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A month into the season, the Cubs starting rotation has been worth more in wins above replacement than just one other team. And it’s the Reds. Fangraphs awarded the Cubs starting staff a mere 0.1 WAR going into Saturday’s games against the Dodgers, pointing to the clear need for improvement.
Not having stability in the rotation has contributed to some of the rotation’s issues. Wade Miley and Alec Mills, both expected to be key parts of this group, were placed on the injured list before the season started, forcing manager David Ross to rely more heavily on younger arms to pick up some of the starts.
The good news is that Ross should be getting some of that lost stability back to his rotation, and hopefully soon.
Miley, picked up on waivers from Cincinnati in November, has not made a start for the Cubs yet because of elbow soreness, but he had his first rehab outing in Triple-A Iowa on Thursday. Miley tossed four scoreless innings and only gave up two hits, but he was most pleased with how well he felt getting up and down between innings and how he felt after the start.
“I feel like I’m healthy,” Miley said. “That kind of proved it the other day that I can go out and turn up the intensity in a game situation and get out of it feeling good. That was my goal, and that’s what we did.”
Miley said he plans to throw a bullpen session in Chicago on Sunday and then assess things from there. He is not monitoring things like his pitch count, Miley said, but instead how he is able to handle the up-down of going inning to inning through a start. Miley said after throwing 41 pitches in four innings in Iowa, he went to the bullpen and kept throwing to create the feeling of a five-inning outing.
Mills, out since the end of spring training with a lower back strain, is also slated to throw off of the mound in the next few days. He went on a rehab assignment to Iowa in late April and made one three-inning appearance. But after experiencing discomfort in his quad while working out a few days after that start, Mills was shut down again.
Ross knows that getting those two back in his rotation will be a step toward righting the ship on the 2022 season, but better pitching from the guys he does have on the starting staff will, too.
“I think the starters haven’t pitched to their potential quite yet consistently,” Ross said.
He added that Marcus Stroman is trending in the right direction, and so is Kyle Hendricks, even though he has struggled on the road. Hendricks has a 2.82 ERA at Wrigley compared to 13.50 elsewhere. Ross said he has also been encouraged by the growth of Justin Steele.
“A lot of positive thoughts about our rotation,” Ross said. “I think Wade’s going to add to that, (Drew) Smyly’s been great. We’ve got a real good chance to be a solid pitching staff if we continue on the trajectory we’re on.”
Smyly started the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Dodgers, a 7-0 loss. He lasted into the fifth inning and threw 91 pitches, but 38 of those were in the first inning. Ross blamed Smyly’s long first inning to the rust brought on by an eight-day layoff. Smyly was reinstated from the bereavement list before the game and made his first start since April 28 in Atlanta.
“The first inning set me back, I threw a ton of pitches in the first inning,” Smyly said. “I was just really struggling with attacking and getting ahead and landing my curveball, especially. I was kind of searching for it all game.”
Miley’s return date can’t be projected yet, but Sunday’s bullpen session will provide some clarity. He was a significant addition to the rotation in the offseason, especially coming off of the successful season he had in 2021 with the Reds. Last year, Miley posted a 3.37 ERA in 28 starts and had his lowest walk rate since 2016, when he was with the Orioles.
Watching as his new team has struggled without him in the first month has been difficult for Miley, but he is being careful not to rush things.
“I want to be out there for sure, but that’s the hard part about when you’re dealing with an injury,” Miley said. “Staying smart and trusting the process. You rush back, come out for one or two, and then you’re right back on the shelf, it’s no good for anybody. We’re trying to get this thing right and go from there.”
If the group of Stroman, Hendricks, Miley, Smyly, and Mills or Steele can come together soon to form a cohesive and consistent rotation, the Cubs could be able to put the rocky start of this first month behind them. That will depend, too, on whether the offense can ever find a rhythm. Since their 21-run outburst against the Pirates on April 23, they have scored three runs or less in all but one of their last 10 games.
One thing at a time, though. For their part, the pitchers are confident that they can put the Cubs in position to win more consistently.
“All of us, yea, every time it’s one of our starts we have the mindset that we’re going to lead this team to a victory and go pitch well and do our job,” Smyly said.
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