Cubs need longer workdays from their pitchers

The bullpen continues to be tested.

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Drew Smyly will start Game 1 of Saturday’s split doubleheader against the Dodgers.

Drew Smyly will start Game 1 of Saturday’s split doubleheader against the Dodgers.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks threw a perfect 0-2 pitch Wednesday to the White Sox’ Gavin Sheets.

The pitch sailed barely below the outside corner, where Hendricks couldn’t be hurt. But Sheets wisely didn’t chase.

Hendricks’ next pitch nearly dotted the lower outside corner, but it was located close enough for Sheets to poke the pitch through a vacated left side of the infield for a tying single that helped the Sox to an eventual 4-3 victory.

Hendricks provided some quantity with 5‰ innings after an emergency start Tuesday by reliever Scott Effross, but he didn’t supply enough quality for a rotation that has been extremely inconsistent.

Left-hander Wade Miley, who threw four innings and 41 pitches in his first rehab start Thursday for Triple-A Iowa, will provide experience and potential efficiency once he joins the rotation before the end of the month — provided he fully recovers from a sore elbow.

After a rocky start, right-hander Marcus Stroman has allowed two earned runs in 13 innings against the reigning World Series champion Braves and reigning National League Central champion Brewers. Stroman will start the series finale Sunday against the Dodgers with two extra days of rest.

But the rotation has been largely unpredictable, as reflected by a 5.16 ERA that ranks 12th in the NL and is averaging less than 4‰ innings per start.

In some instances, such as Effross filling in Tuesday after left-hander Drew Smyly was put on the bereavement list, unforeseen circumstances have contributed to the short starts.

This remains a curious time for the Cubs, who need to stabilize the back end of their rotation while trying not to tax valuable reliever Keegan Thompson, whom manager David Ross often deploys as a middle-inning stopper and has the same ERA as his WHIP — 0.89 — in 20⅓ innings.

Smyly (2.79 ERA) has pitched poorly in only one of his four starts, but he needs to pitch past the five-inning barrier Saturday, when he starts the first game of a split-doubleheader against the Dodgers.

The Cubs’ bullpen, which has a respectable 3.27 ERA, will be well-rested, but it cannot continue to lean frequently on pitchers such as Effross (1.59 ERA) and Thompson for middle-inning bailouts.

Left-hander Daniel Norris will make his first start since August 2020 (when he was with the Tigers) in the second game Saturday. Norris hasn’t pitched longer than 1‰ innings in any of his five appearances, so it’s safe to assume he’ll be in an opener role.

But more revealing is that left-hander Justin Steele isn’t scheduled to pitch in this series. Steele displayed tremendous promise with five innings of one-hit ball against the Twins and seven scoreless innings against the Pirates to complete his rookie season in 2021.

After blanking the Brewers for five innings in his 2022 debut, Steele hasn’t pitched past the third inning in three consecutive starts and will wait at least eight days before making his next start, likely in San Diego.

Miley might need two more starts before he’s ready to be activated, and prized prospect Caleb Kilian hasn’t pitched past the fifth inning in any of his five starts at Iowa.

After the series against the Padres, the Cubs are scheduled to play 14 games without a day off against the Diamondbacks, Pirates and Reds — all second-tier foes.

Miley should be ready at the end of that stretch. And if there is no overall improvement in their rotation and the Cubs need to further stimulate their prospect-crazed fan base, they might promote Kilian and his 1.83 ERA as trade talks involving their veterans start to accelerate in June.

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