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Cubs pitching depth being put to the test

Ryan Avatar
April 17, 2022

DENVER — The Cubs haven’t shied away from admitting it will be a challenge to manage their pitchers’ workloads at the start of the season.

With the 99-day lockout forcing teams into a truncated spring training, nobody was truly built up to have a regular workload on Day 1, and Chicago knew it would need to keep a firm eye on how much and how often it used its big league arms.

“Most teams, I think, feel like this is mid-March,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said on Opening Day. “Maybe their relievers have gone back to back one time, some starters are going up to 75, 80 pitches, but the goal is to play 162, and trying to sprint when you haven’t been working out, it doesn’t work out very well. We have to be careful with our pitchers. I think you’ll see some wonky stuff early in the season.”

It has certainly been a wonky start. No pitcher had been through six innings through any of the first seven games, and Kyle Hendricks’ 83 pitches on Opening Day represented the highest total of any Cubs starting pitcher.

The wonkiest part of Chicago’s early-season pitching management, though, might’ve come when the Cubs called upon a pitcher who hadn’t thrown in the majors since Sept. 25, 2018, to start Saturday’s game against the Rockies.

Mark Leiter Jr., who signed a minor league contract with the Cubs in December, had his contract selected from Triple-A Iowa on Saturday as he prepared for his big league return. Though Saturday’s move was a formality, as manager David Ross named him the starter a day prior, it still was a move that marked a major step for a guy who’d undergone Tommy John surgery in 2019 and had spent the past three seasons not throwing a single pitch for any big league club.

“It was a long couple of years to get back,” Leiter said, “so for me, it was a lot of adrenaline and all that, and just kind of the excitement to be back and just trying to stay within myself and execute.”

The game didn’t go as Leiter hoped.

After cruising through the first two frames, allowing one base hit but striking out four, Leiter struggled mightily through his next inning-and-a-third. The Rockies scored four runs in the bottom of the third, capped by the first of C.J. Cron’s two homers on the night. He was then charged with three earned runs in the fourth, as he allowed four of the five batters he faced to reach base before Jesse Chavez came on in relief.

Getting the call back to the big leagues was an important moment for him, but getting tagged for seven earned runs in a 9-6 loss at Coors Field reminded him of just how tough it is pitching against major league competition.

“Not being here for a couple of years and letting the emotion of it get to me, like, not settling down and taking a breath and doing what got me back here… it’s disappointing,” Leiter said. “There’s some positives, (but) you want to win. I want to win. Our guys scored a lot of runs tonight. We should win that game. That’s on me, 100%.”

While Leiter was certainly thrilled to get the call up, the downside to the move is that it resulted in the optioning of Alfonso Rivas, the backup first baseman who was also one of the few lefty batters on the 28-man active roster. With the Cubs needing to bring up Leiter to start and with Rivas still having minor league options, it made sense that he would be the odd man out this time around.

“I think the first thing I say when those things happen is, like, ‘This sucks. For all of us,'” Ross said. “It’s just part of the options game when you’ve got to make a move for a pitcher. Those things happen throughout a season. It’s never good news.”

As Ross says, that’s just a part of the game. However, the game isn’t over. The Cubs are in the midst of a stretch of 13 straight games without an off-day before adding another six straight to make it 19 in 20 days. Obviously, that’s a lot of innings for one pitching staff to cover without much of a break.

With the shortened spring training, Ross was already wary of letting starters go too deep into games, and one turn through the rotation, no pitcher had gone past the sixth inning. It did help that each of Hendricks, Justin Steele, Marcus Stroman and Drew Smyly finished the fifth inning in their first starts. Since Smyly’s outing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, though, starters have combined to cover just 15 1/3 innings. Starting with Chris Martin’s sixth-inning appearance on Tuesday, the bullpen has thrown 21 2/3 innings.

That depth crunch hasn’t been made any easier by the continued absences of Wade Miley (left elbow inflammation) and Alec Mills (lower back strain), who were both placed on the 10-day injured list on Opening Day (retroactive to April 4). Miley threw 15 pitches off the mound on Saturday while Mills was scheduled to throw a bullpen in Arizona, but there’s not really any firm time table for either of their returns.

Saturday could’ve been a potential Keegan Thompson spot start, but he ended up throwing 3 1/3 innings of relief on Thursday and spent the past two days serving the two-game suspension handed down by Major League Baseball. All hands had already been on deck as far as the pitching staff is concerned, but the situation still called for Leiter being the first call up of the season.

Not that any of this surprised the Cubs. Ross has talked consistently about how weird the beginning of the season would be as far as managing pitchers’ work, and so far, that’s certainly been the case.

“I think we have a plan of, we understand it’s going to be a unique season, especially the start of the season, but every team is pretty much in that same boat,” Ross said on Opening Day. “We’ve got a lot of free agents late and guys still building up, but I also know that (in) one game, the plan can kind of go out the window, and how you use guys and who bounces back faster than others and how guys feel after their first outing and how many days off they might need (will have to be monitored). So it’s going to be one of those. We’re going to try to be flexible.”

The flexibility of the pitching depth, both with the arms on the active roster and those waiting in the wings, will be an important piece for any early-season success Chicago hopes to have.

Now that most of the starters have pitched their second games of the season, the Cubs should start seeing more length out of their starting pitchers. Ross has also done a nice job of spreading out when he uses each bullpen arm, so there should be at least a few rested arms that can come in when needed.

At the same time, in what has already proven to be an abnormal season, pitching depth is going to be of utmost importance for Chicago. The Cubs hope to have Miley and Mills back soon, and if they do indeed start to get more length out of their starters, there should be more opportunities for Ross to give relievers a rest.

But all of that seems like it would come in a perfect world, which anyone who knows baseball knows is rarely reality. Leiter may have been the first of those kinds of moves to be made, but it would hardly come as a surprise if another move is on its way.

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