Brad Brach

Big-boy time: Cubs giving Rowan Wick his shot to keep proving his worth in bullpen

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USA TODAY

Big-boy time: Cubs giving Rowan Wick his shot to keep proving his worth in bullpen

On the first day of August, some 24 or so hours after the MLB Trade Deadline passed, Cubs manager Joe Maddon declared it "big-boy time."

With the divisional race as hotly contested as it's been all season, the time has come and gone for the Cubs to worry about development and sentimentalities.

In other words, it's time for production over talent — a mantra Theo Epstein emphasized in his season-ending press conference last October.

The Cubs made a "big-boy time" move Saturday morning when they designated veteran Brad Brach for assignment to make room for Cole Hamels on the 25-man roster. That is almost assuredly the end of Brach's tenure with the Cubs and it means rookie Rowan Wick is getting a shot to continue to prove he belongs in the Cubs bullpen.

Wick has a couple of minor-league options remaining, so the Cubs could've easily sent him back down to Triple-A Iowa to make the numbers fit, but over the last week-plus, he's emerged as a valuable piece to the reliever picture and somebody Maddon is starting to trust more and more.

"What Rowan's doing right now causes us to rethink a lot of stuff," Maddon said before Saturday's game. "You saw him in a really pertinent moment [Friday] and he rose to the occasion again. His fastball's been explosive, he's got the good curveball, his confidence is there. He just needs more opportunity. But yes, he is playing into the decision-making right now."

For the Cubs, it was simple: They needed to continue to see what they have in the 26-year-old Wick and they just could not get the veteran Brach on the right track.

Wick made good on the faith the organization showed in him Saturday, working a scoreless seventh inning to pick up his first big-league victory. He started the inning by falling behind pinch-hitter Eric Thames 3-1, then executed back-to-back-to-back 97 mph fastballs on the black to induce a swing-and-miss, a foul ball and then, ultimately, a strike out in an impressive sequence.

Brach, meanwhile, was hardly being utilized due to his struggles, making only six appearances in pitching 4.1 innings since the All-Star Break. Wick has pitched that much just in the last week.

"You can't try to make a decision based on development right now or hold anything back if you think it's the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do," Maddon said. "Brad was not argumentative at all. Listen, he's gonna get another chance and he's gonna do well. That's my prediction."

Brach, 33, had a long track record of success a high-leverage reliever but with the Cubs, he sported a 6.13 ERA, though his peripheral numbers indicate he was a victim of a lot of bad luck (including a FIP nearly 2 full runs lower than his ERA). He also was giving up home runs at a career-low rate...in a year where dingers are up across the board. 

But he had issues with walks and the end result just wasn't enough for what the Cubs need at this point in the season.

"Every time he went out there, I expected a good result," Maddon said. "He was throwing the ball well all year; he's run into some bad luck. Velocity was good. It's really hard to understand why he had such a hard time. 

"Saying that, I want him to get another opportunity quickly. Great guy, great family guy, his wife's awesome, their baby. This is a tough one. ... You watch from the side and none of it makes sense. It just doesn't. I think right now, his confidence has been nicked a little bit and once he gets his mojo back, he's gonna be fine."

But the Cubs couldn't afford to wait for Brach to regain his confidence or see his luck turn and at this point, they needed Wick in the bullpen more.

In his first year in the Cubs organization, Wick continues to throw well as a reliever with a fastball that sits up the upper 90s and a wipeout curveball. In 48 innings now between the majors and Triple-A this season, he has 59 strikeouts (11.1 K/9) to go along with a 1.88 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. 

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

The Cubs have some interesting roster decisions to make in the near future. 

The big-league pitching staff is potentially going to get very crowded very quickly with Tony Barnette now added into the mix, Craig Kimbrel close to making his debut and Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. nearing returns from their respective injuries. Somehow, the Cubs will need to open up multiple spots on their pitching staff.

Fans on Twitter are quick to solve the problem by saying "DFA Brad Brach," but it's hardly that simple and also probably not the best course of action for the franchise to cut ties with the veteran reliever.

Yes, Brach has not pitched well in his first season with the Cubs, especially lately — he has given up runs in eight of his last 12 outings and now carries a 6.14 ERA and 1.84 WHIP on the season. 

But there's more than meets the eye with his numbers and both he and the Cubs feel like they're on the verge of getting things in order.

"The most frustrating part is I feel like I've had some of the best stuff I've had in the last couple years these last five weeks and have just not gotten the results," Brach said. "Unfortunately this is a results-driven game, especially in the bullpen. If you're not getting the job done, you're not gonna be out there when the game matters and that's when I love being out there. 

"[The Cubs have] been really good about coming up to me — 'your stuff's there, just one little thing here or there.' But at the end of the day, I just gotta execute it and get the outs."

Brach has given up 32 hits this season, but only 8 of those have gone for extra bases and just 1 left the yard. He's given up homers at the same rate as Aroldis Chapman and among MLB pitchers with at least 20 innings this season, only six other guys have a better HR/9 rate than Brach.

Brach also woke up Monday morning with a .397 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against him, which is roughly 100 points higher than the league average this season and 107 points higher than his career average (.290). His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is right around his norm (3.73 vs. 3.69 for his career) and has the lowest strand rate of his MLB life so there's an element of bad luck here.

