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.

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

It was never going to be perfect.

But Major League Baseball’s coronavirus testing system needs to be good enough.

That may not seem like an especially high bar to set.

But so far it has been a difficult one for baseball to clear.

In fact, the latest example of baseball's biggest challenge in pulling off a 60-game season played out at Wrigley Field on Monday, when the team that by all indications has done the best job of establishing and following safe practices had its manager and five other “Tier 1” members of the organization sit out activities “out of an abundance of caution” because their latest COVID-19 tests, from Saturday, remained “pending.”

Tier 1, by the way, comprises the 80-something members of the organization with the highest access, including players and coaches.

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The results had been analyzed. But as pitching coach Tommy Hottovy explained, they appeared to be in a batch of samples that included at least one positive test, the batch involving multiple teams. So they were retested. Five of those retested samples, including manager David Ross’, were negative, the team said late Monday, with the sixth considered “compromised” and another test done.

The sixth did not belong to a player.

Give the Cubs another gold star for getting through yet another round of tests — and yet another glitch in that process — without having a player test positive.

But give MLB another kick in the ass. The testing issues don’t seem to be as bad as they were throughout the league that first holiday weekend of processing. But it hasn’t fixed this thing yet, either.

Whether it’s a lab-capacity issue, a quality issue or a shipping issue, it’s not even close to good enough.

Not for 30 teams barely a week from leaving their individual training-site bubbles to start playing each other for two months. Not when more than one-third of those teams play in locales considered hot spots for the pandemic. Not in the world’s most infected country.

“We do feel comfortable in this bubble that we’ve kind of created here,” said Hottovy, who was hit hard by the virus for a month before camp started. “When the season starts though and we start traveling and we start putting ourselves in some different circumstances, we just don’t know what to expect with that.

“We’re still taking this day-to-day for sure.”

Players across baseball, including Cubs star Kris Bryant, said they were upset and surprised at how unprepared MLB’s testing system appeared to be when camps opened. Two weeks of testing later, and just enough issues persist to make the league’s entire 2020 undertaking look more tenuous than ever.

The season starts July 23. That’s not much time to get it “good enough” — never mind to get it right. But, again, we're not asking for perfection.

The league protocols require testing thousands of players and other team personnel every other day through the end of the season.

Imagine sitting a manager and three or four players from a single team on a game day because of “pending” or “compromised” test results. Imagine that happening two or three times a week to various teams. Or worse — imagine a given team doesn’t exercise “an abundance of caution” and puts the players or staff in question on the field or in the dugout and clubhouse anyway.

“The only concern that I have right now is how long the test will take to get the results back,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said on Thursday. “Other than that, I don’t think I am at risk inside of the ballpark because the Cubs have been doing the best they can to keep us safe in here."

“I don’t have any concerns about my teammates, because I trust them. I know we all are doing our best to keep [each other] safe, and that way we can have a season this year.”

Contreras expressed tolerance with the system so far and was reluctant to point a finger at MLB or anyone else.

“But how can that get better?” he said. “I have no answer for that.”

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is as much as it matters that an answer is found quickly.

Players, staff and their families already have taken on the daily stress and anxiety of this health risk and the every-other-day process of holding your breath until the next result comes in.

“You get that test day coming up when you might get results, and it’s a little bit of that unknown, a little bit of anxiety of, ‘Have I done everything right?’ “ Ross said. “You start running back the day since you’ve been tested and what you’ve done, where you’ve gone, who you’ve been in contact with, just in case something bad may come back on your test. It’s real.”

Thirteen players, including Giants star Buster Posey, already have declined to play this season, all but one without a pre-existing condition that would qualify as “high risk” under the agreement between players and management.

Angels superstar Mike Trout heads a list of several more who have talked openly about opting out at some point, depending on how things look as we get closer to games.

That includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who said Sunday, “I still have concerns” and that he has not ruled out heading home if he doesn’t feel it’s safe anymore for him or his family to keep playing.

Maybe Trout, Darvish, Posey and the rest of those players have the right idea.

In fact, maybe we’d all be better off if baseball rededicated its testing capacity to a general public that suddenly is facing shortages again in a growing number of hot spots.

But if baseball is going to stick to its plan and try to pull off this season, then it needs to get this right. Right now.

Nobody’s expecting anything great at this point. Maybe not even especially good. But good enough? In the next week or so?

Would that be too much to ask?


How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

One more year of Jon Lester?

A few months ago that looked uncertain at best — figuring to come down to a $25 million decision for the Cubs to mull at the end of this season (or a $15 million decision, given the $10 million buyout on the option clause).

But the vesting part of Lester’s hefty seventh-year option on his original six-year, $155 million contract suddenly looks tantalizingly within reach for the longtime ace.

Major League Baseball and the union have finalized an agreement on multiple details for calculating contracts in 2020, including vesting contract options, according to documents obtained by NBC Sports Chicago.

Performance thresholds for vesting options will be prorated for the 60-game season and rounded up to the next out. 

So that 200-inning threshold Lester needed to reach to assure the additional $25 million year — a threshold he hasn’t reached since 2016, when he was 32?

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In a season only 37.04 percent as long as normal, that means 74 1/3 innings earn the extra year.

It’s still roughly the same average of innings for 12 projected starts (6.17) this year as it would have been for 32 (6.25) in a full season.

But that’s a lot fewer potential aches, pains and injuries to navigate for two months compared to six months — and a stretch that doesn’t include the bone-chill cold of April and weather volatility of May.

Lester, who ranks eighth on the all-time list of postseason innings pitched, said when spring training opened in February he “obviously” wanted to finish his career as a Cub.

“Hopefully, I have a good year, and it’s null and void, and we don’t have to talk about it,” Lester said then of trying to vest the option.

“I signed here hoping that the option was kind of going to take care of itself and [I’d] finish out the seventh year. After that, I can’t predict tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen two years down the road.”

Lester pitched in his first intrasquad game of the restarted training period on Sunday and looked strong enough to get sent out to face two more batters after finishing his scheduled two innings — retiring seven of nine, with one reaching on an error and another on a 15-foot tapper in front of the plate.

“He was commanding all of his pitches,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “From what I saw, he’s looking in good shape.”

Monday's agreement between MLB and the union also included details on calculating awards bonuses, roster bonuses and contract escalators. And unlike the normal injured list, players won't lose "active time" on the roster while on the COVID-19 IL.

The Athletic was first to report Monday's agreement.