After losing NL Central lead, put pen atop Cubs' deadline shopping list

MILWAUKEE -- Every time the Chicago Cubs think they've plugged a hole on their roster, another one emerges. After signing closer Craig Kimbrelin June, they probably figured they were set with right-handers in their bullpen -- and that was before they realized Brandon Kintzler was one of their best from that side of the mound.

But here the Cubs are, just days from the trade deadline, and they might have to go back into the market for another righty.

"There are areas we're trying to shore up while recognizing there are some [options] internally," Cubs president Theo Epstein said before his team lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night. "I don't mean to lower expectations, but we did make a really significant addition with Craig Kimbrel."

Kimbrel might not be enough, considering that veteran Pedro Strop is in the midst of a rough year and an even rougher stretch of games. He has given up runs in three of eight relief appearances since the All-Star break, while also allowing two inherited runners to score Friday night after hitting Ryan Braun and giving up a two-run single on a 92 mph fastball to Ben Gamel.

"We walked too many guys," Kintzler said afterward. "We hit too many guys. We didn't do a very good job, but the umpires didn't help us, either."

Yes, plate umpire Adrian Johnson was all over the map, but that's no excuse. Cubs manager Joe Maddon played with fire by bringing in four different relievers in "dirty" innings. There's only so many times a pitcher can come into a game with men on base and escape with no damage. Sure, Maddon could have left starter Kyle Hendricks in the game longer than five innings, but none of it changes the fact that Strop has a 5.20 ERA and six blown saves.

After acquiring left-hander Derek Holland from the San Francisco Giants earlier in the day, Epstein needs to get back on the phones -- regardless of what the Cubs spent on Kimbrel. His team is in a precarious position, having ceded first place in the National League Central on Friday to the St. Louis Cardinals.

"As we look at it, that [Kimbrel signing] did eat up some of, it not all of, our financial flexibility and address a real need," Epstein said.

But a new need clearly has arisen. Better to know now, when something can be done about it, then to just wait and hope Strop finds his game again as the one and only trade deadline passes. Epstein didn't dismiss help from within, meaning turning to Triple-A.

"We have several attractive right-handed relief options in the pen there," he said. "That story is yet to be written, with contributions from minor league guys."

One arm deserving of more attention is 26-year-old CanadianRowan Wick. Including time in the minors, he is on a run of 16 straight appearances without giving up a run -- and he shut the door on Milwaukee after Strop's mini implosion Friday night.

But can the Cubs trust their pennant race hopes on rookies with little experience? It's not unheard of, but fortifying the bullpen with a veteran from outside the organization seems like the smart route. Even if it's the right-handed version of a guy like Holland, at least it will be an experienced body.

"We're not going to be disappointed if we can't execute a big deal," Epstein said.

The problem is the Cubs could use more than one deal to help them to the postseason, as they're also searching for help at the plate. Blowing a late lead Friday was bad, but scoring only two runs was equally offensive -- no pun intended. In fact, Maddon has all but said he would prioritize a bat over an arm -- at least he said that before another blown lead.

"We have to be more offensive," Maddon said earlier this week. "I still like the names [in the pen]. We just need to figure out how to score more runs."

Both can be true: Needing to score more runs but also needing another right-handed reliever -- no matter how much the manager likes what he has. Strop has played a huge role on the team, so it goes without saying the Cubs need to find an alternative.

"That's a lonely feeling," Kintzler said of Strop's struggles. "He'll be fine."

But will the second-place Cubs be fine?

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