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There are varying degrees of “needing” starting pitching.
The Cubs’ opponent this weekend certainly is lacking in that area. Cardinals starting pitchers Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas are unlikely to return before the All-Star break. They placed Kwang Hyun Kim on the IL last week.
The Cardinals’ need, however, highlighted a trade-deadline wish list item for the Cubs. Facing their hobbled division rivals, the Cubs have the opportunity to take a commanding lead over the third-place Cardinals this weekend.
“Starting pitching right now is an obvious area,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said before his team’s 8-5 comeback victory on Friday, acknowledging that needs could change before the July 30 deadline. “I think our guys have competed and battled, but innings are going to be so valuable, and we can’t put that much pressure on this bullpen.
“They’ve been so good, but trying to get 12 outs a night can be really challenging. And so, whether it’s starting pitching, whether its length in the bullpen, we know we have to cover a lot of innings over the rest of the season, and that will be something that we’re looking at.”
The Cubs offense and bullpen performed like a playoff team Friday. Outfielder Joc Pederson went 3-for-4 with a home run and go-ahead two-run double. First baseman Anthony Rizzo hit a solo blast in a 14-pitch at-bat, the longest at-bat to end in a homer by a Cub since at least 1988. The Cubs bullpen held the Cardinals scoreless in the final four innings of the game.
“If you’re in a pennant race, you try to get better and you try to buy,” Hoyer said of the trade deadline. “And we’ve always done that, and I don’t know why this year would be any different. … When I think of the position we’re in, I want to be on the buy side. That’s the place you want to be. That means you’re winning. That means this place is lively all summer.”
Wrigley Field was certainly lively on Friday, approved for 100 percent capacity for the first time in the COVID-19 pandemic. That influx of revenue can only be a positive sign for the Cubs’ player budget.
“We really couldn’t predict what was going to happen this summer,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said of the clubs’ preseason projections. “We were hoping to have a full ballpark around this time, but you never could tell. The fact that we’re allowed to sell all of our tickets now is good. Not only is it great for fans … but, yeah, it’ll give us some more financial flexibility this summer.”
On Friday, the Cub’s rotation was missing pieces to injury. Right-handers Adbert Alzolay (finger blister) and Trevor Williams (appendicitis) are on the 10-day inured list. So, Kohl Stewart chipped in, allowing five runs in four-plus innings. But he’s nowhere near the first Cubs starter to exit before the sixth inning.
It was a common occurrence in April, when right-handers Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies were struggling to find their rhythm. The rotation has been more consistent since, but Cubs starters still entered play Friday averaging just 5.4 innings per game this season, according to FanGraphs.
When the Cubs starters go deep into games, the team has proven it can beat the best in league. In back-to-back wins at San Diego this week, Davies and Jake Arrieta threw six and seven innings, respectively. The bullpen took over Wednesday to throw four perfect innings.
“Those guys aren’t going to be able to perform at this level if they get tired,” Hoyer said of the relievers, “and we have to be aware of that.”
Neither can the Cubs’ starters. While the Cubs rotation includes veterans like Hendricks and Arrieta, its biggest game-changer this year has been Alzolay. In addition to coming off a short season, the rookie has barely thrown more than 120 innings in any major- or minor-league season.
The Cubs are monitoring his workload but not setting a hard innings limit on his year.
“You want to be as careful as you can,” Hoyer said of protecting young pitchers’ arms, “but the idea of shutting a guy down for two or three weeks and ramping it back up, that actually might be worse.”
There’s no doubt extra pitching could help a second-half push. Now, imagine what it could do for the Cubs in the playoffs.
Gordon Wittenmeyer contributed to the reporting of this story.
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