Two developments on an otherwise light day at Cubs training camp Thursday highlighted the biggest baseball concern the Cubs face in a 60-game season, even if they’re able to keep their entire roster healthy and coronavirus-free.
It was shaky back in March when the team was preparing for a normal six-month season.
And watching Jose Quintana play catch Thursday for the first time since surgery July 2 to repair a damaged nerve in his thumb was just one more reminder of how that depth has only become a bigger problem since then. Nobody can project at this point if Quintana will recover in time to throw a pitch this season.
Even when Kyle Hendricks officially got the well-earned call to start the Cubs’ July 24 opener a little later in the day, it was a reminder of how far ahead of everybody else on the staff Hendricks is after an aggressive program during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Which, in turn, was a reminder of what manager David Ross has said about preparing to have several relievers ready for multiple-inning assignments out of the gate to cover potentially short starts of almost everyone else in a rotation that drops off significantly in reliability after Hendricks, Yu Darvish and Jon Lester.
Did somebody say bullpen?
Beyond closer Craig Kimbrel and newly added setup man Jeremy Jeffress, good luck finding another guy in the Cubs’ bullpen most baseball fans have heard of.
And speaking of Kimbrel, don’t get Cubs fans started on those career-high nine home runs allowed they got in barely 20 innings last year for the 2019 part of that three-year, $43 million free agent deal.
None of this necessarily means the Cubs’ pitching will suddenly tank in 2020 and derail the Cubs’ best chance at success.
But who can be sure of that? It’s at least clear that they don’t have the pitching equal to the expectations of a team that for the second year in a row has a roster of enough highly paid, All-Star talent to exceed the luxury-tax payroll threshold (until pandemic salary economics are applied).
All of which adds up to one big non-COVID roster question for the front office: How much of their usual magic can they pull off between now and the Aug. 31 trade deadline to backfill pitching deficits?
“It’s unclear to everyone what that market will be like,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.
“So you have to think through it as if you have to do it internally,” he added.
Is there another, stronger term for “uh-oh”?
Between pandemic economics and a deficit of impact pitching prospects at the upper level of the organization, the Cubs’ well-documented failure to produce homegrown pitching since Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein took over almost a decade ago is suddenly poised to roost on the big-league team over these next two months perhaps like no other season before.
Beyond the top three in the rotation, the entire rest of the Cubs’ pitching staff is no better than a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty proposition.
“I like where our pitching is,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, Quintana’s injury was an early hit to that, but I think we have the depth.”
Whether that evaluation is more half-full or simply full-of-it will start to be answered in a week.
For now, Cubs officials have lauded the work and chip-on-his-shoulder motivation of elevated fourth starter Tyler Chatwood and pointed to the 2019 effectiveness of returning relievers Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick.
And in addition to Jeffress, they brought in low-risk, possible-upside, prove-it relievers such as Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Rex Brothers and Casey Sadler.
If Ryan and Wick don’t back up 2019 and the prove-it guys need backups, there won’t be much time to make fixes in such a short season — and more significantly might not be anyplace to find help beyond the B squad in South Bend.
“Keeping guys healthy is really important,” Hoyer said. “And frankly having some guys step up and perform potentially at levels they haven’t performed at yet in the big leagues is really important to us.
“We have a lot of really good young power arms that are throwing great in these intrasquad scrimmages, and some of these guys threw well in Arizona before. It’s obviously a lot different to do that in major league games.”
Maybe Quintana will come back by sometime in September and provide a boost to the staff. Maybe enough of that bullpen volume will shake out into a productive enough group to hold late-inning leads that will be far more precious in such a short season.
And just maybe the Cubs will finally find a homegrown arm from the system to help win games for the big-league club.
Hendricks is a great start as the Cubs prepare to open their season, but the rest of the pitching they find when they look in the organization’s mirror will tell the story of how they finish.