Update: The Cubs have placed Rowan Wick on the IL with a strained left oblique, clearing room to activate Andrew Chafin. Continue reading at your own risk.
The Cubs bullpen going from unreliable to one of the best units in the majors seemingly overnight is a big part of how the team has been able to overcome inconsistent offensive production. Despite an 4.31 ERA for the full season, their 2.08 ERA since August 27 is the best in MLB. David Ross having a better understand of his relief unit is one reason for the turnaround, then there’s the emergence of Ryan Tepera and Jason Adam, not to mention Craig Kimbrel’s return to form.
Perhaps the biggest key to the bullpen’s success is that it’s not being over-exposed. To wit, the 65 innings thrown by Cubs relievers in the sample noted above is more than only three other teams. When the starters get length, it’s much easier to lean only on members of the manager’s Circle of Trust and let the others keep their jackets on.
Lefty Josh Osich has pitched just three times for the Cubs since being acquired and hasn’t appeared since September 9 against the Reds. Kyle Ryan has looked better after a disappointing start to the season, but he too has pitched only three times in September and hasn’t appeared in a game in over a week. Rex Brothers hasn’t taken the bump since being recalled last Friday. And that’s just the lefties, two of whom could be in South Bend by next week.
Andrew Chafin, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks at the deadline despite being on the IL with a sprained finger, threw a bullpen session Friday and could be activated “any day now.” That came from Ross’s media availability prior to Friday’s win in which only Jeremy Jeffress was needed out of the bullpen.
José Quintana has been out since August 30 after going to the IL with lat inflammation, but he’s scheduled to throw a simulated game Saturday and could return to the club soon after. The initial plan had been for him to work exclusively out of the ‘pen, but he was supposed to slide back into the rotation after Tyler Chatwood went down. That’s when Q had the issue, so it’s back to the bullpen for the time being.
The Cubs will have to make room somehow, which probably means optioning Osich and Brothers. Neither has contributed much and Osich is still under club control for two more seasons with one option remaining, so they don’t need him to do anything right now. Brothers obviously doesn’t have Ross’s trust and it’s hard to believe he’ll suddenly gain it in the next day or two. Ryan could also be optioned, but he’s been better lately and has a longer track record with the team.
Should Ross and the front office want to really load up on lefties, it’s possible that a righty or two could be moved instead. While that doesn’t seem likely, it’s not out of the question. My first instinct would be to jettison Dan Winkler, though he has actually held left-handed hitters to a .111 average so far. On the other hand, he’s walked seven of them for a .385 OBP.
Then there’s the possibility, small though it might be, that Duane Underwood Jr. could be designated for assignment. I’d probably drive to Theo Epstein’s office just to yell at him in person if that happens, but the righty hasn’t appeared since September 8 and is out of options. What’s wild about this is that he’s been incredibly money since figuring a few things out toward the August and it seems like Ross may have just forgotten about him.
Over his last seven appearances (6.2 IP), Underwood has not allowed a run of any kind and has surrendered just three hits and one walk with nine strikeouts. That’s not the kind of performance that generally goes unrewarded and my concern is that the extended time off could mess with it a little. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs moving on from him just to bring on a little southpaw depth.
Besides, the Chafin experiment is about as far from a sure thing as you can get. The 30-year-old had been a stalwart for the D-backs, making over 70 appearances in each of the three previous seasons, but he hasn’t pitched competitively in over a month and his career splits show that he’s only been marginally better against lefties. His fastball velocity is still up around 94 mph, though, so maybe he’s got enough gas left in the tank now that the finger is healed.
Speaking of which, Q may have to carry more of a load than a typical reliever if the Cubs opt not to recall Adbert Alzolay for next Tuesday’s game in Pittsburgh. That’s the first point at which they’d need a fifth starter, but facing an inferior opponent might have them looking to throw a bullpen game. Bringing the young righty back up would mean making a corresponding move, not that they’ve been shy about that in the past.
You’ll be forgiven if none of this really excites you, especially since we’re talking about moves that should be relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. The Cubs are rolling right now, though, and the bullpen has been a big part of the team’s success over the last few weeks. The obvious hope is that changing things around provides greater depth and balance, but that’s far from assured at this point.
The best option is probably just to have the starters keep going deep into games and making this all irrelevant.