Wick still seeking to regain high-leverage success

August 28th, 2022

MILWAUKEE -- After the smoke cleared on the Trade Deadline, and the Cubs had dealt four late-inning relievers to contending clubs, a path was clear for Rowan Wick to step up as manager David Ross' primary high-leverage arm.

Wick is hardly a prospect learning his way around the Major Leagues -- this is his fourth season with time in the Cubs' bullpen -- but he understands the landscape and the chance in front of him. The Cubs are in evaluation mode for 2023 and there will be plenty of jobs to fill in the next relief corps.

"Every time out there is a chance to prove yourself," Wick said, "and to earn a spot for the next year, as well. I mean, nothing's given to you. So these next few months are big for me, along with everybody else."

Those comments from Wick came earlier this month during an extended hot streak for the reliever. In a 7-0 loss to the Brewers Saturday night at American Family Field, Wick's hot-and-cold campaign found another frigid moment: a seventh inning that went awry and added four more runs to his season line. It spoiled six shutout innings from Drew Smyly, who matched zeros with Brandon Woodruff for six frames.

A throwing error by rookie Christopher Morel led to one run, but then Christian Yelich hammered an elevated curveball from Wick out to right field for a three-run blast. That gave Wick eight runs (seven earned) allowed on 12 hits (four homers) over his last 5 1/3 innings (six appearances), pushing his ERA to 4.73 on the year.

"Finishing pitches is something that I think we're looking at," Ross said. "I mean, swing-and-miss hasn't really been there, even when he's had some success. We've just got to get him back to getting the fastball above the barrel a little bit.

"A lot of foul balls, deep counts all the time. The breaking ball, when he's not throwing it for strikes, it's not a finish pitch. Guys are able to extend at-bats.

"We tried to simplify some things back when he was struggling a couple months ago, fix some things. He was able to get back in the zone and we felt like he'd gotten back to the version of himself."

Before this recent six-outing stretch from Wick, he had spun a 1.59 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 17 innings across 15 games from July 3-Aug. 11. That last appearance was an impressive save to finish off the Reds in the Field of Dreams game.

One thing the Cubs worked on with Wick around that time was limiting the number of sliders he was throwing. That slider was not the problem, specifically, but it was impacting his mechanics, leading the righty to be more rotational in his delivery on other pitches.

So, the goal was to focus on fastballs, knuckle-curves and cutters -- the offerings that got Wick to this position with the Cubs in the first place.

"We know what he can do when he's at his best," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said earlier this month. "He filled in when [David Robertson] was out for a little bit. I think just with all these guys, it's getting more opportunity in high-leverage situations. That's what we need to see.

"When we're making decisions and things for next year, getting them with some real high-leverage situations and letting them compete, I think, is crucial for everybody, but especially for him.

"He's a guy that's done it. He's a guy that wants those opportunities."

During the 2021 season, the Cubs had a dynamic back-end trio in Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera. All three were dealt at the Trade Deadline. This year, it was Robertson, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin and Scott Effross getting the bulk of the big moments. They were all traded away.

Ross likes having veterans in the bullpen and the Cubs have had a knack for unearthing value signings to fill impact roles, while offering leadership for younger arms. They have also proven valuable in terms of being flipped for future pieces.

At some point, the Cubs would prefer to be in position to keep their important veteran arms beyond the Deadline, as the club pushes for a playoff spot. Wick, who will be 30 years old next year and is under club control through 2025, has a path to cement his place in that picture.

"We're all auditioning everyday. Aren't we? It's big leagues, right?" Ross said earlier this month. "We've got to go perform. You've got to go out there and produce. Some guys get a longer leash than others just from experience and past performances.

"But we're all here trying to put our best foot forward and prove where we belong."