When Cubs manager David Ross met via Zoom earlier this week in his first chat with beat writers since March, he raved about how ready his five-man starting rotation appeared to be and — more important, he said — how much he liked sixth man Alec Mills as a swingman who could provide important length in the bullpen.
All of a sudden, with the news of starter Jose Quintana’s thumb injury to his pitching hand, Mills is the presumptive fill-in for the rotation. And just like that, a bullpen full of new faces and uncertainty is a man down before summer training camp even starts.
“This injury certainly challenges our depth in an area where we had some concerns already about our depth,” team president Theo Epstein said of a rotation that drops off quickly after Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester.
The Cubs don’t even have all their COVID-19 intake test results back, and an old-fashioned, off-field, dish-washing injury is the first threat to the sweet part of what looked like potentially a short but sweet 2020 season.
Fifth-starter Tyler Chatwood, who was demoted to the bullpen midway through the first season of a three-year contract in 2018, already was back in the rotation because of some of those depth issues.
With Quintana out until at least mid-to-late-August in a best-case scenario, Chatwood takes on even more significance, with right-handers Colin Rea and Adbert Alzolay moving into the sixth-man/swingman mix behind Mills.
With only 60 games on the schedule, bullpens around baseball already figured to be disproportionate difference makers for success in a season too short to take the traditional month to figure out roles or to reconfigure through trades and other acquisitions.
It looked like an especially big challenge to a first-year manager such as Ross.
“Look, given the situation we’re all in as an industry starting this season with so much uncertainty surrounding us, I think it would be foolish for us to expect everything to go smoothly and to have all our players available to us at all times,” Epstein said.
“We didn’t necessarily see this circumstance coming with Q. It’s obviously something you can’t anticipate. But we know there are going to be absences that we have to fill, and there’s going to be adversity that we have to overcome.
“And there’ll be impacts to the rotation and the bullpen, and we’ll have to find a way to respond."
Alzolay, who originally was assigned to the depth pool of players to train in South Bend, is under consideration to be moved to Wrigley to join the big-league camp. Rea already was on the big-league camp roster.
The Cubs may stay in-house to replace Quintana at least until better determining the timeline for his injury. General manager Jed Hoyer said two days after Quintana’s injury that the club was “not down the road” on talks for any possible additions to the roster and expected to open camp with those on the roster submitted Sunday.
With veteran relievers Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop and Brandon Kintzler departing as free agents since last year, the Cubs already were relying on a new and uncertain mix that included veteran closer Craig Kimbrel (who struggled after joining the team at midseason), less experienced holdovers Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick and a handful of additions including Jeremy Jeffress, Casey Sadler, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for us,” Epstein said. “This this is a bump in the road that we just have to overcome.”
Quintana, who required five stitches to close a cut suffered while washing dishes Saturday at home in Miami, underwent “microscopic surgery” on the left hand Monday to further determine the extent of the injury, at which point a cut to a “digital sensory nerve” was discovered and repaired.
The Cubs said the plan is for him to remain shut down for two weeks before resuming any throwing and then be re-evaluated. That likely pushes his debut in a best-case scenario into at least mid-August.
But the uncertainty at the outset and the sensitive nature of the area of injury suggests his already short season could be in jeopardy with any setback or adjustment to the timeline.
“There’s a best-case scenario in which it heals quickly and his thumb feels good and he can resume a pretty rapid ramp-up from that point,” Epstein said. “He’s been built up. He’s pretty far along.
“But there’s certainly another scenario in which the nerve takes longer to heal and he’s going to be significantly delayed.”
The Cubs open training camp Friday at Wrigley Field with the season scheduled to start July 23 or 24.