Here's how Cubs are mapping out pitching plan
CHICAGO -- Planning for the 2020 season is now beyond the expertise gained by pitching coaches through years of experience. A three-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 crisis followed a truncated Spring Training, and now teams have been given a three-week Summer Camp to prep their arms for a 60-game schedule.
"Given the situation that we're in as an industry," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, "starting this season with so much uncertainty surrounding us, I think it would be foolish for us to expect everything to go smoothly."
With the first week of Summer Camp in the books, here is a look into how the Cubs are mapping out their pitching for the upcoming campaign.
Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks -- the Cubs' leading Opening Day starter candidates -- have been logging innings on the same day. The same strategy has been in place for Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills, who each started in Friday's intrasquad game. Jon Lester is penciled in to start in Sunday's scrimmage.
The goal is to get them each built to at least five innings by the July 24 opener, but manager David Ross said the Cubs will be more conservative, if necessary.
"I don't want to push anybody to rush that," Ross said. "So I mean, that's a good gauge, good barometer, but I don't know that it's a must that everybody's at five. It just would be a nice starting point for those guys when we start the season."
With José Quintana (lacerated left thumb) behind the group and likely targeted for the injured list to start the season, Chatwood and Mills appear to be lined up for jobs. That said, Ross indicated Friday that Chicago is still weighing how to best approach the No. 5 role, given the nature of this unique season.
With no Minor League season this year, having the depth arms behind the rotation ready to jump into the mix as needed will be a challenge. Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said it will be imperative to create a really competitive atmosphere at the alternate training site in South Bend, Ind., to accomplish that goal.
"It's going to be very difficult," Hottovy said. "[The idea] is creating an environment where you have the ability to work on things that we want to work on, and make sure they're doing it, but also create an environment where they are actively competing at a high enough level that when they do come up here, they don't miss a beat."
Hottovy said part of that is having a great coaching staff and support staff with the group of arms training in South Bend. The Cubs' pitching coach noted that Triple-A Iowa pitching coach Ron Villone and James Ogden, the Cubs' pitching performance coordinator, are among those at the site.
As things currently stand, if Chatwood and Mills are in the starting rotation, right-handers Colin Rea and Jharel Cotton would be the next starting alternatives currently in Major League camp. Righty Adbert Alzolay is also on the depth chart, training at the South Bend site.
Ross has noted that it will be important to have "bridge" arms available out of the bullpen, especially early in the season when some of the starters may not be able to go deep into games. That is why the Cubs are using Summer Camp to build a select number of relievers up to three or more innings.
"Just trying to get as many options as we can," Ross said. "We're going to need length out of the bullpen. I've already stated once, I dont think starters will be fully built up quite yet, especially at the ramping up to that game speed."
Hottovy noted that pitchers like Dan Winkler, Casey Sadler, Duane Underwood Jr., James Norwood and Rex Brothers are among the arms that could be extended for longer relief appearances. The Cubs also want the bulk of the other relievers capable of handling at least four outs.
Back end of bullpen
Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel worked one inning in Friday's intrasquad game, allowing a triple to the wall in center off the bat of Kris Bryant and ending with two strikeouts. It was the closer's second appearance of Summer Camp as he attempts to put last season's struggles behind him.
What will the Cubs do on days Kimbrel is not available?
"We're obviously expecting a lot of our guys to be able to step up in some of those late-inning roles," Hottovy said. "We don't have the luxury of being mid-July in the season and having everybody fall into a routine."
Setup options in front of Kimbrel include Jeremy Jeffress, Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan. Ryan Tepera is also in the mix, along with lefty Brad Wieck. In such a short season, the Cubs will have to get a quick read on who is throwing the ball the best, balancing that against matchup situations and making sure a few in that group can handle multi-inning outings, if needed.