Young 'pen passes test as Cubs edge Rox

August 5th, 2021

DENVER -- One goal the Cubs have over the next two months is to evaluate some of their in-house arms with an eye toward next season and beyond. The bullpen, in particular, has some intriguing options with plenty of innings up for grabs.

Having a foundation of up-and-coming relievers is a welcomed development for manager David Ross, as he now shifts an eye to the future.

"That's something that this organization has lacked in a little bit," Ross said prior to Wednesday's 3-2 win over the Rockies at Coors Field. "And it looks like it's starting to sprinkle in and we're doing a nice job of developing some pitchers and finding out who can help us and who can't.

"That's a nice starting place -- the pitching area -- to find what you're going into the offseason with and what you need to get."

In the wake of the recent trades that shipped Craig Kimbrel (White Sox), Ryan Tepera (White Sox) and Andrew Chafin (A's) elsewhere, the Cubs have a wide-open bullpen situation. On Wednesday night, a strong start by Alec Mills and a three-run double by Patrick Wisdom provided the latest late-inning testing ground.

With that in mind, here are three bullpen arms to monitor down the stretch:

1. RHP
The Cubs' dozen-player haul from the multiple deals prior to the Trade Deadline was mostly prospect focused. One of the MLB-ready returns was Heuer, who came from the White Sox in the deal for Kimbrel.

Heuer knows he has a great chance in front of him with the future-focused North Siders.

"I see an opportunity to take a big role on this team," Heuer said recently. "Any way I can help the team win, that's what I'm going to try to do. As of now, we're going to sort that out and see where I fit in with these guys. I'm excited for what the future holds."

The 25-year-old Heuer posted a 1.52 ERA in a strong 2020 MLB debut season for the White Sox, but he saw his production dip this year (5.12 ERA in 40 games prior to the trade). That said, there is plenty for the Cubs to evaluate, work with and iron out.

Heuer's sinker has averaged 96.5 mph this year, per Statcast, but he was allowing a .470 wOBA on the pitch in '21, compared to .260 in '20. His slider (.211 wOBA with a 42.5 percent whiff rate this year) and changeup (.152 wOBA with a 47.7 percent whiff rate in '21) have nonetheless been effective.

There is plenty of room for Heuer to grow and find a home as a late-inning arm for the Cubs. In Wednesday’s win, the righty pitched the eighth, working around a leadoff single and finishing his scoreless frame with a double-play grounder off the bat of Trevor Story.

"Codi's still young," Ross said. "And a guy that's got some experience under his belt. It's been impressive."

2 RHP @manuel rodrígManuel Rodríguez
Ross is not ready to apply the "future closer" label on the hard-throwing rookie Rodríguez, but the manager understands why fans might start dreaming that way.

"I don't want to put that on somebody," Ross said. "I think he definitely has the stuff. I mean, 100 [mph] with two secondary pitches, sure, you could make that assumption. I don't know. It takes a lot of experience of handling those moments."

The 24-year-old Rodríguez flashed triple digits on the radar gun in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game and has done so since coming up from Triple-A Iowa after the Deadline moves. Beyond the high-octane fastballs (sinker and slider), the righty also has impressed Ross with his cutter and breaking ball.

That repertoire helped Rodríguez post a 1.31 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings between Double-A And Triple-A this season.

Beyond the stuff, Ross has also liked Rodríguez's composure. That actually included the pitcher's reaction to allowing a walk-off home run on Sunday against the Nationals.

"It doesn't look like he's going to be fazed by too much," Ross said. "I was really impressed with that. It's not how you handle success. It's how you handle adversity. And that's definitely a moment where you're watching him walk off the field like, 'Wow, this kid is pretty impressive,' in just his demeanor."

Ross gave Rodríguez the ninth inning on Wednesday night and the rookie responded by picking up his first career save. He sat 97-99 mph with his sinker, recorded one strikeout and dodged the potential harm of a two-out single.

3. RHP
True, there are other active arms to monitor like righties Michael Rucker and Trevor Megill, among others. That said, Wick was a valuable setup man and part-time closer across the 2019-20 seasons (2.66 ERA in 50 games), and he is on target to return to the Majors at some point down the stretch.

Wick has been dealing with a left side injury since late last year, but he recently moved his Minor League rehab (while on the 60-day injured list) up to Iowa. The big righty struck out one of two batters faced on Tuesday and has 11 strikeouts against three walks in 5 1/3 innings since returning to games.

Getting the 28-year-old Wick back in the MLB bullpen before the end of the season would give the Cubs a chance to get a strong gauge on his health and progress. It would also give Wick something to carry into the offseason as he tries to regain his footing as a reliable late-inning option.