Pitching success breeds optimism as Cubs head into important offseason
In each of the past two seasons, the Cubs have dealt away four pitchers at the trade deadline.
But that’s where the similarities stop for the post-deadline pitching staffs.
In 2021, the Cubs ranked 29th with a 6.18 ERA after the deadline.
This season, the team ranks 7th in Major League Baseball with a 3.49 ERA (entering play Monday).
The Cubs’ staff has been even better of late, with an MLB-leading 1.68 ERA over the last 12 games.
That’s quite the turnaround in arguably the most important area on the roster as the Cubs look to climb back into contention in 2023.
The Cubs’ pitching success this season has come while remaking the bullpen on the fly after trading away the top four relief arms (David Robertson, Chris Martin, Mychal Givens, Scott Effross) and without a single appearance from the team’s Opening Day starter (Kyle Hendricks) in the second half.
Not to mention the fact that Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson have each missed over a month with respective back injuries and veteran southpaws Drew Smyly and Wade Miley have also been sidelined at various points.
Marcus Stroman has been the rock of the rotation over the last several months and proved it again Sunday with 6 shutout innings against the Reds to cap off the Cubs’ schedule at Wrigley Field.
Stroman finishes the season with a 3.50 ERA and 1.15 WHIP but has been even better over his last 16 starts since returning from a shoulder injury on July 9 (2.56 ERA, 1.11 WHIP).
Alongside Stroman has been a cast of arms the Cubs weren’t counting on when the season started (or even at the beginning of June).
Adrian Sampson just put the finishing touches on a stellar month of September (1.50 ERA) and has been a surprising contributor once again this year.
Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski continue to turn in solid starts as they navigate their first season in the big leagues.
In the bullpen, Brandon Hughes has emerged as a lockdown high-leverage arm and David Ross’ most trusted option. Mark Leiter Jr. struggled as a starter earlier in the season but has found a home at the back end of the bullpen. Youngster Manny Rodríguez returned from injury last month and has picked up 4 saves to go with a 2.70 ERA in 13 appearances.
“The whole [pitching] infrastructure has shown guys continuing to push themselves and get better,” Ross said. “[The late-season success] has shown the minor league stuff that you hear, the guys are coming. Some of the confidence — having them come up here and perform has been very rewarding.
“The trades — as hard as it is to lose Scott Effross, Hayden’s done a phenomenal job for us so far and seems to have a really bright future. … The goal here is just continue to work to try to get better and everybody’s doing that. Guys are growing and it shows probably the most in the pitching department.”
The Cubs understand that the quickest path back to postseason baseball is with a productive — and sometimes dominant — pitching staff.
They’re proving that in the second half of this 2022 season as the team boasts a 38-29 record since the All-Star Break on the strength of that pitching. That includes sweeps of the Phillies (twice) and Mets.
The Cubs’ late-season success can give Jed Hoyer’s front office confidence that the team is moving in the right direction and serve as a strong reason to add impact talent over the winter.
“I feel like it’s a credit to the work that guys have been putting in,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We knew we could do some good things. We just unfortunately early had injuries and we had things go on that limited some of those things.
“Obviously it’s good to have those success stories. We’re sitting here with  wins. We know there’s still a lot of things we want to improve on. But it is important to take the things that we do well and then continue to find ways to learn from the things that didn’t go well.”
As Hottovy mentioned, the Cubs have often pointed to injuries as to why the pitching staff was unable to get on a roll earlier in the season.
But the team has still had injuries to important arms over the last two months. So how has the pitching staff found so much success in that span?
It speaks to the overall health of the organization.
“There’s been things in the works behind the scenes that hadn’t shown for a while,” Hottovy said.
Before the 2019 season, the Cubs hired Craig Breslow in a front office role. That October, he was promoted to the Director of Pitching and over the last three years, he has helped change the entire Cubs pitching infrastructure at ever level of the organization.
“When you have an organization pulling from the same rope, we know what we want to accomplish and we know how we want to accomplish it,” Hottovy said. “Then you just allow the coaches and the coordinators and the players to just go do it.
“The communication and what we’ve tried to build here from the top down — we’re all on the same page. When you have that, you have consistent guys going through the system that are gonna have the same message coming up at every level. That’s extremely important.”
There is no guarantee that the pitching staff’s late-season success will carry over to 2023 but the Cubs feel confident that things are moving in the right direction as an important offseason approaches.