With the trade deadline deals that took away the team’s top four relievers, with the injuries that have since shrunk the group of healthy, established big-league arms, the Cubs have a lot of innings to cover over the last six weeks of the season.
And with that need for arms, the Cubs will have a lot of time to take a look at a long list of arms looking for their shot in the majors.
A five-games-in-four-days series against the Cardinals came in the midst of 19 straight game days. Only three weeks have passed since Scott Effross, David Robertson, Mychal Givens and Chris Martin were traded. Keegan Thompson went on the 15-day injured list over the weekend. Kyle Hendricks was ruled out for the rest of the year on Monday. Wade Miley has only pitched four time all year and not since June 10.
With so many arms unavailable, the Cubs brought up three pitchers from Triple-A Iowa this week: Javier Assad, who started the 2-0 win in Game 1 of the doubleheader Tuesday; Nicholas Padilla, who pitched in relief in the 13-3 loss in Game 2 later that night; and Luke Farrell, who started the 7-1 victory over St. Louis on Wednesday.
At 31 years old and having already had one unsuccessful stint on the North Side four years ago, Farrell is likely more of an innings eater than someone the Cubs see as a potential piece. But guys like Assad and Padilla, who both are 25 and just made their major league debuts Tuesday, are arms that found success as they moved up the minor league ranks this year and could be auditioning for future roster spots.
The Cubs are 16 games under .500 heading into the Thursday and aren’t competing for a playoff spot. So, this season has become a time to give young arms chances when the opportunities arise and see what they can do.
“We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we use these last two months to only try and win baseball games,” assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos said. “Yes, the goal is still going out and winning baseball games, but we also have to turn the clock towards evaluating. Like, who’s a piece for next year? Who came up this year who’s established himmself and who we can rely on next year? Who’s got a roster spot? Who’s gonna come in and compete for a spot next year?
“We’re still trying to figure that stuff out. We’re taking each day as a ‘Yes, we’re gonna win’ approach, but at the same time, we’re also taking a step back and looking at big picture. Like, ‘OK, who helps us in the future.'”
Outside of the three who have already gotten a shot, names like Cam Sanders, Jeremiah Estrada and Ben Leeper have been thrown around as pitchers who could be next in line for big-league bullpen opportunities. And beyond them, top pitching prospects Caleb Kilian (who’s already made three starts for the Cubs this year) and Hayden Wesneski are in Triple-A and could come up when needed for starts before the season is over.
Again, winning is always the goal in the end, but knowing that a spot in the postseason isn’t ahead of them six weeks from now, the Cubs are comfortable taking the time now to see what they’ve got in pitchers waiting in the wings.
“You’re gonna have stretches where you gotta go find starting pitching, you gotta go find relievers. That’s what the Triple-A depth is,” Moskos said. “Being able to have that talent to tap into is really important.”
Pitchers like Michael Rucker, Mark Leiter Jr. and Anderson Espinoza have bounced back and forth and have had mixed results in the big leagues, but each of them have shown some flashes when given the opportunity. And at the very least, they look like those depth pieces who can help cushion some of the blow when injuries take their toll.
“Knowing that you’re not just an eight-man bullpen up here, that you’ve got 10 to 11 bullpen pieces. Three of them happen to be in Triple-A, but all of them are interchangeable with the eight pieces that you have up here,” Moskos said. “And so on and so forth with the rotation as well, like having seven starters instead of five. Two of them might be having to wear it in Triple-A, but at the same time, they’re ready at a moment’s notice, because they’re always a phone call away.”
Even as the Cubs try some of these arms out, manager David Ross posed a question last week that they need to answer: “Are all those guys fits down there, like pieces for next year?”
Well, at least one of them has done enough to answer that question: Brandon Hughes.
An outfielder in the system as late as spring training 2019, Hughes has transformed into a reliable bullpen piece for Ross and Co. His five-strikeout debut on May 17 was impressive, and following a two-day stint back in Triple-A at the end of that month, Hughes has earned his place on the active roster.
After striking out the side in the eighth inning Wednesday, Hughes owns a 3.00 ERA with a strikeout rate above 30 percent. Over his last 10 appearances, he’s allowed just two earned runs, two walks and five hits while striking out 14 batters. And the biggest development of all as he’s established himself in the bullpen? All three of his big-league saves have come in his last five games.
“Hughesy has built a lot of trust, and there is a factor of trust in there that guys handle in the moment,” Ross said. “It may not be the perfect pocket for him, but you trust the human that has experience over the guy who it may speed up on him a little bit to win a ballgame.”
Will every arm the Cubs call up have that same success right away? Probably not, but they can certainly afford to have longer leashes with the arms they do give those shots to.
Not everyone will prove to be pieces for the future, but that’s also why the pitching depth they’ve accumulated is so important. The more arms the Cubs feel comfortable bringing up, the more chances they’ll have to find someone who might stick. And as we see that happen more and more the rest of the year, there’s got to be someone who does take advantage of the opportunity, right?
“You hope that they all work out like Brandon Hughes,” Moskos said, “but you’re just trying to do your best to find out who they are, find out how to deploy them, see who they match up well against. Then, as they stabilize a little bit and get their feet wet, start to get a little bit more comfortable, then you can start to look for some developmental opportunities.”
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