Weekly Cubs recap: Hendricks kicks off a new week on a much needed positive note; First wave of promotions in progress

Kyle Hendricks (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Cubs fans were finally gifted a day of good performance and good news on the injury front in regards to their starting rotation. With four MLB starting pitchers on the IL (Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay) to start the week, a fifth (Justin Steele) leaving early in his previous start because of a finger issue, and the top MiLB signing (Steven Brault) yet to pitch this season, the outlook for the week looked decidedly bleak.

But then last night Kyle Hendricks delivered the best performance by a Cubs starter since I don’t when, and this came after news earlier in the day that Steele does not feel he will miss his next start, and Miley felt well enough in his bullpen session following his lone rehab outing that he will be able to take the ball tonight in San Diego. It doesn’t constitute a day for celebration or anything, but it should give fans a sigh of relief, as the club was nearing the brink of disaster.

I wouldn’t expect more than four innings out of Miley tonight. Yes, he did pitch that many in his start for Iowa last week, and I would expect him capable of increasing his pitch count, but he was extremely efficient in that game. In all likelihood Miley will require those additional pitches to achieve the same number of innings this time around. With Hendricks giving the pen a day off yesterday, they should be in a solid position to pick up the slack.

The Cubs did receive an injury scare from star right fielder Seiya Suzuki last night. He stepped awkwardly on 1st base while attempting to beat out a double play. Thankfully, Suzuki has reported his ankle is fine. Perhaps they give him a day off today as a precautionary measure, but it does not sound like an IL stint in imminent.

Big surprise, but the flight to and from Des Moines that Frank Schwindel took did not resolve his issues at the plate. Last season the big right handed hitter rarely missed fastballs in the zone, and rarely chased offspeed stuff out of the zone. He was not a perfect hitter, as he rarely walked and his power production inconsistent, but it was hard to foresee a scenario where he was struggle this badly out of the gate this year. So far, he’s doing the exact opposite of what made him successful in 2021. Schwindel has been missing fastballs and expanding the zone to chase over the first month.

The good news is that those issues are correctable. The guy clearly isn’t seeing the ball well right now and his timing on fastballs is off. If others in the lineup were picking up the slack Schwindel could potentially even work his way through things in the Majors, but with so many others scuffling it made sense to send him down and let him find his groove in Iowa.

I don’t see the logic in bringing him back up though. With Patrick Wisdom banged up a bit, Jonathan Villar clearly not having the coaching staff’s full trust on defense, and Michael Hermosillo scuffling at the plate all season and recently in the field as well, I thought this was the perfect time to call up Christopher Morel. He provides the versatility to fill in wherever needed while the team runs with a short bench during a road trip, and his energetic personality and play could just provide a spark.

There are no easy answers for the predicament the Cubs currently find themselves in. The team is not as bad as it has played over the past couple of weeks, but nor is it as competitive as the front office hoped when the season began. Part of that is due to the attrition in the starting rotation, but the slumps and/or regression by a number of players with limited track records was certainly a possibility and the organization simply didn’t do enough to fortify to provide viable alternatives in case this foreseeable scenario played out.

This was always going to be a season with another sell off at the trade deadline. At best this was a team that could scratch and claw its way to a near .500 record due in large part to playing in the worst division in baseball. But the last couple of weeks likely accelerates plans for the sell off. Willson Contreras will have his arbitration hearing in early June, and then the trade limitations on David Robertson and the rest of the sign-and-flip veterans the Cubs signed this offseason lifts on June 15th. Once that occurs, the roster turnover will likely kick off a month earlier than anticipated.

First wave of promotions underway

With a few notable exceptions like Owen Caissie, the Cubs were fairly conservative with the assignments for prospects in the Minor League system to begin the season. I know it frustrated some fans, but in a season with a ton of in season turnover expected at the Major League level, the Cubs needed to have a reserve of veterans stored up at the AAA level available to fill holes once the trading of veterans in Chicago kicks off next month.

That collection of vets kept a handful of prospects down at the AA level who likely could have opened in Iowa and performed just fine, but I can’t say I disagree with the approach the Cubs took. With the short spring training and a number of guys still dealing with nagging injuries entering the start of the regular season, the Cubs bought themselves an extra month to evaluate the swath of new players they signed in a rush just prior to, or just after the lockout was lifted. They are now beginning to make decisions at the top of the system that will allow prospects to begin matriculating up the ladder throughout the rest of the season.

