‘Long way’ to Deadline, but Cubs might bolster ’pen

May 9th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian's Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer was not surprised when the Marlins and Padres swung a trade on Saturday that shipped Luis Arraez to San Diego. Hoyer acknowledged that he had recently checked in with Miami in the name of due diligence.

“To be honest, I knew that trade was in the works,” Hoyer said earlier this week at Wrigley Field. “But I don't expect that to kick off like a ton of early deals. Maybe it'll be earlier than usual, but it's not going to be all [of a] sudden, in mid-May, everyone's making a bunch of trades. I don't expect that to happen.”

Maybe not, but it is not too early to start looking at what the Cubs might be searching for as Hoyer and his front office send out some early-season feelers.

As things stand, Chicago’s biggest area of need is the bullpen. Granted, a relief corps is often the most volatile aspect of a roster from year to year, but the Cubs have experienced some setbacks and tightrope acts through the season’s first six weeks. Strengthening the bullpen will likely be on the radar leading up to the July 30 Trade Deadline.

“There’s a long way to go,” Hoyer reminded. “Obviously, we'll be looking for external stuff. But that stuff is generally not available this time of year. And so the focus right now is on getting healthy and improving guys that might be struggling.”

Heading into Thursday’s team off-day, the Cubs had a 4.64 ERA from their bullpen, ranking 12th in the National League. The 70 walks issued ranked 27th in the Majors, trailing only the Rays (79), White Sox (73) and Marlins (71). Collectively, Chicago’s relief corps had eight blown saves within 19 opportunities.

Hoyer was quick to reference last season, when the Cubs posted a 5.19 ERA out of the bullpen in May before righting the ship. Chicago emerged from that rough stretch with reorganized roles and a group of relievers stepped up to calm the relief storm. From June 1 through the end of the ‘23 season, the Cubs’ 3.47 ERA from the 'pen was the fourth-lowest mark in the Major Leagues.

“They kind of jelled later in the season and pitched well,” Hoyer said. “Hopefully that can happen [again].”

Injuries to Julian Merryweather and Drew Smyly have hindered the bullpen early on this season. A couple of young arms, Luke Little and Daniel Palencia, have flashed explosive stuff, but they have struggled with command and bounced between Triple-A Iowa and the Majors. Palencia recently landed on the injured list with a right shoulder setback, too. José Cuas was sent back to Iowa after a tough start to the year.

Adbert Alzolay, who grabbed the closer’s role last year, has struggled (4.70 ERA and five homers allowed in 15 1/3 innings) and is working his way back to form. Héctor Neris has solid results (3.21 ERA in 15 games), but has more walks (13) than strikeouts (12) in his 14 innings of work. Keegan Thompson (3.09 ERA in eight games) typically needs multiple days off to perform at his best.

The Cubs’ two best options have been Mark Leiter Jr. (0.59 ERA in 16 appearances) and Yency Almonte (1.32 ERA in his last 13 outings, following a tough first four games). Ben Brown and Hayden Wesneski have moved between the rotation and the bullpen, but they could offer relief solutions if and when the starting staff is fully healthy again.

“I don't think you can just sort of gloss over it ever and say, ‘Hey, it's gonna work out,’” Hoyer said. “I think we're constantly trying to figure out ways to make it better, ways to make adjustments.”

That could wind up leading to adding relief help via trade.

“But,” Hoyer said, “the fact that there was a big trade in early May, unfortunately for you guys, I don't think that means we get three months of trade season. … You know, we're in touch, we're on the phone with everybody. But I think you expect we have to at least get more into the season, for the most part, until those things become a reality.”