Triple-A Iowa holds interesting options for Cubs’ bullpen depth

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy discussed the progress of several pitchers in Iowa, including Keegan Thompson.

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Cubs right-hander Keegan Thompson has already had highs and lows in Triple-A Iowa since being optioned a little over two weeks ago.

Cubs right-hander Keegan Thompson has already had highs and lows in Triple-A Iowa since being optioned a little over two weeks ago.

Erin Hooley/AP

SAN DIEGO — The experiment with “enhanced grip” baseballs in the Double-A Southern League presented the Cubs with a conundrum: They couldn’t know exactly how it was affecting the performances of prospects such as Ben Brown and Daniel Palencia. And they didn’t know what would happen when pitchers were promoted to Triple-A and switched to normal balls.

“It’s just one of those variables that we have to deal with,” team president Jed Hoyer said recently. “And you have to think through: Are this guy’s pitches being helped or hurt by it? Is this hitter striking out more because of the ball or because of something else?”

Brown wiped away some of those concerns in his first two Triple-A starts last month, holding opponents to one run in 10 ⅔ innings.

Not all of his outings since have been as dominant. His ERA has risen to 4.18, and in his last outing, he gave up five walks. But the Cubs continue to see the attributes that put the former Phillies prospect on their radar before the trade deadline last year and impressed them in spring training.

“He’s going to have good and bad days,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said last weekend. “But the bottom line for him is, he’s the same guy every time he takes the mound. He’s going to be aggressive. He’s going to be attacking the strike zone with his fastball and using his off-speed off of that.”

The next question: When and how will Brown make the jump to the major leagues?

For several of the Cubs’ young pitchers, including starters Justin Steele and Hayden Wesneski, the first step was being introduced through the bullpen, even though the Cubs pictured them in the rotation in the long run. Depending on how Brown’s development progresses and the season plays out, he has the makeup to follow a similar path.

“He’s not a guy that I’m concerned if he comes up and you throw him in the bullpen that he’s going to be like, ‘I have my routine. I do all this,’ ” Hottovy said. “He’s like, ‘Give me the ball. I just want to throw.’ So, any role that he’s in, I feel confident in him being able to do it.”

Hard-throwing Palencia already has transitioned to a bullpen role in Triple-A. His start to the Double-A season stood in contrast to Brown’s, as he posted a 5.87 ERA in five starts, compared to Brown’s 0.45. He then went to the Cubs’ spring-training complex in Arizona to learn how to tailor his skills to a relief role.

“We’re trying to simplify his mix to a certain extent,” Hoyer said. “He’s been a four-pitch guy, and you’re probably not going to be a four-pitch guy in the bullpen.”

From Arizona, the Cubs promoted Palencia to Triple-A. In four relief appearances, he has allowed just one run.

When it comes to bullpen depth, the Cubs also have right-hander Keegan Thompson in Triple-A, where he’s stretching out for a multi-inning role and addressing the execution issues that contributed to a 15.4% walk rate before the team optioned him a little over two weeks ago. In each of his first two Triple-A outings, Thompson allowed four runs in two-thirds of an inning. He bounced back to throw two scoreless innings in his next appearance, but in his outing Sunday, he issued five walks in 1 ⅔ innings.

“Some of Triple-A is working on those things and then going in and stress-testing them,” Hottovy said. “Didn’t work? We’re going to keep working on them, and you’re going to get another opportunity. So he’s focused on the right things.”

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