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Cubs bullpen subtractions offer 'tremendous' opportunities

Ryan Herrera Avatar
August 8, 2022

Chris Young was in Scott Effross’ hotel room in St. Louis, not long before Effross would fly out to meet up with the Yankees, to whom he’d been traded by the Cubs on Monday morning.

The Cubs’ third-year bullpen coach described Effross as excited, full of emotion and — due to the Yankees’ facial hair policy — “clean-shaven and red-faced.” As big a change as shaving a little more regularly might be for Effross, that doesn’t overwhelm the opportunity Effross has in front of him since he was dealt for pitching prospect Hayden Wesneski.

As a former 15th-round draft pick who faced stalling out in the minors, Effross converted into a side-armer in spring 2019, debuted with the Cubs last season and was among the most used pitchers in the majors. It was enough that New York, in the midst of a season in which they’re World Series contenders, wanted to add him to their relief corps.

As good as he had been for the Cubs, it was tough for the staff and players alike to see him go.

“I think it was a lot for a lot of people,” Young said. “I don’t think there’s any way to give him all the credit he deserves. From a guy two or three years ago, maybe he’s released, into a guy that’s three years later being traded to one of the best teams in baseball. Like, all of that work was his. I think that’s the attachment all of us had towards him, just how much you appreciated the work he put in, how much you appreciated the human being, how much you appreciated his day to day routine, how much you appreciated his thirst to ask questions to better himself.

“Personally, we had a great relationship. It’s different. It almost felt like when I was a college coach and you’re graduating the kid a little bit. That was one of the first big tugs of emotion I’ve had on this side of the ball in a while.”

Effross’ departure certainly had an effect on the rest of the Cubs’ personally, but in a professional sense, it adds another layer onto how difficult it will be for the Cubs to win moving forward.

His was by far the most surprising trade by the Cubs at the 2022 deadline, but he isn’t the only one who’s now wearing a different jersey moving forward. Mychal Givens (Mets), David Robertson (Phillies) and Chris Martin (Dodgers) were all dealt in the days and hours leading up to 5 p.m. Tuesday, and along with Effross, that leaves a glaring hole in the back end of the bullpen.

For Young and the rest of the coaching staff, that leaves few arms with much experience in a big-league bullpen. Rowan Wick has played in at least part of the last five seasons and Sean Newcomb has been in the majors for most of the last six seasons. Beyond them, most of the arms they’ll be relying on moving forward involve relievers who’ve only made their debuts within the last two seasons.

But that’s where the interesting part starts. The Cubs aren’t winning a title this year, and at this rate, avoiding 100 losses can arguably be seen a positive. These last two months should be used to see what they have in some of their young pitchers. And at least one now former Cubs reliever thinks there are arms in the bullpen are more than capable of stepping up to the challenge.

“It’s a bigger opportunity for guys right now to kind of make it a stepping stone towards the right direction and to give them opportunities to compete for a spot,” Givens said after learning he was traded. “It’s not competing for a spot this year. It’s competing for a spot next year. I think the Cubs did a great job of signing me and Chris Martin and David Robertson, the other guys. We gave them whatever knowledge we could give them to help them, because they’re the future. I’m really happy with what they’ve been doing, the progress of what they’ve been doing this year. We’ll see how it goes.”

The rise of relievers into high-leverage roles has already begun.

On Friday, both Brandon Hughes and Wick tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings apiece in a one-run game, taking over the roles those four left behind. Wick hasn’t allowed a run since July 9, recording nine scoreless inning over eight straight appearances and earning the save in Friday’s 2-1 win over the Marlins. Hughes, the rookie who burst onto the scene with five strikeouts over 1 2/3 innings in his debut on May 17, has posted a 2.90 ERA in 31 big-league innings.

While those two are far from the only bullpen arms the Cubs want to get a look at over the last two months of the season, they are also the two expected to lead the back end of the bullpen to close out the year.

“Row has been here a long time, and I think we know what he’s all about. Hughesy has put himself on the map this year and continues to get better every time I see him pitch,” manager David Ross said. “Those guys will be towards the back end in the leverage spots, try to maximize their usage for wins and keeping them fresh.”

Beyond them, there are other relievers at the Cubs’ disposal. Mark Leiter Jr. has quietly put together a 2.87 ERA in 13 relief appearances. Anderson Espinoza has struggled in the minors this season but owns a 2.84 in five major league games. Michael Rucker was on the Opening Day roster, can cover multiple innings and didn’t allowed a run in any of his last four outings. There’s also Kervin Castro, who the Cubs hope can unlock something on the North Side after he was designated for assignment by the Giants last week.

And even if none of those arms work out, there are a few just a level below that are knocking on the door of the big leagues.

One of those arms who found a ton of success with Triple-A Iowa, Erich Uelmen was called up back on July 17 after what Ross said was a couple month of him being on the skipper’s radar. Though Uelmen has struggled his last couple outings, his first-half numbers with Iowa (2.79 ERA, 22.2 percent strikeout rate, 11.1 percent walk rate) give the Cubs reason to believe he has potential to be a solid big-league reliever.

Beyond Uelmen, there’ll certainly be others who get the call this season. In a conversation with CHGO this weekend, vice president of player development Jared Banner named three Iowa arms who might also get the first crack at big-league opportunities:

  • Jeremiah Estrada, who posted a 1.49 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and had 14 strikeouts per nine innings across High-A and Double-A before being promoted to Triple-A on Friday
  • Cam Sanders, who, following a week-long stint on the developmental list, has allowed just one run over five innings out of the bullpen
  • Ben Leeper, who had 12.2 strikeouts-per-nine and a 90 percent left-on-base rate heading into Sunday in his first full season at with Iowa

All three pitched scoreless innings in Iowa’s 10-6 loss to Toledo on Sunday (Estrada in his Triple-A debut), and though only Leeper makes MLB Pipeline’s list of the top-30 Cubs prospects (No. 27), all three have put themselves in position for a call-up sooner rather than later.

“Those three, amongst others, are guys who are kind of on the radar for us at the upper levels,” Banner said.

Losing four high-leverage bullpen arms at this point in the season hurts, because the Cubs have just two months to figure out how to deploy the newer faces and give themselves the best chance to win now.

But with that comes plenty of chances and likely some longer leashes for young pitchers to prove their worth in the big leagues. As difficult as losing in the short-term will be, the long-term effects of getting those players experience will only benefit the organization as a whole moving forward.

“The opportunity is tremendous,” Young said. “These guys are getting two months at the highest level of baseball to prove their value to themselves, to prove their value to the organization and to prove their value just overall. I think that’s exciting for them. It’s exciting for all of us as a staff to spend some time around some newer faces and kind of dial it back from the conversations you were having with the veteran guys to dialing it back to the rookie guys.

“Trying to share some of the stuff that we all learned from those veterans with these young guys and try and build them some confidence, and find them some times to do some things in a major league game that they haven’t gotten a chance to do yet. Hopefully, we find some pieces that can be a part of this thing when we get it going the way everyone wants it to.”

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