'Looking for upgrades': Miller provides key depth for bullpen

May 15th, 2024

ATLANTA -- was texting with Cubs lefty Justin Steele on Monday night when Chicago had reached an agreement to acquire the righty from the Mariners. It had been four years since Miller was previously with the North Siders, but there are still plenty of familiar faces on the roster and coaching staff.

“A little reunion, so it was nice,” Miller said. “It’s very reassuring.”

It was a feel-good subplot, but the reality for the Cubs right now is that they need reinforcements for the bullpen any way they can get them. Tuesday’s four-inning start by Jameson Taillon in a 7-0 loss to the Braves at Truist Park further emphasized Chicago’s situation, which includes having five relievers currently on the injured list.

With the Trade Deadline still two-plus months away, the avenues for improving the relief corps right now are limited. Miller was available due to a roster crunch in Seattle. He pitched well for the Mariners -- especially against righty batters (.400 OPS in 31 plate appearances) -- but was nonetheless designated for assignment on Friday.

“I think it's safe to say that we're looking for any good pitcher and any good reliever right now,” Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said. “We will continue to do that. His profile happened to be one that can get right-handers out. It fits well with some of the injuries that we've had.

“But, we certainly won't be picky as we're looking for upgrades. And we'll continue to make sure we're canvassing every opportunity for that.”

To date this season, the Cubs have had 14 players spend time on the IL. On this current road trip, relievers Adbert Alzolay (right flexor strain) and Yency Almonte (right shoulder strain) both landed on the shelf, joining relievers Julian Merryweather, Daniel Palencia and Drew Smyly.

The initial concern over the severity of Alzolay’s setback was quelled somewhat on Tuesday afternoon, when the imaging results confirmed the forearm strain (but nothing more alarming). Alzolay will likely be out for at least three weeks, but he admitted to feeling some relief at hearing the diagnosis.

“I think it’s not going to be that bad,” Alzolay said.

That would certainly be positive for the Cubs, who entered Tuesday with a 4.61 bullpen ERA, which ranked 13th in the National League. The North Siders had also piled up 162 innings, marking the third-most in the NL going into the night. The abbreviated outing by Taillon – tagged for seven runs (two earned) in an outing that included a draining six-run fourth inning -- tacked four more frames onto that total.

The Cubs’ current relief corps only features three pitchers (Mark Leiter Jr., Héctor Neris and Jose Cuas) from their Opening Day bullpen. Cuas rejoined the Cubs on Monday, following a month spent at Triple-A Iowa to focus on his sweeper. He delivered two shutout frames behind Taillon on Tuesday night.

“For me, it was a reset,” Cuas said of his time back in Iowa. “It was good for me to go down and just regain the confidence that makes me who I am when I'm up here.”

After Cuas, Miller made a strong first impression with two shutout innings of his own. The former Cubs starting pitching prospect has narrowed his arsenal this year to mostly a fastball-slider mix, which played well in his first outing with the Cubs since 2020. By extension, Miller gave the rest of the bullpen a chance to breathe.

“Tyson Miller, just getting off a plane today,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said, “flying across the country, hasn't pitched for four or five days and delivered two important innings -- that was just great to see. A great start for him and important for the rest of the guys.”

Taillon, who worked at least into the sixth in his previous three outings, echoed that sentiment.

“That's huge. I mean, we need it,” Taillon said. “Not having to go to any leverage guys in a game like this is really nice. Generally, I take pride in trying to go as deep as I can. Even on a bad night, try to pitch into the fifth, sixth inning. So, I’m frustrated about that, but they definitely picked me up.”

Going forward, as the Cubs try to get their relievers healthy and explore other external options, the team will have to remain creative and open-minded about how to piece together the innings puzzle.

“We've got to be kind of willing to adjust on the fly and adapt on the fly,” Counsell said. “And I think our guys have done a really good job of that. And that's what periods like this kind of require.”