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Cubs see a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ when it comes to bullpen

4 weeks agoTony Andracki

The Cubs pitching staff – and particularly the bullpen – has been in a constant state of flux throughout the 2024 campaign.

Injuries have hit the group hard, leaving Jed Hoyer’s front office and Craig Counsell’s coaching staff with plenty to discuss on a daily basis.

But Counsell believes things are looking up for the relief corps.

“Your bullpen is always evolving,” Counsell said Sunday morning. “This is the area of the team where we’ve lost people and we’ve lost talent, frankly. And that changes things, for sure. And we’ve put guys in roles they’re not used to being in. We’ve had injuries to the rotation that have kept changing things.

“So yeah, it’s definitely the area of the team that’s had to change the most and had to adapt the most and keep us on our toes the most. And that’s going to continue. We’ve got things going on now and we’ve also got guys coming back, which I feel like there’s some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of getting some guys back. And that’s encouraging for sure.”

Veteran Yency Almonte (shoulder) has been out for over a month but is progressing well. He has thrown one live bullpen and has another scheduled for Tuesday.

From there, Almonte will head on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues. That might put him on track to return before the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Julian Merryweather (rib stress fracture) has been out since early April but is on his way back as well. He threw a 25-pitch bullpen Friday and the Cubs are targeting around the All-Star Break as a potential return for the veteran right-hander.

Caleb Kilian (shoulder) has been out since the middle of Spring Training but also threw a bullpen Friday (32 pitches).

On the other hand, the Cubs still have an uncertain timetable on Adbert Alzolay (forearm), Counsell said.

We’re still over a week away from the halfway point in the season and the Cubs have already had 22 different pitchers make an appearance for the team this year (not including position players).

Throughout the entire 2023 season, 25 different pitchers got into a game for the Cubs.

That illustrates the revolving door the Cubs have had to navigate with regards to their pitching staff – mainly due to injuries.

Of those 22 pitchers, 6 are currently on the IL – Alzolay, Almonte, Merryweather, Ben Brown and Jordan Wicks plus Daniel Palencia is on the 7-day IL in the minors.

Of the 16 others, 6 have also spent time on the IL earlier in the season – Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly, Colten Brewer and Keegan Thompson.

Then there’s a group of arms who have been shuttled between Triple-A and the majors (Luke Little, Hayden Wesneski, José Cuas, Porter Hodge) plus a pair of veterans who were either acquired (Tyson Miller) or designated for assignment (Richard Lovelady) midseason.

That leaves only a few arms (Shota Imanaga, Mark Leiter Jr., Héctor Neris, Javier Assad) who have been active and pitching continuously since Opening Day on the Cubs roster.

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The injuries to relievers are one thing but the Cubs have also been forced to shake things up often within the rotation due to injuries and ineffectiveness.

That meant moving Brown from a role as a solid reliever into the rotation to take Hendricks’ spot. Then when he went down with a neck injury last week, that moved Wicks from the bullpen to the rotation.

Then Wicks went down with an oblique injury and now Hendricks is back in the rotation, drawing the start on Wednesday in the series finale against the Giants at Wrigley Field.

All three moves have weakened the bullpen in some capacity, forcing the Cubs to shift gears and call up Thompson as a multi-inning relief option.

Leiter and Neris have been huge in the bullpen all year but both veterans have run into a rough patch lately.

Wesneski – who has spent most of his career as either a starter or a multi-inning reliever – was pressed into duty as a high-leverage arm and has mostly performed well, though the home run ball has been an issue over the last few weeks.

Miller has been a saving grace for this team when he was acquired from the Mariners in a minor trade in May. He has a sparkling 0.69 ERA and 0.62 WHIP in 11 appearances, including 2 perfect innings to finish off Saturday’s victory.

Despite Miller’s success and Neris’ shaky outings of late, Counsell isn’t looking to make a switch with the Cubs’ closer role.

“Tyson’s doing a great job getting outs,” Counsell said. “You gotta get 27 outs. If he gets out 21 or 22 or 23, just keep getting outs.”

Bullpens are notoriously volatile and the Cubs know there is no such thing as having enough pitching depth. Counsell was hired – in part – for his penchant in navigating bullpens.

But this has been a particularly tough start to the year with injuries and the Cubs can’t get where they want to go this season until they get their bullpen solidified.

“That’s the nature of bullpens,” Counsell said. “They change a lot during the season. We have expectations going into the season and the plans change and you have to be ready to go with it.”

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