Last season, there was a rude awakening after the fairytale season of 2016 for the Chicago Cubs.
The 2017 Cubs had two major flaws: Hitting with runners in scoring position and their bullpen. The bullpen especially let them down in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it was a recurring theme throughout the season.
The Cubs bullpen surrendered 264 walks in 2017, which was the fifth highest in the league. They did still manage to have the sixth-best ERA and fifth-most strikeouts in the majors according to FanGraphs.
However, walks are always killer and Theo Epstein attacked the offseason by bringing in new pitching coach Jim Hickey after letting go of longtime coach Chris Bosio and then completely remodeling the bullpen.
They let 98-year-old Koji Uehara and Wade Davis (who was arguably their best reliever in 2017) walk during free agency while also cutting ties with Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm. They kept Eddie Butler on the roster and added reinforcements with the signings of relievers Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek.
Through nine games and coming off a great weekend series taking three out of four from the Brewers at home (at least Milwaukee feels like home) it seems that the bullpen has gone from a weakness to a strength. It makes an already dangerous Cubs team even scarier.
While it is still early, the Cubs currently boast a Major League-best 0.94 bullpen ERA while only walking 15 batters in just over 38 innings and striking out 42.
Pedro Strop has been his usual self. CJ Edwards looks filthy and has struck out nine while only walking two. Newcomer Steve Cishek has been especially clutch coming in numerous times to clean up a mess on the basepaths. Brandon Morrow has been lights out in his two saves and even Eddie Butler has thrown eight innings of relief only giving up one run.
But the biggest surprise of the season has to be the reemergence of Justin Wilson. Acquired in a deadline deal from the Tigers, Wilson seemed to be the missing piece to the puzzle for the Cubs last year as they were in desperate need of an elite reliever. Before the trade, Wilson was enjoying a great season as he was 3-4 in 42 games posting a 2.68 ERA with only 15 walks and 55 strikeouts in just over 40 innings.
When he came to the Northside he became a completely different pitcher and Joe Maddon lost faith in him down the stretch. Wilson only pitched in 23 games for the Cubs last year but he was atrocious. In a little less than 18 innings, he pitched to a 5.09 ERA, walking 19 batters and only striking out 25 with a hilariously high WHIP of 2.09.
In 2018, Justin Wilson took to heart the “New Year, New Me” mantra and has looked lights out in his first five appearances. In almost six innings he has surrendered one hit, zero runs, only five walks and has struck out nine while having a manageable WHIP of 1.06.
If Justin Wilson pitches like Theo envisioned last year then you have a filthy array of bullpen arms on a team that also boasts what should be a top of the line starting staff. Wilson could be key to a playoff run as dominant lefty relievers are as precious as diamonds.
Come playoff time it seems the good teams always have a strong lefty reliever to get the power lefty bats out. Look at the contending National League teams and you see Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, future Chicago Cubs star Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, Charlie Blackmon.
Filthy lefty relievers are hard to come by and having one in your back pocket can be key to a World Series run (see Andrew Miller).