With Cubs in need of a reliable lefty in bullpen, Drew Smyly could be a wild card down the stretch

With Cubs in need of a reliable lefty in bullpen, Drew Smyly could be a wild card down the stretch

Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office are always trying to evaluate the franchise's major weaknesses, looking for potential leaks that could sink the ship.

It's only Aug. 2, but one such issue flew to the forefront Thursday evening.

After trade deadline pickup Jesse Chavez gave up a 3-run homer (the first runs he's allowed as a Cub), the game was still in shouting distance for the Cubs. But a pair of lefties — Justin Wilson and Brian Duensing — combined to allow 3 runs in the final three frames to break the game wide open for the Padres.

Wilson walked a batter and gave up a pair of hits in one inning of work. Duensing also walked a batter and gave up 4 hits over 2 innings. 

Right now, the two are the only left-handed options out of the Cubs bullpen and they've each endured their various level of struggles this season.

As the Cubs get down to the most pivotal part of the regular season and hope to roll it into the playoffs, can they get by with the pair of question marks in the bullpen?

"Justin's been good," Joe Maddon said after the Cubs' 6-1 loss. "We've been having to get Duensing straightened out for a bit, but I do like [Carl] Edwards against lefties and I like [Brandon] Kintzler against lefties. 

"But I did not want to use them in those situations tonight. I think Justin's been fine."

Wilson has certainly pitched better than he did in his two-month debut with the club last fall. But he still has 30 walks in 42.2 innings and carries a worrisome 1.43 WHIP despite a solid 3.38 ERA. He ran into major control issues last year and was a non-factor for the Cubs in the postseason because of it.

Duensing has struggled for months and now sports a 7.34 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season with more walks (26) than strikeouts (22). 

If the Cubs have to face Bryce Harper or Freddie Freeman or Cody Bellinger in the playoffs or need some big outs against Travis Shaw and Christian Yelich in September, Wilson and Duensing may not inspire a whole lot of confidence in the fanbase watching on the edge of their respective seats.

Rookie lefty Randy Rosario was just sent down to Triple-A Iowa earlier in the week to clear room for Brandon Kintzler on the big-league roster and while his stats were good (4-0, 1.97 ERA), the underlying numbers indicate he was due for a pretty serious regression — 1.34 WHIP, 5.10 FIP, almost as many walks (16) as strikeouts (19) in 32 innings.

Rosario will undoubtedly be back up in Chicago soon and could be a factor out of the Cubs bullpen come playoff time. But that's a lot to throw on the shoulders of a 24-year-old with only 28 MLB games under his belt.

The answers, ironically, may come in the form of the two left-handers who pitched before Wilson and Duensing Thursday.

Drew Smyly threw a simulated game at Wrigley Field before the Cubs and Padres faced off and could be set to go on a rehab assignment in the very near future.

Mike Montgomery started for the Cubs and got 16 outs, continuing his trend of solid work in the rotation over the last couple months. But the Cubs also want to be cautious of Montgomery's innings and don't want to run the tall southpaw into the ground before what they hope is another run into late October. 

At some point in the regular season, they may opt to move Montgomery back into the bullpen to limit those innings. And even if they don't, it's possible the Cubs opt to flip Montgomery back to the swingman role in the bullpen for the postseason, choosing to fill out the potential playoff rotation with the likes of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels.

Smyly and Yu Darvish are the wild cards here. 

The Cubs aren't counting on anything from Darvish the rest of this season, but almost two months remain until the first playoff game. If he can actually kick this arm injury, he figures to have a spot in the rotation locked up and Montgomery is the natural choice to move back to the bullpen given he has plenty of recent experience in that role.

Smyly is recovering from Tommy John surgery and hasn't thrown a pitch in a big-league game since 2016, but he could fill a variety of roles for the Cubs down the stretch — a left-handed reliever capable of going multiple innings, a starting pitcher or something else entirely.

It's impossible to just assume a guy will find his form and command in less than a month of actual game action on a rehab assignment before the minor league seasons wrap up.

But Smyly and the Cubs were encouraged after his 30-pitch sim game Thursday.

