DENVER — The Chicago Cubs’ latest trip hinted at how tough the final weeks of the season might play out.
They went 2-4 against the Washington Nationals and Colorado Rockies, the teams directly below the Cubs in the overall MLB standings.
Right-hander Jake Arrieta was encouraged after his start in the Cubs’ 6-5 loss to the Rockies on Thursday. Arrieta surrendered four runs on nine hits in four innings in his second start back from the injured list.
Manager David Ross felt Arrieta’s outing was better than the numbers indicated and didn’t want to judge it too much because of the Coors Field factor. Ross and Arrieta liked how he attacked Rockies hitters and the strike zone. Over the next few weeks, Arrieta needs to replicate that approach over multiple starts and be a helpful clubhouse presence for the pitchers added to the staff following the trade deadline.
With the Cubs opening a three-game set against the White Sox on Friday at Wrigley Field in Round 1 of the City Series, here are three thoughts from the series in Denver.
1. The Cubs could get creative with the rotation when LHP Justin Steele is recalled.
Left-hander Justin Steele produced another good start at Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday, in which he struck out eight, walked two and allowed one run in five innings. After five Triple-A starts to stretch out, the Cubs are going to map out where to slot him into the rotation. Ross reiterated Thursday that Steele will be back in the majors sooner than later.
“Talk to all the starters, figure out exactly where he fits in, but yeah, we’ve got a plan,” Ross said Thursday. “We’ll communicate that to him and the rest of the group really soon.”
Ross anticipates they will be “creative as possible” in how they configure the rotation going forward. He didn’t give any specifics of what that might look like, though.
One option the Cubs could employ is a six-man rotation. Starting pitchers are significantly increasing their workload coming off the shortened 2020 season. Adding Steele and going with six starters whether for an extended stretch or the rest of the season could help the Cubs manage that.
Even Kyle Hendricks could benefit from that setup, having already thrown nearly 50 more innings than last season. Plus the Cubs can better control how many innings they want for a young arm like Adbert Alzolay. In the 26-year-old’s first full big-league season, his 98⅓ innings are only 22 shy of the most he has thrown in a professional season (2016 at then-low-A South Bend).
“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,” Ross said. “Make sure we’re still keeping guys healthy, I think is a priority for us and making sure guys can continue to compete.”
2. If Nico Hoerner can stay healthy, his versatility will be an asset.
At some point before the season ends, the Cubs anticipate Hoerner returning to the lineup.
When that will happen is unclear; there isn’t a timetable for when Hoerner (right oblique strain) will come off the injured list. But he’s not expected to be ready to be activated when he’s eligible Sunday. Hoerner is progressing, though. Before Thursday’s game, Ross anticipated him taking dry swings pregame, building off the running and lower-body work Hoerner did Wednesday.
“I don’t think it’s a process where we’re going to see him soon,” Ross said. “But yeah, he’s doing some things.”
When Hoerner does rejoin the team, it will be interesting to see where he plays. After the trade-deadline acquisition of second baseman Nick Madrigal, the Cubs could look to play Hoerner at another position in anticipation of next season. Madrigal, who is out for the season after right hamstring surgery, isn’t as versatile defensively as Hoerner, even though the latter is a former Gold Glove finalist at second.
Although a small sample size, Hoerner has shown he can handle center field, and his offensive profile and defensive ability could be a good combination. Hoerner indicated Thursday that he’s open-minded about playing different positions. In the last two years, Hoerner has logged innings at second, shortstop, third, left field and center field. It could be useful to give Hoerner playing time around the diamond to gain more big-league innings and add to his experience before 2022.
“I mean, there’s a strong group of players in the big leagues right now that are everyday players and are All-Stars that play multiple positions, so there’s definitely no shame in that,” Hoerner said Thursday. “If anything, it’s exciting. It’s been fun honing in on second base like I have in the last year or two, but I still really believe in my ability to play shortstop and in other places too.”
3. Inexperienced bullpen arms will continue to get opportunities to solidify roles.
Now that Ross doesn’t have a possible future Hall of Famer to close in the ninth, the next few weeks will provide a glimpse of how he wants to utilize the inexperience but high-upside arms he has in the bullpen.
Philosophically, the strategy might change game to game based on pockets of matchups Ross likes to utilize a certain reliever against a specific stretch of the opposing team’s lineup. That was on display in the Cubs’ win Wednesday when Ross went to Codi Heuer in the eighth based on how that part of the Rockies lineup set up the right-hander for success. Ross then went to hard-throwing righty Manuel Rodríguez for the save in part because of his experience closing in the minor leagues.
Ultimately, Ross wants to put his relievers in positions to succeed. The revamped bullpen will have plenty of opportunities to show which relievers thrive in various situations.
“They’re looking forward to showcasing their stuff and showing that they have the ability to stay at this level,” Arrieta said. “It’s just our job to help build their confidence. You want to help them along the way through these next couple months because the organization needs those guys to step up and help build this team.”