The Cubs have given left-hander Justin Steele and right-handers Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson an opportunity to start this season in an effort to find out if they could stick in the team’s long-term rotation plans.
Each has had success this season, but they’ve also had some struggles as rookies.
Alzolay got the longest look in the rotation this season after he won the fifth-starter job out of spring training. The right-hander had moments of brilliance, including going nine straight starts allowing three earned runs or less. But he finished with a 6.62 ERA over his last seven starts before the team moved him to the bullpen to manage his workload.
Steele has also had some highs and lows in his short stint as a starter. After having success in the bullpen, it took the southpaw some time to stabilize in the rotation. But following a few starts where his stuff ticked down, it returned to the level the team saw when he was pitching out of the bullpen.
Of the three 26-year-old arms, Thompson has struggled the most since making his transition to the rotation. Like Steele, Thompson had lots of success as one of manager David Ross’ “bridge guys” when the team’s bullpen was at its best.
But he has looked like a different pitcher after moving into his starting role and hasn’t been able to attack the strike zone like he was able to earlier this season. Thompson walked 20 batters in 37 innings as a reliever, but has already walked 10 in five starts.
Another area of concern is that all of a sudden, he hasn’t been able to strike out hitters. Thompson has struck out just seven over his five starts and after sporting a healthy 10.0 K/9, that number has dropped to 4.7.
The Cubs don’t have to rush to make a decision on any of their three young arms with this being the first season in the big leagues for each of them. But it’s not unrealistic to think that they could go back to the bullpen in roles similar to the one they had success in.
Alzolay, Steele and Thompson each have above-average pitches in their repertoire, and the benefit of being starters is that they have a wide array of pitches to get hitters out.
The multi-inning reliever has grown in popularity over the last few seasons and successful teams usually have one or more they can turn to. Pitchers like Andrew Miller, Drew Pomeranz, Nathan Eovaldi and Collin McHugh have made big impacts in recent postseason in those roles.
“I think everybody sets out to be in that role,” Ross said last week. “Identifying where your strengths and weaknesses are. At the end of the day, a lot of these guys want to be in the big leagues, right? . . . You see guys like Keegan and Steele come up and they get their feet wet in a season where we’re not competing for playoffs and we can test the waters. [The bridge role], that is a great value if you have starters that don’t go six, seven or eight innings.
“If you have starters that give you length, that role is probably not as valuable as it is when you have more of a staff like we’ve had this year where we’re probably going to not let them go the third time through. So it just depends on how you’re structured, as far as the roster and everything and what you have to deal with. But to me, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing in these guys, especially when they’re young because they just want to be here and contribute.”
Alzolay, Steele and Thompson each have spoken about how they want to be starters long-term and there’s still some time for them to make that happen.
But with the team in the market for starting pitching this winter and looking for growth when spring training comes in 2022, each will have something to prove when the team arrives in Mesa in February.