Why Strop right on time for what Cubs bullpen needs


Look who showed up just in time to rescue the Cubs’ beat-up bullpen.

Signing late, missing time because of a COVID-19 protocol violation and on the fringes of the roster picture from the start because of his minor-league contract and recent history, Pedro Strop made his first appearance of the spring on Saturday — and looked a lot like his classic Cubs self.

Cockeyed hat, 95-mph fastball, soft contact and all.

“First outing,” manager David Ross cautioned, before smiling big. “I was happy. He hit 95, right — 95 up there was, ‘Wow.’ “

If that first outing was any indication, Strop, 35, could be reaching competitive shape just in time to help a bullpen that is facing a handful of health and performance issues this spring, including the lingering oblique issue that has pushed top returning setup man Rowan Wick’s projected season debut well into April.

Strop has just enough time to get two, maybe even three, more appearances before the club breaks camp — just about the amount of game work he often has said in recent years is all he needs to be ready to go.

Keeping him healthy after back-to-back seasons with hamstring injuries and how his contract status plays into the final roster decision are key issues with him over the next week or so.

And, again, this was only one spring outing — which included a walk, mis-hit infield single and two popups. The run he gave up scored on a wild pitch and muffed routine block by prospect Miguel Amaya.

Ross said Sunday morning he had not looked at the “pitch data” for things such as the depth of the right-hander's slider. But the first-glance eye test got more than a passing grade.

And when talking about one of the Cubs’ all-time top relief pitchers (2.90 ERA, 10.3 strikeouts per nine in 6 1/2 years as a Cub), that might be the best sign this bullpen has gotten in camp this side of Craig Kimbrel’s bounce-back outing on Saturday.

Maybe good health and some resulting down time the last two years has done Strop’s body some good coming into this camp. Maybe the return to his “home” and his “brothers” with the Cubs has provided new life. Maybe that protocol violation early this month added a dose of incentive to his preparation.

“I felt terrible in that moment [for risk to teammates],” Strop said after returning from the violation quarantine, adding, “I don’t know what’s going to happen [with my status]. I’m still on time to do my things and show that I’m good to help this team for the season and for the championship.”

Regardless, Saturday’s showing seemed to matter.

“It was nice to see him out there, see him close it out,” Ross said. “He gave up some weak contact there to get some base runners on and still pitched well. He got his pitch count up and still held 95 throughout.

“I thought it was a good outing for him, and obviously brings a smile to my face for sure.”

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