Relievers can’t seem to muster the extra gas to shut down rallies. Late-inning implosions by the pitching staff turn the dream into a nightmare — one we’ve have many times before — and the Cubs are eliminated in the NLDS.
All because Rick Renteria can’t handle a pitching staff.
Call me a paranoid Cubs fan — you won’t be the first to do so — but I’m seeing tendencies now that make the above scenario possible.
For example, Jake Arrieta was trailing Arizona 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh July 20 and had just gotten two outs. He walked a guy and then Renteria replaced him with James Russell, who promptly gave up another run, all but assuring Arrieta a loss.
Arrieta did not appear to be happy in the dugout, but whether he was angry with himself or his manager wasn’t clear. He did say that he had been battling a virus, so maybe Renteria was giving him a break. Arrieta’s pitch count was at 105 and he had been pitching well, however, so why not let him try to get that final out of the seventh? In a lost season, letting starters work out of jams should be standard operating procedure. How else are they going to develop confidence in their stuff late in games. This ain’t Game 7 of the NLCS, but when it does come, will the starter be able to execute under intense pressure?
Renteria is the un-Dusty Baker, who was criticized — sometimes rightly — for riding his starters too hard and leaving them depleted come playoff time. And some will argue he derailed careers, but that’s another story.
The Arrieta situation isn’t an isolated incident. The Cubs are third in the league in Games in Relief. Renteria loves going to the ‘pen like Lindsay Lohan likes tipping a few cocktails. Jason Grimm, Brian Schlitter and Russell are all among the league leaders in appearances.
The 25-year-old Grimm had appeared in 32 games total, 17 of them starts, in his brief MLB career heading into this season. He’s appeared in 45 games this year. Schlitter appeared in seven games with the Cubs in 2010 and has been in 44 games this year. Rookie Neil Ramirez has appeared in 32 games. Pedro Strop’s 36 puts him on pace for a career high.
Russell? Trade him now, please, before his arm falls off. He’s appeared in 39 games this year after pitching in 74 last year and 77 the year before. He could be one of those classic cases of an effective reliever being overused and his career never being the same.
If the Cubs were in a pennant chase, what could these guys contribute in September and October? Some of them would surely be gassed and we’d see seemingly inexplicable four-run seventh innings. A look back at their usage would explain a lot.
They’d have to come into the games, though, because Renteria hasn’t consistently allowed starters to figure out how to get out of late jams.
The Cubs of tomorrow will likely be able to slug it out with anyone. Theo and Co. will go get the pitchers to put the team into serious contention. A random beer vendor will probably be able to fill out a really solid lineup card, but can Renteria “manage” the pitching staff? Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I have concerns. I’m definitely being paranoid — shouldn’t Cubsanoia be an official diagnosis? But still …
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