On the other hand, he's also giving up more hard contact and less soft contact than ever before.

After walking 15 batters in his first 12.1 innings, Brach has gotten that under control — he's doled out only 1 free pass over his last nine appearances and 7 total in 17 innings since April.

"It's been really frustrating and it's been waves of frustration," Brach said. "Early in the season, I wasn't throwing strikes, walking a ton of guys and wasn't getting hurt. Now, I'm not walking guys and getting hurt by the single in a year when home runs are dominating the game. 

"It's definitely a frustrating thing. The contact's been pretty weak. Mine was just two rocky games. I just kinda have to look at it like those were two really bad outings and move on and hopefully I can get on a roll here."

Brach has a point there — nearly half of the runs he has given up on the season (8 of 20) came in back-to-back outings against the Rockies on June 5 and June 11, where he was tagged for 4 runs each time while getting only three outs combined.

He also has a long track record of success. Since his rookie season, the 33-year-old has never posted a season ERA over 3.78. From 2012-18, Brach had a 2.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 33 saves and averaged more than a strikeout an inning while also spending most of that time as a high-leverage reliever pitching in the AL East.

However, Brach did experience an up-and-down 2018 season (4.85 ERA with the Orioles in the first half, 1.52 ERA with the Braves in the second half) and he has been thinking back to that a lot as he tries to get out of his slump with the Cubs.

"If I didn't have last year's experience, who knows where I'd be right now," Brach said. "Last year was pretty bad, too. Just couldn't get any outs. I was getting hit hard — a lot harder than I have been this year, so at least I know it can turn around."

There's still more than half the season remaining and Brach has exactly the kind of stuff, pedigree and experience to be a valuable bullpen piece for the Cubs down the stretch.

"It's kind of baffling to us from the side," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're trying to really dig into it and see if there's a thread there that we can bring to him. Because you watch him pitch from the side and the stuff is outstanding. It really is — the fastball-changeup-slider mix. 

"It's really hard to wrap your head around it. Some of it, I thought was a little bit of bad luck. Some of it has been late-count hits that he's gotta be a little bit better with 0-2, 1-2 counts. I'm trying to decipher all that. But purely from a physical perspective, he's throwing the ball great and he's not getting the results. And I think maybe then the confidence gets nicked a little bit, also. 

"That's where I'm at with him. I think he's throwing the ball wonderfully, but we gotta figure out — outside of a jam-shot, bad-luck knock every once in a while — what we can do to help him. This guy is such a wonderful team player. Everybody's behind him out there. Every one of us. We gotta figure it out because his stuff's that good."

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

Craig Kimbrel could still make his debut before the current homestand is over, but in the meantime, the Cubs added another intriguing veteran to the bullpen.

Tony Barnette was activated off the 60-day injured list Sunday and Rowan Wick was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa. 

The 35-year-old right-hander has had an interesting career ever since was drafted in the 10th round in 2006 by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Arizona State University. He spent a couple years in the D-Backs organization but then went to Japan in 2010 to pitch for the Yakult Swallows for six seasons.

Barnette returned to the U.S. in 2016, signing a deal with the Rangers and putting up a 3.50 ERA in 125 appearances for Texas over three seasons. The Cubs signed him over the winter to add another arm to the bullpen mix, but he's been hampered by shoulder issues since spring training.

Barnette actually began a rehab stint with Triple-A Iowa in April initially, but made only four appearances before heading back to Arizona to hit the reset button on his recovery. He restarted a rehab assignment with Iowa on June 1 and has been lights out since — he's allowed only a pair of baserunners (1 hit, 1 walk) in 8.1 shutout innings while striking out 9. 

"Patience is a virtue," he said Sunday morning inside the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. "It's hard to be patient in this game especially when you're expected to be logging innings at the major-league level. Patience was something that I really had to work on and stay with. Stay patient, trust the process, work with the training staff and make sure I was right and I am."

When the Cubs called Barnette over the winter, he said it was definitely a call he wanted to take — to join a team with World Series aspirations and play in front of the fans at Wrigley Field. Now he wants to answer the call out of the bullpen whenever he gets the opportunity.

Joe Maddon hasn't gotten a chance to see Barnette pitch live much due to the early injury in spring training, but the Cubs manager envisions utilizing the veteran righty as a weapon against opposing right-handed hitters. In his MLB career, Barnette has allowed only a .652 OPS to righties vs. a .780 OPS to left-handed hitters.

"He's a strike-thrower. He attacks the zone. He's kind of a fearless guy," Maddon said. "He's an assertive kind of a guy. He's an attacker, he can put the ball on the ground. He's an aggressive sort. Normally pitch-efficient.

"He's very confident right now. He's feeling really good."

When the Cubs signed him over the winter, Barnette was looked at as another potential under-the-radar option in the bullpen and now that the injury is behind him, he and the Cubs are hoping to make good on that potential.

But the Cubs pitching staff is also getting crowded, with Barnette joining a group of bullpen arms that includes:

Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Brandon Kintzler
Brad Brach
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery

At the moment, the Cubs have folded both Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood into a six-man rotation. But they also have Kimbrel's arrival on the horizon as well as the eventual returns of Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr.

It's unknown how all these pieces will fit together, but Barnette could emerge as a reliable piece for Maddon and the Cubs.