"Good. I thought he finished strongly," Maddon said. "He agreed with that. His fastball started to jump that second 15 pitches. Little bit of command issues with his curve and his changeup. Not sharp, but only threw three in each set.

"But fastball got better and it finished really strong and he felt good about himself. ... Smyly left smiling."

The Cubs clearly believe in Smyly enough to give him a 2-year, $10 million contract last winter despite a guarantee he would miss at least the first four months of the 2018 season.

The 29-year-old lefty pitched for Maddon briefly for the Tampa Bay Rays at the tail end of the 2014 season. He has also worked with first-year Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey the last three-and-a-half seasons between Tampa Bay and Chicago.

Epstein said on the last homestand the Cubs plan to stretch Smyly out whenever he's able to get down to the minors and start a rehab assignment. So that leaves open the possibility that he can serve as some rotation depth.

But the most likely scenario is Smyly contributing in some form out of the Cubs' bullpen. It's been a few years, but he has a solid track record as a reliever — 7-0, 2.47 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.7 K/9 in 71 appearances out of the bullpen.

When it comes time for a big at-bat by a dangerous left-handed hitter in September or October, it may be Smyly that Maddon turns to out of the bullpen, not Wilson or Duensing.

Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves


Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves

It didn’t seem like Cole Hamels was likely to return to the Cubs considering they didn’t tender him a qualifying offer, but it is now reality that Hamels is leaving the North Side.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Hamels has agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves. The deal has since become official.

The qualifying offer he would have received from the Cubs would have been $17.8 million, just under what he ended up getting from the Braves.

This now leaves the Cubs with a question as to who will be the team’s fifth starter next season. Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and José Quintana are under contract and figure to lock in the top four rotation spots. Tyler Chatwood, Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills all figure to be candidates for that spot.

Hamels turns 36 two days after Christmas and an oblique injury limited him in the second half of last season. He had a 2.98 ERA before the All-Star break and a 5.79 ERA in 42 innings after it.

Hamels was a big part of the Cubs’ push in 2018 when he had a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts after arriving from Texas just before the trade deadline.

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Cubs free agent focus: Yasiel Puig

Cubs free agent focus: Yasiel Puig

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

Yasiel Puig looked to be a superstar in the making as a rookie with the Dodgers in 2013. In 104 games, the Cuban right fielder posted a .319/.391/.534 slash line, a 159 OPS+ and hit 19 home runs.

That 2013 performance had folks debating if Puig was a better player than Angels superstar Mike Trout. The debate has obviously long been settled in Trout’s favor, thanks to his elite-level play year in and year out. But Puig’s performance in the ensuing years quickly helped shut down those gaudy comparisons.

Puig had a stellar 2014 season, slashing .296/.382/.480 with 16 homers and a 145 OPS+ in 148 games. But since 2015 he’s averaged a .264/.330/.462 line, 109 OPS+, 19 home runs and 122 games played. He was demoted to Triple-A for a month in 2016 and was a platoon player from 2017-18. The Dodgers ultimately shipped him to the Reds last offseason, the latter of whom dealt him to the Indians at the 2019 trade deadline.

Puig hasn’t lived up to the billing from his rookie season and has been involved in a number of on-field incidents during his career. This includes 2019’s infamous brawl between the Reds and Pirates, which occurred minutes after news broke that Cincinnati was trading Puig to Cleveland.

But with Puig’s notoriety comes a player full of energy, one who's flashed all five tools and has plenty of postseason experience (58 games in six seasons). That could come in handy for the Cubs, who may trade away a member of their championship core this offseason to shed payroll and retool the roster.

With Jason Heyward manning right field and Kyle Schwarber in left, the Cubs would have to rotate their alignment to fit Puig on the roster. Heyward is a five-time Gold Glove Award winner in right, but the Cubs were willing to move him to center in 2019 after acquiring Nicholas Castellanos. Whether they’re willing to do that for a full season is debatable.

Nonetheless, Puig is only 28 years old and won’t break the bank, key for a Cubs team conscious of their payroll. He comes with questions, but beyond that is a solid player who may have a higher level to take his game.

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