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Cubs recall Opening Day reliever in effort to boost bullpen

11 months agoAndy Martinez

As the Cubs enter a stretch run where their pitching depth is being tested, the team made a move to try and offer some reprise to a beleaguered reliever crew.

They recalled reliever Keegan Thompson from Triple-A Iowa and optioned Michael Rucker to make room on the 26-man roster.

Thompson has been solid over his last 4 outings with Iowa — he has a 2.16 ERA in 8.1 innings, pitching in a multi-inning relief role — the role he was expected to play when he broke camp out of Arizona with the Cubs.

That never really materialized.

The hope was Thompson would be a key piece for the reliever corps’ this season. But the righty struggled — highlighted by his final outing with the Cubs on May 17, when he allowed 3 earned runs on 2 hits and a walk while failing to record an out as the Cubs blew a 5-run lead in a loss to the Astros.

The 2017 third-round pick was optioned the next day and the team cited his struggles in recovery — he allowed 8 earned runs on 8 walks and 8 hits in 6 outings on one or two days of rest versus 2 earned runs and 6 hits and 6 walks in 8 games on 3 or more days rest. But Thompson also struggled with command — he had a 15.4% walk rate in his 15 outings this season.

But his troubles followed him to Triple-A. In his first 8 outings with Iowa, Thompson walked 17, allowed 15 hits and posted a 13.09 ERA in 11 innings of work. He was placed on the 7-day IL on June 20 and missed over a month of action.

There were still some struggles early in his return from injury. In his first four outings back, Thompson had a 12.71 ERA in 5.2 innings — but his command had seemingly returned. Thompson had 9 strikeouts to just 3 walks in that time, a big jump from where he had been.

Over his last four outings, he has just one walk and has put himself back in the conversation to provide a boon to the Cubs’ reliever corps.

“Keegan’s throwing the ball well,” manager David Ross said before the series opener in Pittsburgh on Thursday. “Had some back stuff going on, just trying to regain his confidence a little bit. Had some work to do. Has done a nice job in the weight room putting some of the weight back on and got back to throwing strikes. He’s had a really nice run.

Ross has leaned heavily on the four-headed attack of Michael Fulmer, Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay to close out games. But the latter three have all surpassed career appearance marks, so their usage down the stretch will be closely followed. A return from Thompson — especially a strong Thompson — should take a load off those four in the stretch run.

He also provides length for a pitching staff in search of it.

Since Marcus Stroman’s injury, the Cubs’ rotation depth has been tested. They moved their multi-inning relief weapon Javier Assad back into the rotation, along with lefty Drew Smyly.

But that has left Ross short on depth options and with Smyly’s struggles, he’s had to turn to his relievers earlier in the game — pressing Hayden Wesneski into that role and leaving his bullpen thin.

Thompson can help bridge the gap from the starters to the backend of the bullpen and maybe save one of the four main relievers in the process.

He came up as a starter in the Cubs’ system and was in the rotation competition in Spring Training in 2022 and made 4 starts for the team. The Cubs could opt to use him as opener, too, amid Smyly’s struggles and piggyback Smyly or Wesneski off of him. 

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