The Cubs’ relief corps has been ravaged by injury in 2019 and the hits just keep on coming. Brandon Morrow has yet to return from last season’s elbow issues and even had a third procedure recently. Pedro Strop has battled various injuries since April, leaving him unable to fill his typical setup role. And just as new addition Craig Kimbrel was starting to hit his stride, a knee issue landed him on the injured list.
Then there’s Brandon Kintzler, who has been a pleasant surprise after struggling in 2018 and was expected to shoulder some of the late inning load. But he left Monday’s game with chest discomfort and joined Kimbrel on the IL. Adding to the worries are the fates of Carl Edwards Jr., Brad Brach, and Mike Montgomery, all of whom were expected to be important parts of the ‘pen, but were so ineffective they are no longer in the organization.
Numerous players have shuffled between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago trying to find effective options to fill the void, not many of whom have stuck. Rowan Wick has emerged as an important piece of the Cubs ‘pen the last few weeks and Kyle Ryan has ridden a unique release point and increased confidence to become a fixture as well.
With no significant external options available to them, the Cubs are going to have to look within the organization for any additional stopgaps. That includes Duane Underwood Jr., who Joe Maddon downplayed a bit right before he went out and notched six consecutive swinging strikeouts Tuesday night.
Dillon Maples has flashed incredible stuff for the Cubs in 2019 and in previous seasons, but his control remains a huge issue. He has walked or hit 36 batters in 32.2 innings at Iowa and it’s hard to be able to count on that in key innings during a playoff race.
Hard throwers Dakota Mekkes (whose velocity has improved this season) and James Norwood got some buzz this offseason, yet both have struggled for the most part at Iowa. Mekkes has a 1.56 WHIP and 35 walks/hit batters in 40 innings pitched. Norwood is sporting a 5.01 ERA and has walked 25 in 46.2 innings.
Former Padre and Marlin Colin Rea has been the most effective starter at Iowa, posting a 3.65 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 118.1 innings pitched. He has not had much relief experience in the minors, though, and it can be a hard transition for some. Consider him more of an option to lengthen the rotation in September.
The most interesting option by far is lefty Danny Hultzen, a first round pick of the Mariners in 2011. He shot right through the M’s system before he needed shoulder surgery in 2013. For the next four seasons, injuries limited him to just 10 total innings pitched.
Hultzen completely sat out 2017 and got his degree from Virginia, where he’d pitched in college. The Cubs picked him up in 2018 and he has pitched very well so far in 2019, posting a 1.74 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 10.1 innings pitched with Iowa.
Injuries will always be a concern with Hultzen, but he has the most impressive numbers in his limited work at Triple-A. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he is a lefty, a role the Cubs have had trouble filling beyond Ryan. While the best option would be to not need injury replacements at all, this season has shown us that the the Cubs need at least two fallbacks at all time.
Given the current state of the bullpen, it may just be time to roll the dice on Hultzen. Not only could it turn out to be a hell of a feel-good story, but the Cubs have very little risk involved and the move might just pay off in a big way.