Theo Epstein never said “our pitching broke.” The Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series without a homegrown pitcher throwing a single pitch during those playoffs. The 2018 team won 95 games while getting negative-WAR seasons out of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood and zero saves from Brandon Morrow after the All-Star break. Sixty games in 2020 were enough time to see Darvish’s brilliant talent, Alec Mills’ no-hitter and another division title.
Buy-low relievers such as Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera saw the values of their next contracts multiply after pitching well for the 2021 Cubs and getting traded to contending teams at the deadline. The Cubs posted a 39-31 record in the second half of last season while deactivating Kyle Hendricks and trading away David Robertson, Chris Martin and Mychal Givens.
That track record is why the Cubs aren’t panicking about the state of their pitching staff right now. On balance, this is an organization that eventually figures out the bullpen each year and usually puts together a rotation that exceeds preseason expectations. More than most teams, the Cubs are equipped to handle Marcus Stroman’s mysterious rib cartilage fracture, the fatigue overtaking their top relievers and whatever else might go wrong down the stretch.
“You’re right,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
If you’re going to pass on the top starters on the free-agent market and avoid established relievers looking for multi-year deals and hope that a few pitchers will someday come up through the draft, you better be good at game-planning and piecing it together.
It’s not always going to be pretty. The Cubs posted a 5.16 ERA through their first 20 August games and still notched 13 wins. During the team’s July stretch that prevented a sell-off at the trade deadline, Stroman accounted for only one quality start and a 9.11 ERA. It wasn’t until late May when Hendricks finally rejoined the rotation. Three relievers the Cubs were counting on in spring training — Keegan Thompson, Brandon Hughes and Brad Boxberger — have been injured and/or ineffective.
Yet the Cubs remain in the thick of the National League playoff race, riding an All-Star season from Justin Steele that will likely put his name in the Cy Young Award voting. Steele delivered another quality start Thursday night before the Cubs broke through in the 10th inning of a 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, maintaining a wild-card spot and moving to three games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the division.
Justin Steele’s 3Ks in the 2nd. pic.twitter.com/nH3CBBrSiJ
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 24, 2023
It’s not even September yet and Steele, 28, has already reached a career high in innings pitched at any level of professional baseball. But 138 innings and counting is a reasonable workload for someone who’s in his 10th season in the Cubs organization and the peak years of his career. Since he came off the injured list (strained left forearm) in the middle of June, the Cubs are 11-1 in his last 12 starts.
“If we’re going to make the playoffs, he’s going to be a big part of that, so he’s going to take the ball,” Ross said. “He wants the ball. We want him to take the ball. You have to get to pitching a full season at some point.”
This is why Steele relocated to Arizona during the offseason to train at the Mesa complex under the supervision of the team’s staffers. This is what the Cubs need to see before he enters the arbitration system for the first time this winter and explores the possibility of a long-term contract.
“We can measure everything so much now,” Ross said. “We try to make a reason for everything. I don’t know what Roy Halladay’s first full season looked like. I’d like to go back and see metrically what his numbers would be. We don’t have that information, so we can’t panic if something does pop up. We talk to the player. We continue to make the best guess we can. But if he’s healthy, and we feel like he’s able to pitch efficiently, we’re going to put him out there. That’s the only way we’re going to get to the postseason.”
Maintaining a solid pitching staff for a 162-game season is not exactly the same thing as having the group to win multiple postseason series. Fully and efficiently developing prospects into good major-league pitchers is an inexact science. But there is enough of a framework to expect the Cubs to put a competitive product on the field every night.
The Cubs scratched Jordan Wicks from Wednesday’s scheduled start with Triple-A Iowa for reasons that were not related to an injury, Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register reported. The Cubs are weighing their options with Wicks, their 2021 first-round pick out of Kansas State, now that Drew Smyly (5.28 ERA) is ticketed for the bullpen again. It would be hard for the Cubs to find a softer landing spot for Wicks’ major-league debut than this weekend in Pittsburgh.
“We’ve got a great internal staff,” Ross said, mentioning by name coaches Tommy Hottovy, Chris Young, Daniel Moskos, Craig Driver and Danny Hultzen. “They put a lot of time and effort into getting the most out of our pitchers. They dive as deep as anybody I’ve ever been around on what the strengths and weaknesses are of a player, and the areas they want to help them, (and) where they’re going to excel.
“Is it possible to put them in every right pocket all the time? No, because of health and usage and just the way the game goes sometimes. But we have done a really nice job over the years of trying to just maximize the strengths of the guys we have. That’s why we identify those guys and go out and get them. It’s on them to go out and perform. They’ve done a really nice job. Finding those roles took us a minute this year, (but) they stay ready down there. We haven’t had a whole lot of egos.”
The Cubs recalled Thompson from Triple A and optioned Michael Rucker back to Iowa before Thursday’s game, hoping a fresh arm could help the bullpen. The number of major-league appearances this year alone for Adbert Alzolay and Julian Merryweather are already higher than their career totals heading into this season. So far, Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. have each appeared in 44 percent of the team’s games.
This is also Alzolay’s 11th season in the Cubs organization, which brings to mind another Epstein rationale: “If not now, when?” You can see the emotion that pours out of Alzolay when he gets the final out, even as he’s been almost automatic in save chances (20-for-21). Merryweather was claimed off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays in January, the same month the Cubs designated Leiter for assignment and re-signed him to a minor-league deal. No one in that bullpen is looking to ease off.
“It’s always funny to hear those questions,” Ross said. “‘The guy’s never done that.’ Well, they got to do it, right? Somebody at some point is going to have to do it. Whether that’s on a winning team or a losing team, you’d rather it be on a winning team, right? They’re going to go out and compete their tails off. That’s all they’ve done. They didn’t start the season saying, ‘I’m going to take the last month off because I’ve never done it.’ They prepare in the offseason for a full workload. Same with Justin Steele. We’re on a winning team that’s proving that we’re good. They’re going to go out and do their job.”
(Photo of Justin Steele: Joe Sargent / Getty Images)