Wittenmyer: Cubs need Keegan Thompson in rotation as real 'weapon'

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Wittenmyer: Time is now for Keegan Thompson to start originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

What’s it going to take for the Cubs’ best pitcher this season to get the chance to help out a beleaguered rotation and make a start or two?

An injury to a veteran? A couple of clunkers by the $71 million free agent? Another member of the rotation lasting just three innings Sunday because his command faded as he got “tired”?

Check.

Check.

And, fergawdsakes, check.

Keegan Thompson has been the most dominant Cubs pitcher 16 games into the season — with 14 strikeouts and just three walks in 13 2/3 scoreless innings across four relief outings of at least 2 2/3 innings each (and that one was only so short because he got ejected for plunking Andrew McCutchen).

Best Cubs pitcher? This guy’s the best pitcher in the majors.

And you could look it up.

Through Sunday, Thompson leads the majors in pitchers WAR (per baseball-reference.com), the only one in the top 10 who hasn’t made a start.

By comparison, $43-million-a-year Max Scherzer is 3-0 with a 2.50 ERA in three starts for the Mets and rates half the WAR of Thompson’s 1.2.

“Being able to bring him in is a real weapon,” manager David Ross said after Friday’s lights-out finish against the Pirates.

Thompson entered with one on and none out in the sixth, trailing 4-2, then got a quick double play and finished the rest of a scoreless outing with just 13 batters faced in the four innings.

“Talk about holding it close right there, giving us every opportunity to try to make something happen offensively,” Ross said. “An outing like that is extremely valuable.”

The Cubs didn’t do anything offensively, though, and lost the game.

How about this for a weapon: Put your best pitcher in the rotation and take a lead into the sixth inning every fifth day a little more often.

How “extremely valuable” would that look right about now — as the Cubs stare at a 5.60 rotation ERA with Wade Miley and Alec Mills still working back from injuries, and powerful left-hander Justin Steele “getting tired” during a 79-pitch start that barely got him through the third inning?

Ross said he likes Thompson in the role he’s in now. Thompson said he’s happy to pitch any time and place the Cubs want to use him.

But Thompson also said he prepared during the offseason to start if needed. And while he’s not sure he’s “built up, per se” because even his four-inning outing was so efficient that he’s thrown no more than 48 pitches in a game, Thompson looks ready to compete for four or five innings now as a starter.

Certainly, moving him into the rotation is no guarantee of sudden success. But what is certain is that what the Cubs have going now in a couple rotation spots isn’t working.

So have Thompson throw a bullpen session Tuesday in Atlanta, drop him into the rotation Thursday or Friday, flip Steele to Thompson’s role in the bullpen and adjust as need dictates when Mills and Miley are ready to join the staff.

There’s your weapon.

Now that we’ve the pitching figured out, about that shortstop situation …

Free Willy

In the last few days, the Rockies avoided a midseason arbitration hearing with starting pitcher Kyle Freeland when they agreed to a five-year, $64.5 million contract extension, and the Marlins avoided the same awkward midseason confrontation with infielder Joey Wendle (one-year plus mutual option. $4.625 million).

The Cubs and Willson Contreras?

Hello?

*Crickets*

The sides remain on a collision course for a June hearing, with no talks since numbers were exchanged in March ($10.25 million and $9 million), despite Contreras’ willingness to avoid what would be a career first in his final year of arbitration eligibility.

But the two-time All-Star starter, who’s off to a productive start this season, said he’s in a good place regardless of the business at hand, focusing on family (which is with him in Chicago now) and the Cubs’ efforts on the field.

Stat of the week

The Cubs are 6-9 when scoring 20 or fewer runs in a game this season.

Maddon science

Since intentionally walking Corey Seager with the bases loaded in the fourth inning of a game his Angels trailed at the time, Joe Maddon’s boys have gone 8-3 (through Tuesday) — moving from third place in the AL West, with a losing record, to one game off the best record in the American League.

Never forget: Trust the process.

Just saying.

GDubGrub

Heading to Milwaukee for the Cubs series this weekend? Plan to be stumbling around downtown Friday or Saturday night with an appetite?

Stumble into Milwaukee’s famous George Webb breakfast and burger diner near 3rd and Wells, just a few blocks northwest of Mo’s — but check the hours first. Traditionally open all night, they sometimes adjust based on staffing, but they say they expect the usual hours with the Cubs in town.

The breakfasts are perfect post-Miller Time fare, with a sausage scrambler worthy of any Waffle House south of the Ozarks.

But for an absolute can’t-miss dose of hangover-prevention medicine, grab a delicious Bag of Burgers. As in seven cheeseburgers for $15 plus tax — two orders of beer-soaking fries included.

As anyone who answers the phone will tell you: “It’s a good deal.”

Take the poll

The 21-0 win over the Pirates on Saturday was the Cubs' largest margin in a shutout victory in 147 years of franchise history, but it's no more surprising than the fact the Cubs have scored just 12 runs in their five other games against the Pirates and gone 1-4 in those games.

And is any of that more surprising than Marcus Stroman's winless struggles through three starts or Seiya Suzuki's and Keegan Thompson's early dominance?

Speaking of Suzuki — both of them…

Three Sandbergs have played major league baseball, and the best of the three played for the Cubs. Also three Rizzos and three Zambranos have played in the majors, and same as the Sandbergs for the Cubs in both cases (in fact, the Cubs employed two of the three Zambranos).*

With all the early hype surrounding prohibitive Rookie of the Year favorite Seiya Suzuki, that might be one of the more intriguing questions as Suzuki’s five-year contract with the Cubs plays out, based on first impressions.

Best of MLB’s four Suzukis?

He’s already ahead of Mac (look him up) and fast approaching Kurt.

As for the other Suzuki on the list, nobody’s anointing Seiya as the next, or better, Ichiro two weeks into anything.

But both were perennial Gold Glove-winning, All-Star outfielders and former batting champs in NPB, who both signed with MLB teams in their age 27 seasons.

Ichiro earned 10 straight MLB All-Star appearances, winning Rookie of the Year and MVP his first year; Seiya is the ROY favorite who earned league Player of the Week honors his first week and has the look of a 2022 All-Star.

And here’s the more interesting comparison, based on skill sets, if Seiya has a healthy, reasonably productive run in the majors: His combination of power and strike-zone command suggests a higher OPS ceiling than the .757 produced by the more hit-speed-tooled Ichiro.

Pretty stupid for even bringing this up 16 freaking games into the guy’s career? Yeah, well, just remember in 2031 where you read it first.

*-Not so much MLB’s three Trouts.

Ex-Cub of the Week

Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber earns this honor for his epic rage against umpire Angel Hernandez and subsequent ejection Sunday night in Philadelphia.

But he probably had it clinched before Sunday.

That’s because Schwarber was 3-for-32 with 12 strikeouts, a .194 on-base percentage and .413 OPS hitting leadoff for the Phils the first eight games of the season.

In seven games since Joe Girardi then dropped him to the fifth and sixth spots: 7-for-27 with three homers, a double, a walk and .940 OPS.

Who knew?

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