Randy Rosario has wasted no time endearing himself to the Cubs and their fans

Randy Rosario has wasted no time endearing himself to the Cubs and their fans

ST. LOUIS — It didn't take long for Randy Rosario to endear himself to the Cubs clubhouse.

It helps when you find instant success (a 0.68 ERA), but the results haven't stopped the 24-year-old left-handed pitcher from trying to learn all he can while he's up here in Chicago.

Take, for example, when he discovered this week what GOAT means:

Rosario's already carved out a special place in the heart of the Cubs fanbase and he's only been up here for two weeks.

He's also turned the heads of the front office with his immediate confidence.

"He's got good stuff that moves a lot," Theo Epstein said. "A lot of downward movement. It gives him a big margin for error to go attack hitters, even at this level. He's making the most of this opportunity."

Rosario is a big part of the group of "Iowa pitchers" who have done an incredible job filling out the last couple spots of the Cubs' bullpen in Chicago this season.

Selected off waivers from the Minnesota Twins in November, Rosario sported an 0.47 ERA in Triple-A Iowa to begin the year before coming up and dominating at the big-league level.

All told between the two levels, he's allowed just 2 earned runs on 15 hits in 32.2 innings, good for an 0.55 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. He also hasn't allowed a homer at either stop.

Rosario doesn't have any special reason why he's found such immediate success in the Cubs organization beyond the fact that he's just comfortable here. He's credited Pedro Strop, in particular, with mentoring him but loved the way everybody has treated him from the minor-league staff to the big-league players, coaches, front office members, etc. 

"As soon as you feel comfortable, everything's gonna be fine," Rosario said. "If I feel comfortable, this is what I can do."

Rosario, who signed out of the Dominican Republic and spent 7 years in the Twins organization, is under Cubs team control through the 2023 season. He gives the Cubs a lot of options out of the bullpen both as a lefty and as a guy who can throw multiple innings if needed.

He's obviously not going to have an 0.68 ERA forever, but the Cubs believe he can continue to find success in the majors.

"He's throwing a lot of strikes," Maddon said. "A lot of chases off the strikes. A lot of movement, really good movement on all his pitches. And his demeanor has been really calm. 

"There's nothing overwhelming for him right now. I love that. Because of that, I think it can continue. It's not his first rodeo. He's been around a little bit even though he's not been in the big leagues a lot. 

"He's got a lot of self-confidence and I really like that about him."

The Cubs have more bullpen reinforcements waiting in the wings

The Cubs have more bullpen reinforcements waiting in the wings

The Cubs have found a way to get the absolute most out of their bullpen already this year, but they haven't yet tapped into all of their resources.

For all the success of the guys who have been shuttled from Triple-A Iowa to Chicago, the Cubs' most enticing young relief prospect still hasn't even thrown an inning in the big leagues this season.

Dillon Maples turned heads last year with his triple-digit velocity and a dyanmic slider.

He struck out 100 batters in 63.1 minor-league innings in the Cubs system, enjoying a breakthrough season at age 25 after years of issues with injuries and ineffectiveness since the Cubs made him a 14th-round draft pick in 2011.

The Cubs gave Maples above-slot money to sign with the team out of Pinecrest High School (North Carolina) seven years ago and he finally put it all together last season to rocket through the system, making stops at Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa before getting to Chicago.

With the big-league club, Maples was unimpressive — allowing 6 runs on 6 walks and 6 hits but did manage to strike out 11 batters in 5.1 innings in his first taste of life in The Show.

Entering 2018, Maples had an outside chance at making the big-league bullpen out of spring training but instead went to Iowa for more seasoning.

He got out to a rough start (5.93 ERA, 2.05 WHIP, 17 BBs in 13.2 IP) but has since found his groove.

Over the last three-and-a-half weeks, Maples has not allowed a run in 8 appearances, permitting only 3 hits and a pair of walks in 8 innings. He's also struck out 16 batters and has multiple whiffs in 6 straight outings.

The bullpen was a hot topic of conversation with Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein earlier this week in Milwaukee and the two Cubs leaders each mentioned Maples specifically.

Maddon said Maples' name has not come up just yet as a guy that could be added to the bullpen soon, but Epstein admitted Maples is "locked in in Iowa the last couple weeks and he hasn't even had his opportunity [in Chicago] yet."

Maples' promotion to the majors may not be imminent but with the shuttle between Des Moines and Chicago in full effect, his turn at Wrigley Field shouldn't be too far off, especially if he keeps pitching this way.

The Cubs also have another under-the-radar relief arm coming up through their system in Dakota Mekkes, who became Maples' teammate a week ago.

Mekkes was a 10th-round pick out of Michigan State University in 2016 and has a ridiculous 1.05 ERA and 0.97 WHIP across the last three seasons as a reliever in the Cubs system.

Mekkes — a 23-year-old with an intimdating frame (6-foot-7, 250 pounds) — carries a 0.68 season ERA in 2018 between Double-A Tennessee (16 games) and Triple-A Iowa (3 games). He's whiffed 36 batters in 26.2 innings while allowing only 12 hits. 

The big right-hander fits the bill as a guy who can go multiple innings if need be and has been heralded as a pitcher with great deception and command that drew a loose comparison to David Robertson, Drew Storen and Addison Reed two years ago when he was drafted.

The majors may be too ambitious for Mekkes in 2018, but he should be on the radar of Cubs fans as part of the next wave of pitching from the farm system. 

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."