The Cubs had several apparent flaws even before trading away half the roster, but you at least knew the back end of their bullpen was going to hold a lead should they manage to get one. With their three best relievers among the heavy losses in the late-July fire sale, however, it felt as though no lead was safe. And while Jake Arrieta’s departure eased worries about being ahead in the early innings, there was still the matter of leaving the door open late.
After being forced to feel out an undermanned and/or overmatched relief corps for a few weeks, however, it looks as though David Ross might have a new three-headed monster.
Rowan Wick was arguably the Cubs’ best reliever across the 2019 and ’20 seasons and he was out for nearly a year due to an oblique injury suffered right at the end of last season. His first appearance in the majors this year wasn’t until 11 days after the deadline, during which time the Cubs went 2-7 with a pair of late losses. Even if 4-5 doesn’t look much better, a tight win here and there can stop the kind of back-breaking skids the Cubs have endured this year.
Wick definitely has the stuff and almost certainly has the fortitude to lock games down. He picked up his first save in more than 12 months by twirling a 10-pitch perfect inning that included two strikeouts, showing off a repertoire similar to that of former closer Craig Kimbrel. Wick likes that riding fastball and wicked knuckle-curve, but he also mixes in a cutter to keep hitters off balance.
“That’s as good as he’s looked for me in the 9th there,” Ross told reporters after the 3-1 win. “That’s as good as he’s looked since he’s been back.”
When it comes to potential setup men, Manny Rodríguez looks like he’s got all the tools to post zeroes and pave the way for Wick. The fireballing fireplug came up on deadline day and got the chance to close games with his triple-digit heat. Following a rough start that saw him surrender six runs (three earned) over his first five appearances, Rodríguez has been money.
Starting with August 10, the same day Wick was activated, ManRod is 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA and just one run allowed on two hits. He has struck out 10 with four walks, though he walked two Twins and didn’t strike any out in Tuesday’s appearance. For context, he recorded six out across parts of three innings, which is far from a common situation. He also induced two double plays and has a 50% groundball rate over the period in question.
The home run ball stung him early and one of the two hits mentioned above left the yard, but having a reliever who can miss bats and get contact on the ground is huge. What you have to keep in mind about Rodríguez is that he came up with fewer than 21 combined innings above A-ball and still has plenty to learn about pitching, so he may not even be close to his ceiling. And given their current situation, the Cubs have plenty of patience when it comes to on-the-job training.
Codi Heuer is another young reliever who could factor in the late innings for another few years, particularly if he keeps improving his fastball. The big issue for Heuer with the White Sox was that his sinker wasn’t nearly as effective this season as it had been in the past, leading to a lot of hard contact. He doesn’t throw a four-seam, so it was very difficult for him to set up his slider and changeup.
“He’s basically throwing one pitch in between a four-seam and two-seam grip and not maximizing either one,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said after they acquired Heuer. “If it were a true sinker, it’d be moving a certain way, and it’s not.”
The Cubs would love to eventually add a more traditional fastball to the mix, but the goal for now is to facilitate incremental adjustments that allow the righty to make better use of what he’s got. Little tweaks to the grip have helped how his two-seamer leaves his hand and how it spins, resulting in significantly better results since moving to the North Side.
Heuer’s fastball has generated 2.8 runs of positive value for the Cubs over 15 innings, a drastic change from the -9.3 he had over 38.2 innings with the Sox. Tuesday wasn’t one of his better nights — three hits allowed with walk and a strikeout over one inning — but Heuer and the Cubs believe continued improvements will yield even better results in the future.
“I’ve gotten kind of hurt with balls in play, fastballs that leak into the zone,” Heuer explained. “That’s what we’re trying to eliminate. We’re trying to have a fastball that’s true and one that I can run in off somebody’s hands. Stay out of the middle of the zone, get weak contact and get fewer balls in play that eventually lead to trouble down the road.”
There will be a lot more shuffling on the roster over the winter and next spring, but these three relievers seem destined for long-term roles in Chicago. If they’re able to build upon what we’re seeing lately, and if Jed Hoyer is able to spend a decent amount of money in free agency, there might yet be a little credence to the idea of a short rebuild.
Look, the Cubs have a lot of holes to fill and they’re currently a very bad team that isn’t able to compete for even third place in the NL Central. However, having a strong bullpen goes a helluva long way toward setting the stage for competitiveness.