As the innings in the 2022 season continue to dwindle, the Chicago Cubs face decisions.
Only 15 games remain after the Cubs opened a three-game series Monday night in Miami. The team is plotting how to line up the rotation for the final stretch and determining the best way to allocate innings.
The Cubs used five pitchers in a 10-3 loss to the Marlins at LoanDepot Park. A 2-0 lead in the third inning, courtesy of Christopher Morel’s solo homer and Ian Happ’s RBI double, was quickly erased when the Marlins scored five runs in the bottom of the inning.
Right-hander Keegan Thompson (low back tightness) is expected to be activated from the injured list in the next few days, manager David Ross said Monday. Thompson will be used out of the bullpen, at least initially. Ross noted that the Cubs must figure out the other moving parts, in both the rotation and the bullpen, for a corresponding roster move.
It’s one of the trickiest components for the Cubs to work out as they close out the season, already eliminated from postseason contention. They want Thompson to finish strong and add to his 104⅓ big-league innings while also ensuring he gets to the offseason healthy.
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s goal is to get right-hander Hayden Wesneski at least one more start and then re-evaluate the situation, possibly looking to use him in a piggyback setup. Wesneski limited the Colorado Rockies to one run and three hits in seven innings Saturday in his first major-league start. He didn’t walk a better and struck out seven.
“I know we have some moving parts in terms of how we’re trying to spread out the workload for everybody over those last couple of weeks,” Hottovy said Monday. “We’re just trying to be creative about how we piece this together and make sure we’re smart.”
Left-hander Justin Steele (low back strain) is still not fully healthy as time works against him to get back into game action. Steele, who hasn’t pitched for the Cubs since Aug. 26, is expected to throw a bullpen session during the seven-game trip to Miami and Pittsburgh.
The Cubs and Steele must balance what is smart and realistic in a potential return. Steele has told the Cubs he wants to have one more big-league outing before the offseason, and Hottovy didn’t rule out that possibility.
However, Steele must check a lot of boxes, Hottovy said, before a return comes to fruition. Aside from how Steele feels physically during and after his bullpen sessions, the data the Cubs collect will show whether the metrics align with when he was healthy.
If the Cubs see more cut or run in his stuff, backed by the data recorded, it typically indicates something still isn’t right with a pitcher’s body — in this case Steele’s back.
“Make sure that we’re in a good place so we’re like, ‘OK, we’re going to do it,’” Hottovy said. “Because we know what he’s done. We know the workload, but again there’s just that mental side, like, OK, I’m healthy, I feel good, I can go compete. … There’s a lot of ways we can kind of piece together that last week of the season.
“We’re just trying to rack up good days in a row — not two steps forward, one step back.”
The Cubs will have plenty of multi-inning relief options with Thompson, Adbert Alzolay and, depending on how they employ him, Wesneski. They also want to continue to look at their less experienced relievers. At some point, the Cubs must decide which in-game work to prioritize.
For the series against the Marlins, the Cubs are starting left-hander Wade Miley — who allowed seven runs (three earned) in three innings Monday — right-hander Adrian Sampson on Tuesday and left-hander Drew Smyly on Wednesday. They haven’t announced how the rotation will align for the four-game series against the Pirates.
It remains unclear if shortstop Nico Hoerner or catcher Willson Contreras will rejoin the lineup during the trip. Hoerner remains sidelined after an MRI last week showed a mild to moderate strain in his right triceps.
A left ankle sprain continues to frustrate Contreras, who still feels the effects of his injury when he runs. While running in a straight line felt fine Sunday, Ross said Contreras was challenged by making turns on the bases.
Contreras declined to talk Monday, saying he will speak with reporters once he is back in the lineup. Contreras, a free agent after the season, hasn’t played since Aug. 30 in Toronto.
“Guys that are injured like to play baseball,” Ross said. “You see the end in sight and I think some personalities are like, what’s the point of rushing back, and some personalities are like, I’m pissed I’m hurt, I want to finish, I enjoy playing baseball. I think Wilson falls in that second category of I’m trying to get back, but also I can only do so much on my ankle.
“The thing about the end of the season and where we’re at in the standings, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to rush anything or play at 85% to 90%.”