Brian Duensing

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Dominating.

That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Well, we got a look at what life is like without Brandon Morrow.

The Cubs closer and the anchor of the bullpen all season was unavailable for the first game of Tuesday's day-night doubleheader due to back tightness, leading to Justin Wilson taking on closing duties in the ninth inning.

The end result was a 4-3 Dodgers win as they rallied for a pair of runs off Wilson on Kyle Farmer's pinch-hit, 2-run, 2-strike, 2-out double just past the glove of a diving Kris Bryant.

Joe Maddon said he obviously would've planned on using Morrow for the ninth inning if the Cubs closer was healthy but due to the back tightness suffered early Monday morning, Morrow is down for both games of the doubleheader (assuming the night game isn't also rained out).

That leaves the Cubs pitching staff in an even tighter spot than they already were as they're currently in a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Monday's rain/light-out.

Let's start with the bullpen, which will be "raggedy" for Game 2, to quote Maddon, who admitted starter Mike Montgomery would have to be ready to go deep into the game.

Tyler Chatwood was only able to account for 5 innings in Game 1, leaving Steve Cishek to throw 14 pitches, Randy Rosario to throw 10 pitches and Pedro Strop 29 pitches before Wilson tossed 27 in the final frame.

That probably means Strop and Wilson are down for the rest of Tuesday and may make it a bit of a toss-up for either guy's availability Wednesday even with the surprise off-day Monday.

Cishek and Rosario should be able to throw Wednesday for sure and may be able to go in a limited capacity in Game 2 Tuesday.

That leaves Luke Farrell, Anthony Bass, Rob Zastryzny and Justin Hancock as the guys that are completely fresh at the moment. Hancock is up from the minors as the 26th man for the doubleheader and Zastryzny replaced Brian Duensing for this week while the veteran went on the bereavement list.

Without Morrow and with a loss already under the belt to open the Dodgers series, the Cubs bullpen is in a bad way and no scheduled off-day until July 2.

The starting rotation is in a bind, too, as now they'll need a starter for Saturday's game in Cincinnati assuming there are no more rainouts along the way.

With Chatwood's start pushed back to Tuesday instead of Monday, the Cubs now need an extra guy in the rotation.

The Cubs' probable starters for the rest of the week: Jon Lester (Wednesday), Kyle Hendricks (Thursday), Jose Quintana (Friday) and then a question mark Saturday before Chatwood would be ready to throw again on Sunday.

One option could be a "bullpen day" for the Cubs, but given how much they'll need to lean on that unit with the doubleheader and no off-days this week, that seems like a risky option.

The Cubs could also call somebody else up from Triple-A, but the options, such as Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills or Duane Underwood Jr.

Tseng has an ugly 8.21 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in the minors this year and gave up 3 runs on 4 hits in 2 innings in a spot start earlier this season.

Mills has limited big-league experience and had been pretty solid for a while with Iowa, going 3-3 with a 3.39 ERA averaging nearly 6 innings an outing over a 10-start span from late-April to early-June. But he got shelled his last time out (6 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks in 2.2 innings on June 17).

Underwood — the Cubs' second-round pick in 2012 — also had a really nice stretch with Iowa for a while (3.08 ERA over 9 starts from April 14 to May 28), but has regressed in June (14 runs on 18 hits and 7 walks in 13.1 innings).

Either way, this is a really tough stretch for a Cubs team that was just beginning to find its groove and get on a roll.

Saving grace: How the Cubs created a 12-man bullpen

Saving grace: How the Cubs created a 12-man bullpen

The Cubs saw their bullpen run full-speed into a brick wall late last year.

After serving as a strength of the team in the first 4-5 months of the season, the Cubs bullpen fell off a cliff and struggled mightily toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. They simply ran out of gas.

It was one of the main areas the Cubs looked to improve this winter, even as they lost Wade Davis, Hector Rondon and Koji Uehara to free agency.

Theo Epstein's front office added Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to the relief corps and brought back Brian Duensing, but it's all the underrated moves that are really paying off for the Cubs bullpen right now.

Luke Farrell, Randy Rosario, Cory Mazzoni and Anthony Bass were all signed in the offseason in minor moves and Justin Hancock was acquired from the San Diego Padres for Matt Szczur last May.

Those 5 guys have combined to make 34 appearances for the Cubs in 2018 and to simply say they've been "successful" would be a massive understatement.

That group has combined for a 1.88 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 48 innings, striking out 49 batters and allowing just 4 homers. 

"One of the bigger differences this year is the other pitchers that have been chosen in the offseason to ride that train between here and Triple-A have done really well," Joe Maddon said. "There's a lot more to choose from, too."

The success of those guys has allowed Maddon to mix those 5 in with Brandon Morrow, Carl Edwards Jr. (who is currently on the disabled list), Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Mike Montgomery (who is currently in the rotation) and Duensing to form a 12-man bullpen of sorts.

In a day and age in Major League Baseball where so much emphasis is now put on the bullpen, that's a huge advantage the Cubs have carved out for themselves.

"Pro scouting is more than just like a big free agent sign or a big trade," Epstein said. "It's also a lot of depth moves and in that regard, it's been a really, really nice year for our pro scouting department and our organizational depth. 

"Not only are there a number of guys throwing well in the Iowa 'pen, but they've come up here and given us 50 or so innings of really good baseball collectively. Stepping into big games and high leverage spots and performing well. That — along with the performance of the core bullpen guys — has made it a really nice year in the 'pen so far."

The impact of all those under-the-radar guys has given the Cubs the best ERA in the National League (3.17) and second best overall behind only the Houston Astros. Only the Arizona Diamondbacks (2.50) and Milwaukee Brewers (2.65) have better bullpen ERAs than the Cubs' 2.67 mark in the MLB.

The numbers are good for the 5 guys, obviously, but even more than that, they've been able to give Maddon multiple innings and save arms for other days.

Of the 34 appearances by that group, 15 of them have resulted in more than 3 outs, including Farrell's inspired 5-inning performance in extra innings in New York earlier this month.

On top of talent, the "Iowa pitchers" have all complimented the way the clubhouse and coaching staff has embraced them, allowing them to feel comfortable from Day 1.

This is all by design. This is what the Cubs front office had in mind over the winter, but actually even before that.

They released Justin Grimm in spring training in part because he had no minor-league options remaining. 

Farrell, Rosario, Hancock and Mazzoni all entered the year with multiple options remaining, so they could conceivably fill a similar role next year if they continue to find success and remain with the Cubs.

More than half the season is left to be played, but for right now, these guys have done a heck of a job keeping the Cubs' top relievers fresh while trying to carve out a role for themselves moving forward.

"We've been trying to get to that point for a couple years where we can have optionable relievers that you can kinda shuttle in and out that we trusted," Epstein said. "The best way to make sure your key relievers stay fresh all year is to trust all your relievers so that you're using them all and spreading the workload around.

"And it's been hard to get to that point the last couple years. There was the year Grimm was kinda like that last guy when he was out of options. It's just nice to now have a situation where we have multiple optionable relievers that are doing a reliable job that Joe can trust a little bit. Maybe use the whole 'pen instead of just a handful of guys."