Where Does Alzolay’s Injury Leave the Cubs Playoff Bullpen Options?
Up until last week’s injury news, Cubs prospect watchers had invested a lot of hope in Adbert Alzolay. So eager for him to make his major league debut, they just as well could have called him Adbert Ándale.
But a season that started with an unfortunate injury has now been ended by one. An ankle injury delayed his AAA debut and now a season-ending lat muscle strain has shelved him for the remainder of 2018. The moniker “One More Delay” Alzolay could be more fitting for this Godot of the Cubs farm system.
Evan Altman nicely covered how Alzolay’s injury could affect the Cubs’ rotation and bullpen depth the rest of the regular season, but the shelving also affects the front office’s playoff bullpen deliberations. These are always tricky as Joe Maddon chooses to trust so few of his relievers with post-season leads.
In 2016, Maddon trusted only Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery. Last year, only Wade Davis proved dependable. This despite Maddon trying like a desperate riverboat gambler to trick the table by playing his Carl Edwards Jr. card. Over. And over. And over.
This year, the Cubs signed two free agents with true playoff-caliber back-end value: Brendan Morrow and Steve Cishek. But overuse has been an issue so far. Just a week ago, Morrow was on pace to make nearly 70 regular-season appearances and Cishek more than 80. Compare this to Wade Davis’s 59 appearances last year.
Keep in mind, trying to get through the playoffs with just two trusted bullpen arms is a high-wire act. It worked by the thinnest of enamel in 2016, but you really prefer at least three.
For this review, let’s assume Morrow and Cishek avoid injury and aren’t exhausted by October. But without Alzolay as a second-half auditioner, who are the Cubs’ best playoff bullpen options? Let’s start with the least likely options and finish with the most probable.
The Iowa Shuttle – For all the recent positive reviews, none of the Cubs’ carousel of Iowa relievers – save maybe Randy Rosario – are the type to get high-leverage October outs. This should not shortchange their present value eating up innings in extra-inning games and clean-up roles. But short of a rash of injuries, it’s hard seeing Luke Farrell or Justin Hancock jumping ahead of Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing on the playoff depth chart.
Justin Wilson – I rank him as the second-least likely option because in each of his past three seasons his second-half numbers regressed tangibly over his first half. But if he can put together his first two good halves in the same season since 2013, he could be an option.
Pedro Strop – I rank him low not because of merit, but because Maddon has seldom trusted Strop with high-leverage late innings since 2015. Even last year after posting a strong September (2.20 ERA) and Edwards’ playoff struggles, Maddon still avoided using Strop later than the 7th. In fact, Maddon more prefers using a starter in emergency relief or forcing the closer to pitch multiple innings to relying on Strop.
Mike Montgomery – His 2016 bullpen magic disappeared in 2017 after a year as a well-used swingman left his arm tired by October. But could he again be a setup option in 2018? Or should the Cubs parlay his strong starts via a trade for a more traditional and amenable bullpen arm? Say like for the Padres’ Brad Hand (who will cost more than just Montgomery).
Tyler Chatwood – This option gets little note, but the reality is No. 5 starters either join the playoff bullpen or are dropped from the postseason roster. His strikeout-quality stuff appeals as a reliever, but not the equally high walk rate. If relegated to just one-inning appearances and limited to just his fastball and hard sinker, could his command become more reliable?
Drew Smyly – He’s the high-ceiling sleeper. Though known as a starter, he does have history as an effective reliever. Presently rehabbing in Arizona from Tommy John surgery, his throwing program started a couple weeks ago. So he could potentially be a late-season option. However, rehab setbacks aren’t unusual, and the team won’t know enough on his progress until after the July 31 trade deadline.
Carl Edwards Jr. – He’s currently on the DL with shoulder inflammation. How serious is this injury? Is the team smartly resting him knowing they’ll need max innings in the second half and October? And even if fully recovered for the playoffs, can he finally become a dependable late-game post-season option? Like every year in the Cubs championship window, he remains the great unknown of tempting potential.
Trade – This has been the Cubs’ go-to move the past two seasons, and no reason not to expect it again. In terms of trade chips, the farm system’s strength is in the low minors. But given their early development, you usually must give more in quantity. In the high minors, you are basically looking at Victor Caratini, then maybe a Jeffrey Baez and Duncan Robinson. Plus, for the right return, major league roster names like Montgomery, Tommy La Stella and Ian Happ would naturally be batted around.
And many hard-throwing trade options will abound. Pairing a top lefty reliever with Morrow could be the ideal, so expect the Orioles’ Zach Britton to be watched closely as he continues his return from his Achilles injury.
But as we’ve seen with the Alzolay news, time has a way of clarifying/changing a team’s trade-deadline priorities and targets. So as usual, stay tuned.