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Cubs looking to get creative with innings and pitcher development

The Cubs are going try to find different ways to get 27 outs over 162 games.

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Adbert Alzolay throws against the St. Louis Cardinals during the sixth inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) ORG XMIT: CXC113
Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Adbert Alzolay throws against the St. Louis Cardinals during the sixth inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) ORG XMIT: CXC113
Nam Y. Huh, AP Photos

If there’s an area the Cubs need to improve drastically this offseason, it’s their pitching staff. After sporting one of the worst rotations in baseball last season, most of their moves on and off the field have tried to improve it.

The first move was adding left-hander Wade Miley to a rotation that not only needed a veteran presence but quality innings. As the Cubs continue to search the market for additional pitching, it’s reasonable to ask how they’ll deploy those pitchers next season.

New general manager Carter Hawkins has an expertise in player development. He joined the Cubs from a Cleveland organization that’s known for developing pitchers.

There are several pitchers on the Cubs’ roster who made a case last season to be in the rotation or compete for a spot, and others are knocking on the door. But with right-hander Kyle Hendricks and Miley likely the only starters guaranteed spots, figuring out how the rest of the rotation and bullpen shakes out will be an ongoing process.

“It’s about getting 27 outs 162 times over six months. Seven months if you get to the postseason. What’s the best way to do that?” Hawkins told the Sun-Times. “There’s been lots of change over the years of how that’s done. We have to decide what’s best for us based on our roster and the pitchers we have. It’s not going to look the same for everyone or every team.

“In Cleveland, our pitching was obviously a priority for us. We were able to develop a strong group of starters that were able to carry that workload. But you aren’t always going to have situations like that, and sometimes that means using guys in different roles, multi-inning roles, if that’s what’s best. And when you get guys to buy into that, it makes us a better team.”

The Cubs had auditions for spots in the rotation last season, with Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson and Alec Mills getting extended looks. Thompson was the only one who didn’t fare well as a starter.

All four pitchers showed versatility, pitching out of the bullpen while waiting for a rotation spot to open. Alzolay made a smooth transition into a relief role as the Cubs managed his workload late in the season. Team president Jed Hoyer already has stated that left-handed prospect Brailyn Marquez, who missed all of 2021 because of injury, also would be considered for a role next season.

That versatility will be key for the Cubs in 2022 as they look to take steps forward as a staff after ranking 26th in ERA.

The Cubs already have started to get their pitching prospects prepared for those roles in the minor leagues. The organization sometimes will have starters get an appearance in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen, making for an easier transition as they move through the system.

“I think sometimes we discount how much these guys want to win,” Hawkins said. “When you’ve been a starter your entire career and coming through the minors, is it different when you’re asked to be in a new role or a role you’ve never experienced before? Absolutely. But when you have guys that put the winning and the team first, that’s an awesome thing. And then you continue to show guys how they can maximize their strengths in those roles.”

As of now, the Cubs will enter spring training with three rotation spots open and four pitchers in the running. But that number could grow with the possibility of more additions this winter. It’s clear the Cubs are looking to give themselves as many options as possible in hopes things work themselves out.