While it didn’t have an immediate impact on the big club, Friday’s news that stud pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay would be shut down for the season with a lat strain changes the calculus when it comes to adding depth. Think of it like having a little-used side street near your home closed for repairs just at the time the main roads are choked with rush hour traffic.
Alzolay was expected to be a release valve of sorts, a September call-up who could stretch out the rotation or offer the bullpen a measure of relief. Given his electric stuff, he may have been able to have a legitimate impact in that latter role. But now such an option is off the table completely, Jed Hoyer admitted that the Cubs may have to get even more intentional about looking to add depth from outside.
“We had our eyes on two different things: His development and obviously whether he’d be able to help us,” Hoyer told the media prior to Friday’s win in St. Louis. “He was certainly trending in that direction. We’ll be on the lookout for rotation depth and in the bullpen, no matter what, but this underscores that a little bit.”
So the admission that they’ll be looking to add pitching is less reactionary than it is simply a matter of necessity when it comes to the pitfalls of a long season. Several long seasons, really, since the Cubs are now well versed in what it takes to repeatedly go deep into the playoffs. And as we’ve seen over the last two seasons in particular, you’ve got to have all hands on deck in the bullpen.
That’s been a strength of the team so far, but injuries and an early run of short outings from the rotation put a lot of pressure on the relief corps right out of the gate. Yu Darvish going on the shelf with a triceps issue shifted Mike Montgomery to a starting role and Carl Edwards Jr. sitting with a shoulder inflammation thinned out the back end of the pen as well.
Neither of those issues sent the Cubs scrambling for outside help, though they’re representative of what can easily happen later in the season when there’s no time to wait on pitchers to rehab. And on that front, the Cubs did get some good news just as they were announcing Alzolay’s extended absence.
Darvish took the mound for his second bullpen session Friday, throwing 35 pitches to build upon his work earlier in the week in Milwaukee. The big righty felt good afterwards and there’s a chance he could still return to the club prior to the All-Star Break. Edwards didn’t throw a bullpen, but did play catch for the third time since hitting the DL.
Even if the Cubs do end up making a move for pitching, it’s unlikely they would make much of a splash. Barring a serious setback for Darvish or another starter, they’ve essentially got six members of the rotation already. Montgomery’s stellar performance in four starts so far would seem to make another such addition less valuable than Antonio Alfonseca‘s extra fingers.
The bullpen, though, that’s an area that could use a flying buttress or two in the form of additional arms. Even if it’s simply as organizational depth to fill out the Iowa-to-Chicago shuttle that figures to be operating in perpetuity down the stretch, you can never have enough fresh options. But do the Cubs really need to look elsewhere for such help?
Duane Underwood Jr. has been flying under the radar ever since an injury-plagued 2016 season and could slide into the role Alzolay was expected to fill. Despite an ERA that has hovered around 4.50 over the last three seasons, the promising righty is doing a much better job of avoiding walks (2.21 BB/9) and his fastball/curve/change combo can baffle hitters when he keeps the ball down.
And what about Eddie Butler? Dude is like that dog you had as a kid, the one that went to live on a farm out in the country that you were never allowed to visit. The ginger swingman had been serviceable in 14.2 innings and was working more in the zone, perhaps due to greater reliance on what can be a wicked two-seamer. But he has been out since April 20 with a groin strain and was recently transferred to the 600-day [sic] DL with no real word on a possible return.
Then you’ve got Dillon Maples, a man who has somehow been operating as Underwood’s wingman as they both fly at too low an altitude to garner much attention. A rough stretch from the end of April through mid-May really hurt Maples’ stats, but he’s been a new pitcher since then and is looking like every bit of the future closer I’ve been hoping he’d turn out to be.
In a span of six appearances (5.2 IP) a little over a month ago, Maples gave up six earned runs and walked nine, which isn’t a very nice combo for a reliever. To make matters worse, he only notched seven strikeouts during that time. I know, right? Only 11.13 K/9 is considered weak. Those scuffles pushed his ERA to 6.17 and his BB/9 to an unacceptable 11.25 in 11.2 innings.
Ah, but Maples’ last 10 appearances (10.0 IP) have been nothing short of a revelation. He’s given up a single run and has walked only five — including just one walk in his last seven innings — against 18 strikeouts. Over his last six innings, Maples has a 14:1 K/BB ratio and has allowed just that lone tally on two hits. Batters now carry a .182 average against him and he’s worked his ERA down to 3.74, more than two runs lower than a month ago.
When it comes to an infusion of talent that could really make a difference in the bullpen, Maples could well be exactly that. He’s always been more comfortable pitching backwards, starting off with his breaking stuff and filling in the gaps with that triple-digit fastball. That’s what propelled him from Myrtle Beach to Chicago last season and it’s what’ll get him back to the big leagues before too long.
Of course, there’s also something to be said for the known commodity, the player from whom you know exactly what you’re going to get each time he’s on the mound. And as far as the Cubs are concerned, he’s probably also got to be a guy who comes with very few obligations in terms of cost and commitment. They don’t have the pieces or room to add someone costly at this point and the incremental value added in a limited role doesn’t justify a a big spend.
So expect the Cubs to continue sniffing around for some bargain-bin deals, but don’t be surprised if their biggest additions are players who are already in the organization.