The state of the Cubs pitching staff as summer camp heats up
The 2020 MLB schedule is set and the Cubs’ Opening Day is just over two weeks away.
With a 60-game sprint of a season and a three-and-a-half-month layoff between spring training and summer camp, pitching is going to look a lot different this year.
The Cubs are obviously not divulging their entire strategy for the season, nor have they finalized everything.
The main theme throughout David Ross’ summer camp has been taking things “day to day” as plans can change on a moment’s notice with all the twists and turns, including the COVID-19 testing process.
That’s obviously affected the pitching staff, as the Cubs don’t want to plan out exactly how they will line up their rotation or bullpen with more than two weeks to go still in summer camp. Manager David Ross reaffirmed that notion on Cubs 360 Tuesday.
“As much as I was preparing for matchups as we were breaking the first spring training and seeing how that was going to lay out,” Ross said, “right now, I’m looking at health and who’s ready to go out and give us some serious innings.”
The José Quintana injury threw the Cubs another curveball, as he won’t resume his throwing program until late next week and will almost assuredly not be ready for the regular season.
With all that in mind, let’s run down what we’ve learned about the Cubs pitching staff so far in summer camp:
This is going to be a season unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, so throw convention out the window.
That’s especially true when it comes to pitching, as there is now a designated hitter in the National League and all the pitchers are afforded only three weeks of summer camp to ramp up for a 60-game campaign.
There’s also the fact that every game is essentially a playoff contest in terms of importance given the shortened slate.
“It’s gonna challenge a lot of what we’ve done in the National League for years now,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “Right away, you start thinking about the American League game, you start thinking about the fact that guys are already gonna face 3 hitters, then it’s almost imperative to get everybody up to basically 2 innings. You’re gonna see a lot more opportunities for guys to give you 4, 5, 6 outs than potentially have seen in the past.
“One thing we’ve discussed a lot in our organization, too — when you’re training pitching prospects, you’re not usually training back-to-backs early in their careers, right? You’re training to give those multiple innings, you’re giving them opportunities to get stretched out.
“So, I do think some of these new rules and how we’re gonna handle things this year may benefit some of those younger guys or guys that come up and help us that can give us multiple innings. But it’s definitely gonna change how we look at the matchups and how we look at being able to extend guys, especially early in the season.”
Ross has been pleased with where his pitchers are at during the first six days of camp, giving props to the guys and Hottovy and the rest of the Cubs pitching infrastructure for maintaining solid programs during the shutdown.
Heading into 2020 the rosters were supposed to increase to 26 and limit only 13 pitchers on the roster, in addition to the new 3-batter minimum.
Now the rules have changed further due to the shortened season, allowing a 30-man roster for the first two weeks of the regular season and no limit to the number of pitchers. Rosters will then bump down to 28 and two weeks after that, will go back to the standard 26.
Those few extra roster spots could certainly change the equation for how Cubs and other teams deploy their pitching staffs:
“I think it will start out a little bit feeling like September baseball early with a lot of pitching changes and a lot of different arms going out there,” Jed Hoyer said. “I do think the 3-batter minimum will keep that a little bit in check. But yeah, I expect short starts and a lot of arms coming at you early.
“Have we talked about exactly how we would do that yet? No. We’ll probably get there over the next week or so. Certainly I would anticipate us doing something very similar.”
With that in mind, how might the roster play out?
For now, the Cubs are still planning on rolling with a five-man rotation.
But that won’t change how they prepare.
Even with a 30-man roster and the ability to add a plethora of pitchers, the Cubs are still aiming to get several relievers stretched out to handle multiple innings out of the bullpen in addition to the guys in the rotation.
“Ideally, we’ll have three or four of our relievers that can give us 3 innings when we break, as well,” Hottovy said. “There can be games that you see a Kyle [Hendricks], or a [Yu] Darvish or a Jon [Lester] or those guys go out and give you 5 or 6 innings and there may be a game where we go three relievers all going 3 innings.
“Really, at this point, we have to get guys as stretched out as we possibly can. Testament to the work that they put in — a lot of guys are coming in here and have already thrown 2- and 3-inning sim games, even some of the bullpen guys. So, it puts us in a good position there. But we have to take this day by day, get them on the mound, get them on a good routine and hopefully by the end of this, we’ll have enough fresh arms and enough healthy bodies to get started.”
Like Hottovy said, this is all day by day but with Quintana’s absence, it seems likely this will be the Cubs rotation to begin the regular season:
That does not mean Darvish is locked in for the Opening Day start (Ross hasn’t made any announcement there yet), but given the way he ended 2019 and how he’s looked in spring training 1.0 and summer camp, it seems a solid bet.
In the first iteration of training camp, Chatwood was on track to join the rotation and nothing appears to have changed after the shutdown. Mills was originally slated for a multi-inning/swingman type of role out of the bullpen and figures to slide into the rotation to fill Quintana’s spot.
Hottovy said the Cubs came into summer camp with the approach that they have about seven Opening Day starters. Right now, they want everybody to be on target to be able to pitch on July 24 just because they know how quickly things can change in the current landscape. So add Colin Rea and Jharel Cotton to the mix of potential starters.
Lester has not yet appeared in a scrimmage, but he did throw multiple rounds of live BP Wednesday and Ross was “encouraged” by how the veteran southpaw looked.
Jon Lester threw live BP today. pic.twitter.com/Gh3RqLkiir— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) July 8, 2020
Throughout the shutdown, Lester wanted to manage his throws and save as many bullets as he could for the regular season. He stayed in shape and the Cubs are pleased with where he’s at on a timeline two weeks ahead of Opening Day.
If the aforementioned starting five doesn’t change, the Cubs could opt to slot guys like Rea and Cotton into the bullpen to provide that length they’re seeking.
Duane Underwood Jr. and James Norwood are among the other options who are getting stretched out as multi-inning relievers. Both right-handers joined Lester in throwing two rounds of live BP Wednesday.
Adbert Alzolay is still currently with the South Bend group, but he also provides depth if the Cubs needed to call upon him.
As for the rest of the bullpen, Kyle Ryan’s status for Opening Day is unclear due to a process-related delay in arriving at Wrigley Field. He is expected to get into Chicago Thursday and undergo the intake process and has been working out on his own, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to get up to speed in time for July 24.
Southpaw Brad Wieck struck out 3 of his Cubs teammates in Tuesday night’s scrimmage and Jeremy Jeffress threw a scoreless frame including a whiff of Kris Bryant.
The biggest question in the bullpen is if closer Craig Kimbrel is able to bounce back from his debut season on Chicago’s North Side when he posted a 6.53 ERA and gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings.
Ross isn’t concerned, citing the rest of Kimbrel’s career where he posted a 1.91 ERA prior to 2019.
“He’s had a pretty good track record,” the Cubs manager said. “Last year was unique and really an outlier for me.”
Kimbrel has been working on adding a third pitch — a changeup — into the mix over the last few months.
He threw an inning in Tuesday’s scrimmage and struck out Javy Báez and Kyle Schwarber but also surrendered a 2-run homer to Willson Contreras.
If Kimbrel is able to regain his form, he would serve as an anchor in the bullpen and that would go a long way as the Cubs look to bridge the gap between the rotation and the 9th inning.