The Cubs just added another effective pitcher to the roster for free.
OK, that’s not exactly true.
But the rules changes for this season expected to be announced next week might produce the same effect for teams with questionable pitching depth, such as the Cubs.
And if the Cubs have any chance to claw their way into the newly formatted 12-team playoff field, that could make the difference from slim to at least not-quite-so-slim for a team that has frontline talent in the rotation, a solid group of fielders and just enough potential hitting to believe it can hang in a less-than-awesome National League Central.
Among the reported changes: Rosters will expand through May 1 from 26 to 28, without limits on how many pitchers can be carried, as a way to lessen the workload stress on pitching staffs forced to ramp up for a 162-game season in a shortened spring training.
Instead of being limited to 13 of 26, the Cubs will now carry at least 14 — and probably 15 — pitchers when they open the season April 7 against Milwaukee.
That’s an especially big deal for a staff like the Cubs, whose third starter, Wade Miley, was behind other starters when he got to camp and whose starting options beyond that get pretty shaky pretty quickly — and whose bullpen is a work in progress at best.
With projected contributors Adbert Alzolay (lat strain), Codi Heuer (Tommy John surgery) and Brad Wieck (elbow) all on the 60-day injured list already, the added ability to piggyback starting assignments, cover underperformance with numbers and attack late-inning matchups more aggressively could be disproportionately big for this team.
And did we mention Milwaukee? The part of the schedule impacted by the expanded-roster rule includes seven games against the defending NL Central-champion Brewers and three each against the defending AL East-champion Rays and World Series-champion Atlanta.
Also among the new rules is the return of the dumb-ass runner at second to start extra innings, for this year only.
Originally instituted as part of COVID-19 protocols to prevent marathon games, the oft-maligned rule will, again, disproportionately help teams with questionable pitching depth by, again, limiting the chances for games that stretch staffs to extremes.
The third rule expected to be announced next week — the “Ohtani rule” that allows a pitcher who bats to remain in the game as the DH after he’s done pitching — likely won’t affect the Cubs and 28 of their brethren.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder that the already approved universal DH in general helps rosters without as much depth by eliminating double switches and what had been a greater premium on bullpen depth and versatile benches.
Added up, the new rules might not be enough to put the Cubs in the driver’s seat in the division race, never mind World Series contention.
But compared to playoff chances that ranged, on paper, from slim to none before the changes?
That’s right. We’re saying there’s a chance.