DENVER – It’s rotation decision time for the Cubs, as Justin Steele nears a return to the big-league squad, this time as a starting pitcher.
“We're going map some things out here, talk to all the starters, figure out exactly where he fits in,” Cubs manager David Ross said before the series finale against the Rockies on Thursday. “We've got a plan. We'll communicate that to him and the rest of the group really soon, but we should see him sooner rather than later.”
Could the Cubs move away from the traditional structure they’ve kept through the first 2/3 of the season and opt for something more creative?
“Do I not look creative?” Ross said with a smile. “We will be as creative as possible. I think there is a willingness for everybody to continue to make starts, and we'll move some things around and make some adjustments as we go.”
Creativity could mean a number of things. But it most likely means a six-man rotation, which would address a couple questions the Cubs have in front of them.
Who would Steele replace? With a six-man rotation, the answer would be no one.
The Cubs sent Steele to Triple-A Iowa to stretch out on a starter’s schedule, after he debuted as a reliever earlier this season and carved out a place for himself in a formerly formidable bullpen.
In his last start for the Iowa Cubs, on Tuesday, the rookie southpaw allowed one run in five innings.
In a normal five-man rotation, the Cubs would have to decide who to boot after recalling Steele. Jake Arrieta’s on-field performance has been the shakiest of the Cubs’ starters, but the veteran has a long history with the club and is adamant that he wants to be “a part of” the team’s new wave.
Alec Mills has been valuable in a swing-man role before, but he offers a consistency in the rotation that no one else but Kyle Hendricks has provided in recent weeks.
Adding another rotation slot pushes back that decision, with a bonus.
How will the Cubs manage right-hander Adbert Alzolay’s workload late in his first full MLB season?
Without additional tinkering, a six-man rotation already gives starters an extra day between starts. With tinkering, team off-days provide an opportunity to skip a pitcher’s start while keeping the rest of the rotation on a regular schedule.
When Alzolay needs rest or extra side work – he’s been searching for a solution against left-handed hitters – the Cubs can skip his turn.
“Keeping guys healthy is a priority for us,” Ross said, “and making sure guys can continue to compete. But we'll get that all that creative information to you as soon as we’re ready."