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Where the Cubs stand as the pitching staff size trims to 13

Ryan Herrera Avatar
June 20, 2022

Kyle Hendricks’ outing on Sunday was another example of an issue that’s plagued the Cubs all season: the lack of length from starting pitchers.

Hendricks made it through just 4 1/3 innings after giving up three runs in the first and three more in the fifth. Those accounted for all six of the Braves’ runs in the 6-0 loss, a defeat that again featured a short outing from a member of the Cubs’ rotation. Of the 66 games they’ve played this season, the Cubs have only had 35 in which the starter finished at least five innings, and only 14 times would a starter’s innings have qualified for a quality start.

The inconsistency has come from throughout the rotation, but Hendricks has played as much a part of that as any other starter. His outing of 4 1/3 frames was the fifth time in 13 starts he hasn’t completed the fifth inning. His six earned runs made Sunday the sixth time he’s allowed at least four. His eight hits allowed match his season-high and was the sixth time he’s given up at least six base hits.

“I know he wants to be as consistent as he possibly can and puts in the work, for sure,” manager David Ross said. “Right now, just repeating that outing to outing, it’s just been a little bit of a struggle.”

Any turnaround in consistency for Hendricks — and the rest of the rotation, too — will have to come quick, otherwise those issues and the consequences they bring will be magnified in a hurry.

On Monday, all Major League Baseball teams will be subject to a limit of 13 pitchers on their rosters. It’s a rule that was supposed to go into place in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic led to protocols that left no pitcher limit the last two seasons. It was finally going to go into effect heading into this year, but because of the 99-day lockout that shortened spring training, MLB and the MLBPA agreed to allow a 28-man roster with no pitcher limits to start things off.

The implementation of the rule was pushed back two more times as both sides agreed to let teams carry 14 pitchers while rosters trimmed to 26, and like many teams, the Cubs took advantage of the extra arm.

“I’m trying to look at the big picture,” Ross said. “One, they’ve been really lenient in keeping it at 14 for a little bit longer than they wanted because of that spring training, and now we’re approaching July, so I’ve got to give them some credit there, Major League Baseball, in that way.”

But here we are, with all 30 teams having to make sure their pitching staff is trimmed to 13 on Monday.

As of Sunday night, the Cubs have not announced a move. There are 14 pitchers on the active roster, with the five starters being Kyle Hendricks, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Matt Swarmer and Caleb Killian (Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly are each still on the 15-day injured list). All five should remain on the big league club after this new roster crunch, which would mean the cut will come in the bullpen.

That might have some repercussions for the Cubs.

Losing one bullpen arm doesn’t seem like a lot, but it really is in the context that the Cubs will be down someone who can cover innings if starters can’t find ways to get deeper in games. The rotation is averaging under five innings per start, which means the bullpen is averaging a little over four innings per game. Now, the Cubs will be short one reliever to help with that.

“I think they’re doing that to, in theory, keep the starters in the game, not run to so many matchups,” Ross said. “They did that with the three batter minimum, so I think in their mind, it’s for the betterment of the game. We’ll see how it plays out.”

There are a couple of ways things could play out with the 13-pitcher maximum, and Ross mentioned one when asked how this rule could affect the game: “I think you’ll see guys really protecting bullpen pieces. You’ll see probably more multi-inning relievers and guys going out and not going to run to that matchup as fast.”

Multi-inning relievers have been the talk of the town this season, especially early on when starters weren’t built up because of the short spring.

The Cubs have a few at their disposal. Keegan Thompson was among the top relievers in the game prior to jumping into the rotation, and he didn’t have a relief appearance of less than 2 2/3 innings all season. Alec Mills has had success as a multi-inning reliever in the past, and two of his four appearances out of the bullpen since coming off the IL on June 7 were at least 3 1/3 innings.

Even Adrian Sampson fits the bill. After being designated for assignment by the Cubs earlier in the season and then making a pitstop with the Mariners, Sampson found his way back to the Cubs’ system and was brought back up on Thursday.

When Hendricks got in trouble on Sunday, Ross went with Sampson out of the ‘pen — and he didn’t have to go back. Sampson allowed just one hit and struck out five over 4 2/3 stellar innings. Not only did he give the rest of the bullpen arms an extra day’s rest, but he also gave the Cubs a reason to keep him in the system, if not on the big league roster.

“The importance of guys matching up is going to not be as prevalent I think,” Ross said. “You got to get guys that get out righties and lefties, which is important in our game when you’re down to 13. I’m sure roster flexibility is going to be really important. A guy gets used then can’t be used for a couple of days, throws a lot of pitches, you’re going to start seeing that 40-man roster flexibility will be really important for teams trying to protect the bullpen.”

Another effect the limit can have? More position players finding themselves on the mound.

Per MLB’s rules, position players can only pitch in extra innings or if their team is ahead or trailing by more than six runs when they take the mound. That’s generally how it has always worked, with position players making the rare relief appearance in a blowout to just keep relievers as fresh as possible. Though it was an example of team’s conceding victory, it did give fans fun moments to help forget about what it said on the scoreboard.

But as more and more position players have pitched this season, the shine has worn off. Now, seeing a position player on the mound just adds to the feeling of a blowout loss.

Frank Schwindel has become Ross’ go-to when he needs a position guy to finish off the game, and during the Cubs’ recent 10-game losing streak, Schwindel pitched twice. Until David Robinson, the team’s de facto closer, threw in relief on Thursday, he and Schwindel had the same number of relief appearances during that 10-game stretch.

Fans are growing tired of seeing their team’s position players pitch, but it’s a reality they may have to get used to now that pitching staff sizes are shrinking even more. It isn’t, however, something Ross wants to become commonplace in the game.

“I hope not,” he said. “I’ve seen all I want to see from my end.”

But when it comes down to it, Ross will choose resting his relievers over trying to win a game the Cubs are far out of, like he’s already done four different times this season.

“You’re not going to waste pitching,” Ross said. “You’re going to try to go after the games you can win, and the ones that you might be out of it, you’re definitely going to move onto the next day as you kind of have to for the overall health of the players.”

This is what the Cubs face now that pitching staff limits are a thing.

Starters will have to find ways to stay in games longer, bullpens will rely heavily on multi-inning relievers, and fans might see a position player take the bump every now an again. It’s a reality different from what major league teams have faced before, but it’s a reality that will certainly have an effect on how pitching staffs are used from here on out.

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