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Cubs bullpen musings: Alzolay’s availability, a new reliever and more

9 months agoTony Andracki

The Cubs were nursing a 3-run lead Tuesday night with the 9th inning approaching when a name flashed across the right field scoreboard: Julian Merryweather was warming in the bullpen.

That was notable because closer Adbert Alzolay had not pitched since Friday and should be available after three days of rest.

The Cubs eventually scored another run to eliminate the save situation but still, it was Merryweather who trotted out for the 9th inning Tuesday night at Wrigley Field while Alzolay didn’t get warm at all.

David Ross confirmed Wednesday morning that Alzolay has been dealing with “stuff” and he was trying to stay away from the right-handed closer.

Such is life at this stage of the season when a team is in the middle of a pennant race.

“Everybody’s dealing with something this time of year and you give guys days off,” Ross said. “You can try to rest them and stay away from them. When guys are dealing with stuff, you gotta give them a little bit of rest. Sometimes 4 days is better than 15.

“It’s that time of year. We try to navigate as best we can; we try to fill holes. It’s my job to navigate that and take the heat if I need to. I make the dumbest moves in the world and why didn’t I throw this guy or that guy? Sometimes [there’s] stuff in this seat that you don’t want everybody to know. Protecting the players is everything.”

Alzolay has been so valuable to this team, locking down the closer’s role and allowing Ross to work from the 9th inning forward. So if the Cubs can keep him off the IL, they’ll take that trade-off — even if it means a short stretch of games where they’re short-handed in the bullpen.

In the middle of a hotly contested playoff race, the Cubs don’t want to be without their closer for two weeks.

And from Ross’ perspective, he doesn’t want to let the other team know which pitchers are available and not available out of the bullpen on a given day. If the Giants knew Alzolay was down on Monday and Tuesday, it might affect how Gabe Kapler manages the team’s pinch-hitting opportunities in the middle and later innings.

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The Cubs bullpen got a potential boost on Wednesday as the team called up left-handed prospect Luke Little.

Little just turned 23 last week and was the Cubs’ 4th-round pick in 2020. He began his career as a starter but moved into a bullpen role this season and will give the Cubs another left-handed option alongside Drew Smyly.

Little can miss bats (14.8 K/9 in the minor leagues this year) and looks like he could be a big part of the Cubs bullpen of the future. The Cubs won’t utilize him in high-leverage situations right away but he represents another homegrown arm that can make an impact in the big leagues right now.

“We’ve had a couple — the [Javier] Assads, the [Jordan] Wicks -— come up and fill in and pitch meaningful innings in this moment, a big moment in this organization pushing towards a playoff spot,” Ross said. “[To have homegrown arms] has been big. It says a lot about the hard work that no one ever hears about.”

Little made his debut Wednesday, tossing a shutout inning with a pair of strikeouts and a single allowed. He followed right-hander Daniel Palencia (1.1 perfect IP with 2 Ks), who also came up through the Cubs system and debuted in the bullpen earlier this season.

The Cubs could also get a trio of impact arms back in the bullpen in the near future, too.

Brandon Hughes was one of the best stories of the season last year but has been plagued by a knee injury this season. He is on the way back and threw an inning for Triple-A Iowa Wednesday. It was his first game action since June 11.

Veteran Brad Boxberger has been with the big-league team throwing bullpens and could be nearing a return following several months on the IL with a forearm strain.

Michael Fulmer landed on the IL with a forearm strain of his own on Aug. 25 and he threw a touch-and-feel bullpen Wednesday. He is eligible to come off the IL on Friday but may not necessarily be ready by then.

“I think that’s a wait-and-see,” Ross said. “We’ll see how the bullpen goes, we’ll talk about the intensity. Before he went on the IL, he would pitch well and it was kind of a two-day thing, so just see how he recovers.

“I need to talk through with him and talk about ‘do you want to get out and really fire some bullets in Triple-A and see what that feels like and the recovery and adrenaline of feeling that again?’ If he doesn’t feel like he needs that and where we’re at from a health standpoint in the bullpen — all those things play into that.”

Getting Fulmer back would be big for the Cubs bullpen as it would afford Ross another trusted reliever and provide more cover when other high-leverage arms (Alzolay, Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr.) need days off.

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