A Few Key Challenges for Cubs’ Bench and Bullpen
At this point, the Cubs’ primary players should feel as familiar as co-workers. We see them everyday, hope their successes push the whole team forward, know what causes them to fly off track and regularly find ourselves complaining about their shortcomings to (half-listening) family members and (not at all listening) pets.
But as Friday’s 17-inning marathon and subsequent series split in Miami reminds, it takes more than stars to win. So let’s give a moment to the team’s less scrutinized supporting players. For each, I’ve included a key challenge or two to watch for this season. I also include a couple Triple-A arms certain to be frequent flyers on the Iowa Shuttle.
Albert Almora will remain an indispensable defensive replacement for as long as Schwarber is hoofing it in left field. Almora’s never grinded out at-bats exactly according to the “Cubs Way,” so don’t expect a change of stripes now. But if he can approximate his strong lefty splits for a full season against righties, no one will mind how early in the counts he swings.
Victor Caratini is there for his bat and to give Willson Contreras some rest. If he proves effective at that, he’ll certainly have more value as a young starter elsewhere than to the Cubs as a backup. But if he really rakes as a switch-hitting pinch-hitter, he’ll provide that bench versatility Maddon always fights to keep.
Tommy La Stella‘s bat and plate approach are sound. For his individual development, I’d advise taking all the extra fielding practice he can. Once he gets his chance for more starts — be it with the Cubs or another roster — evaluators will really bore into the weaker glove-side of his game.
Ben Zobrist is Exhibit A for why I’ve got a soft spot for tortoises versus hares. Yes, he’s on his career downside, but every time fans groan hearing his name in the lineup, he strokes a double. He proves his value just by his veteran example of preparation, professional at-bats, and consistent defense.
Eddie Butler surprised everyone with his performance Friday night. Who knew he would out-pitch and out-workhorse pretty much everyone in the rotation to start the season? But the long-term key for him is keeping that walk rate down. If he can’t sustain his value, Dillon Maples’ more traditional max-throwing relief arm awaits its tryout.
Steve Cishek has averaged 62 appearances over the past five years. Normally, the dashboard starts blinking to check the warranty at this stage, but he’s regularly gotten better in the second half. So let’s hope for another repeat there, which will give Joe Maddon a go-to bullpen arm for the playoffs.
Brian Duensing enjoyed a career year in 2017, which is why he’s back in Chicago. However, he’s never strung back-to-back good years. So in year one of his two-year deal, let’s hope the 35-year-old dug that Fountain of Youth deep.
Carl Edwards has yet to distinguish himself in high-leverage situations. That said, Maddon did use Edwards horribly against the Nationals, forcing him to face Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon in four of five NLDS games. In my opinion, Edwards must take a Maddon-be-damned attitude and establish the same controlled bulldog mentality regardless of situation.
Mike Montgomery is one of only a few pitchers to swing between spot starter and setup man. Thus, the team faced terra incognito in figuring out his optimal regular-season workload. Naturally, Maddon erred on the side of overuse, which probably wasn’t best for either performance or mentality. Monty desperately wants to start full-time, which probably only happens via injury or mid-season trade. His best approach is to be relentlessly positive.
Pedro Strop posted a solid 2.63 second-half ERA and considerably lower walk rate than Carl Edwards (3.9 to 5.2) last season. However, Maddon didn’t use Strop once in the 2017 playoffs. So let’s call it what it is: He’s the bullpen equivalent of a roll of Bounty paper towels, who is there to sop up regular-season innings.
Justin Wilson‘s story won’t be written until the second half. His last three years each featured a quality first half followed by significant second-half erosion. Sounds like an arm worn too thin by averaging 68 appearances the past four seasons, which points to Maddon judiciously managing Wilson’s first-half workload. Then again, that’s not really the skipper’s style.
The Iowa Shuttle
Dillon Maples, Justin Hancock are in that group that’s left me jaded when it comes Cubs bullpen prospects with “filthy stuff” but no command. Yes, there exists a lightning-in-the-bottle chance that one suddenly “figures it all out.” Otherwise, expect Maples, Hancock, and perhaps a few others to help spell the parent-club bullpen, but don’t bet on any entering Maddon’s tiny circle of trust come playoff time.
Bottom line: The Cubs’ secondary cast feels very similar to those of recent years. The bench is as strong and flexible as any in baseball.
In the bullpen, expect the need for mid-season reinforcements again. Barring injury, Cishek and Brandon Morrow would seem solid playoff bets. Hard to count on Drew Smyly returning to any sort of dominant form immediately following Tommy John rehab. This would leave a trade for getting Maddon a third trusted reliever for October.