Cubs News

Late-season schedule provides Cubs with unique opportunity to experiment with pitching staff

3 years agoTony Andracki

Following the All-Star Break, the Cubs played 33 games in 34 days until Thursday’s off-day.

The only true day of rest came on Aug. 2, with a rain makeup on Aug. 9 representing another day “off” before a doubleheader the following day.

Over the final 46 days of the 2021 regular season, the Cubs will play only 39 games with eight off-days worked into a six-and-a-half-week period (there is a doubleheader scheduled against the Cardinals on Sept. 24).

The Cubs will have a scheduled day off every week for the remainder of the year and two in a four-day span in late September.

The scheduling quirk allows the Cubs to get creative with their pitching staff as they aim to maximize the time off and evaluate players for the future.

For example, David Ross knew Thursday’s off-day was approaching so he opted to utilize his high-leverage relievers (Codi Heuer, Manny Rodríguez) for multi-inning stints Tuesday and Wednesday in Cincinnati. It also afforded the Cubs manager an opportunity to go to his bullpen earlier in Wednesday’s game with his team up and Adrian Sampson making a spot start.

“It gives you a lot of flexibility,” Ross said. “You’re able to do some different things with the pitching staff. There’s a lot of different ways to work and experiment with starters and how you might want to go about doing that.

“It gives guys on the back end of a season some added rest and just a day that some of the guys on the injured list, we don’t miss them in the lineup ’cause it’s another day they’re closer to getting back.”

The Cubs are currently utilizing a six-man rotation and plan to continue that moving forward, even with all the off-days. But that will be tricky at times.

“With the off-days, it can become eight days in between starts for guys like Kyle [Hendricks],” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We’re trying to manage that and make sure that we’re getting everybody the starts they need to get but also not giving them seven or eight days off every time.”

The Cubs initially opted to move to a six-man rotation to manage workloads and innings down the stretch of a season where the playoffs are out of reach. Those plans changed when Jake Arrieta was released last week and then again over the weekend in Miami when Adbert Alzolay strained his hamstring.

“Every time we change the rotation, something happens,” Hottovy said. “Literally, we’re taking it a week at a time and trying to assess from that point.”

Keegan Thompson is back up in the big leagues and will take his turn in the rotation Saturday and the Cubs gave Sampson an opportunity Wednesday in Cincinnati.

Hottovy, Ross and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff have already looked ahead and discussed ideas on how to make this all work over the final six weeks. But they also understand it’s impossible to predict the future.

“We obviously don’t want to give guys too much time off,” Hottovy said. “But also we understand that some time off right now is good, just to be able to control the workload and control the innings and things we want to do.

“We can be creative with potential piggybacks on some days just to give the bullpen a blow if we need it to keep guys on more of a normal routine. We’ll just have to manage that as we get going.”

As for the relievers, time off can be good because it builds in opportunities for them to work on things in side sessions knowing they’re not needed for a game.

The Cubs are also trying to throw the young relievers into the fire, in a sense.

Ross, Hottovy and Co. are building for the future and as they evaluate how each arm may fit into the long-term picture of the pitching staff, they’re testing out different situations.

Like letting Rodríguez and Heuer pitch 2 innings in high-leverage spots. The two young right-handers figure to be a big part of the Cubs’ bullpen in 2022 and beyond and the team believes now is a perfect time to see what they’re capable of in various situations.

Rodríguez threw on back-to-back days for the first time this season on the recent road trip and then tallied the 2-inning stint in Cincinnati.

The Cubs had been careful with the 25-year-old as he worked his way back from an arm injury last year. He made his MLB debut on July 30 and they’re now testing the limits of what he is capable of physically.

Wednesday in Cincinnati, Trevor Megill began the 9th inning and after allowing a 2-out hit, Ross opted to stick with the 27-year-old in a 7-1 game. Megill responded by striking out the final batter of the game. In previous situations, Ross pulled Megill and didn’t give the tall right-hander leash to get out of his own jams.

“We’re continuing to try to find ways to get guys more of that exposure,” Hottovy said. “Personally, I think we want to start trying to give them innings — not trying to match up all the time and really see what we have. Give guys an opportunity to work through an inning if they get into trouble — unless it’s a big spot in the game that we need to get out of it.

“It’s the only way we’re really gonna see what we have with a lot of these guys.”

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