Too much young pitching talent is a good problem to have for the rebuilding Cubs.
“In a perfect world, all of your talent would be homegrown,” vice president of pitching Craig Breslow said last month. “But what we see is, we’re getting a clearer picture of the guys that we have in our system who are going to contribute to major-league wins. And then alongside that, you have the chance to complement and fill in spaces, which is a much easier task than trying to create a roster externally.”
But having so many notable pitching prospects at the upper levels of the farm system – going hand-in-hand with the wealth of players the Cubs have to put on the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft – will make for some tough roster decisions down the stretch.
Most of the young pitchers they’ve called up recently have impressed.
Right-hander Javier Assad made his third career start, and fourth appearance, on Wednesday in the Cubs’ 7-1 loss to the Reds. He’d earned his promotion to the big-leagues when the Cubs needed an extra arm for their doubleheader against the Cardinals two weeks ago. He allowed four runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Reds on Wednesday, and he’d been so dominant in his previous starts that his ERA only rose to 2.93.
Reliever Jeremiah Estrada was one of the Cubs’ substitute players in Toronto. He earned a spot on the roster immediately after the series, as rosters expanded for September.
Swingman Hayden Wesneski achieved a first in MLB’s modern era, throwing five scoreless innings in relief while allowing just two hits and recording eight strikeouts in his debut Tuesday.
So, when do the Cubs bring Adbert Alzolay back? And how will they adjust when Keegan Thompson and/or Justin Steele return from the 15-day injured list?
Alzolay (right shoulder strain) threw three innings of one-run ball in his latest rehab outing, with Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday. The Cubs are expected to bring him back as a multi-inning reliever before the season ends, but the timing is up in the air.
They also have pitchers like Wesneski on the roster filling that role. And when a pitcher throws multiple innings, he needs extra rest. Having too many relievers unavailable on any given day complicates bullpen management. Alzolay is also on the 60-day IL, so the Cubs will need to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for him.
Thompson (low back tightness) threw live batting practice on Tuesday, according to the team, marking a step in his rehab process.
If all goes smoothly, he could be back as soon as the Cubs’ next homestand. But the club also won’t rush him back, cognizant of the fatigue expected from an increase in workload this season.
Steele (low back strain) is in a similar boat, although his timeline to return is up in the air.
“It’s not my arm or anything, it’s not something that’s super serious,” Steele told the Sun-Times, adding that his arm is stronger than it’s been at any other point in the season. “I definitely want to come back and pitch in some games. But I think the main thing is making sure I’m 100% healthy, pitching without even thinking about my back.”
The Cubs could get creative – piggybacking starts, etc. – to limit Thompson and Steele’s innings if and when they return in the final month of the season. But, again, the 14-pitcher roster limit in September doesn’t leave much flexibility.
Those considerations don’t even take into account the maneuvering the Cubs are expected to do to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft.
“When you have no real [difficult] 40-man roster decisions, that’s a problem,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “And we have a lot of really difficult ones now, guys that I think are deserving.”