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The last two months of the 2022 season will be a lot about learning experiences for young Cubs players. The front office may not have traded Willson Contreras or Ian Happ at the Tuesday trade deadline – a move that would have signaled a lengthier rebuild process – but the Cubs of this year have always been at least partially focused on the future.
What that means in the short term is that manager David Ross will have to regularly weigh the balance between managing to win games and managing to give his guys opportunities to test themselves.
“There will be times when I might not make the pinch hit and see if the guy can handle the moment or the right on right matchup, whatever that is, and just let them have the at-bat,” Ross said.
Though they surprised by not dealing Contreras and Happ at the deadline, the Cubs did trade away much of their bullpen before Tuesday’s deadline. David Robertson, Mychal Givens, Scott Effross, and Chris Martin are all gone. That is going to leave a lot of high-leverage innings for young and largely untested arms over the course of the next eight weeks or so.
Ross sees a lot of value for the Cubs in the long term by giving some of his less-experienced relievers more chances to work through tough spots.
“We’ve got to also let some of the young bullpen arms work through adversity, see what that looks like,” he said. “There’s real power in having a tough outing as a young guy and getting a double play and getting out of it.”
In Friday’s 2-1 win over the Marlins, Ross went to Brandon Hughes and Rowan Wick to get the most important outs at the end of the game. The two combined for the last 2.2 innings of the game, including what became essentially a four-out save for Wick. Thanks to Willson Contreras’s two-run eighth inning home run, Wick had a one-run lead to protect in the ninth.
“Guys will show you what they’re made of in the adversity moments, and you’ve gotta let them do that,” Ross said.
The same thinking applies to young starters as well. Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson have both emerged as likely future pieces of the rotation. As they strive to finish this season successfully, working their way out of jams will be a part of their development.
Steele showed some of what that looks like on Friday. He cruised through the Miami order the first time, notching seven strikeouts through the first three innings. But in the fourth, Steele painted himself into a one-out, bases-loaded corner. He got out of it though, striking out Peyton Burdick and then getting Jacob Stallings on a flyball for the third out.
“[Steele has] done a good job of that. He’s matured into still handling those moments really well. You see growth every time out,” Ross said.
Steele said he thought his four-seam and slider command on Friday was as good as he has ever felt it. Though his afternoon was done in the fifth inning, he notched a career-high 10 strikeouts against the Marlins. All while giving up just four hits and one walk.
Battling through the fourth inning was the kind of learning experience Ross wants more of for his players. Steele said he got through the jam with some self-talk and ramped-up focus to make the pitches he needed.
Along with those kinds of learning moments, guys like Steele are getting them in between outings as well. In an effort to improve his four-seam command even further, Steele watched film of his last start in San Francisco and focused on his back leg during his delivery. That gave him something to work on during his bullpen sessions between then and Friday’s start against the Marlins.
“My body would kind of get in front of my arm, leading to arm side up and high misses,” Steele said. “In between starts, my bullpens I was really focusing on staying over my back leg longer and finishing out in front with my arm, and that led to more consistency locating my four-seam.”
Ever since getting a tip from former Cubs ace Jon Lester back in early June, Steele has been leaning on his four-seam more this season, particularly as his first pitch of an at-bat.
“One of the main things was establishing the four-seam command, down and in to righties on that inner third of the righties,” Steele said of the advice he got. “He said establishing that would kind of open up everything else, and I took that into my next bullpen and was really focusing on that.”
Going forward, the future of the Cubs is a little less clear thanks to some of the moves they didn’t make. Trading Contreras would have been unpopular, but not a surprise. The same would have been true with Happ.
Instead, the Cubs front office stuck with jettisoning only a few relievers. That leaves Ross and his team to work through juggling trying to win a few in these last two months of the season with giving young guys opportunities to test their mettle.
“We’ll continue to try to win every game, we’ll continue to give our best effort every single day, we’ll continue to work to get better every single day,” he said. “None of that stuff changes, the day-to-day. There will be some times where we will just see what we’ve got.”
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