The team has identified a handful of veteran arms (Mark Leiter Jr., Robert Gsellman, Adrian Sampson, Conner Menez, Locke St. John) from the Iowa squad they already feel comfortable using to sop up innings in the Majors when needed, but are also not afraid to expose to waivers as the back of the 40-man roster expands and contracts with injuries. They’ve also begun letting go potential candidates who did not pitch well enough to secure such roles (Kevin McCarthy, Eric Yardley). Those subtractions already allowed Brandon Hughes to come up from Tennessee, and for Brendon Little to be activated from the IL. There is still a bit of a logjam in terms of position players in Iowa, but it didn’t stop the Cubs from already summoning Nelson Maldonado and Nelson Velazquez after they hit well their first month in Tennessee.

There are more to come. Perhaps as early as today. The Smokies have a handful of players ready to move up (Christopher Morel, Cam Sanders, Bryan Hudson), and a few more who should get the consideration after trades begin to thin out the MLB and AAA rosters (Darius Hill, Andy Weber, Chase Strumpf, Javier Assad, Ryan Jensen, Blake Whitney, Eury Ramos).

Alexander Canario got the summons to AA yesterday. But he is probably the only position player we see come up from South Bend for a while. Yohendrick Piñango and eventually Cole Roederer could make a case, but not likely prior to midseason.

There are plenty of arms in South Bend who deserve a shot in Tennessee in the near future though. I’ve gotten word at least a couple will be joining Canario today, but still waiting on confirmation as to who it will be. I can make a case for any of Max Bain, Chris Clarke, Jordan Wicks, D.J. Herz, Nicholas Padilla, Jeremiah Estrada, or Joe Nahas. Some will go now, but I expect all to get to AA by midseason. At some point Jack Patterson, Ben Hecht, and Brailyn Marquez will return from the IL as well. In the second half, Daniel Palencia, Kohl Franklin, and a couple more relievers enter the discussion as well. The Smokies should have plenty of arms to reinforce their roster throughout the year.

As for the Myrtle Beach to South Bend transit, Cole Roederer should be finishing up his rehab with the Pelicans and be ready to re-join South Bend any day now. Pete Crow-Armstrong probably has to wait behind Roederer, but it’s only a matter of time. On the mound, Richard Gallardo is probably the only starter under consideration during the first half of the season. But any number of relievers (Sheldon Reed, Jake Reindl, Walker Powell, Adam Laskey, Chase Watkins, Bryan King, and Luis Rodriguez) will move up as the season progresses.

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  • Thank you Michael, this is one great article.

  • In reply to cubbustible:

    Thanks. And you're welcome.

  • Great job keeping everyone up to date on the prospects! I absolutely agree with bringing up Morel.

  • Yeah - it was good to see a solid, nearly complete game from Hendricks. Hopefully the start of a pattern. He almost always seems to have a rough April until the weather warms up some, but this April was rougher than usual. It will be good to see Miley get a start, even if he doesn't go more than 4-5 innings.

    Yeah, even if the Cubs can manage to play 0.500 ball or better for the next couple of months, the sell-off is going to be significant come June. Robertson has got to be worth something to a contender, Smyly could bring back some value, as could Miley if he can stay healthy and productive. I don't see a lot of value coming back for guys like Villar, but maybe something for Simmons - IF he can get and stay healthy.

    Do the Cubs work to keep Contreras or shop Happ? Happ has been consistent so far this season, but is he a medium-term OF guy?

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Happ at least lines up age wise with Suzuki and provides the team with a left-handed power option. He's also become a team leader. His one more year of arbitration buys them time to decide. I don't expect they will shop him, but if he has a big first half and someone comes with a offer they'll listen.

    Contreras is also a team leader, but the lack of an extension, his age, and the signing of Gomes to a 2 year deal has prepared me for the inevitability of his departure. Personally, I think he'll age well, and would prefer to sign him, but I don't get the sense it will happen.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Do you perceive Contreras as a leader of this team? If so why do you think the Cubs will let a top 5-10 catcher be traded? Is he too old to be an ASSET to the team when it contends or are the Cubs either too cheap to extend him or do they really not LIKE him?

  • In reply to stix:

    The Cubs just got done parting ways with other team leaders his age, so I just sort of group Contreras in with that departed core. He and Hendricks (and JHey but that a different discussion) are the last ties to the WS team, and Hendricks is the only one from that group to sign an extension after the title. I don't know if Cubs were too cheap, or the core overvalued themselves, or they were all simply were dead set on reaching free agency. All of them achieved a lot at an early age and got to stay together as a group for a really long time (in modern baseball), and so maybe money and/or a change of scenery became more appealing than sticking around at some point. I'm not sure we'll ever know.

    Happ often gets associated with the old core as he was involved in later playoff runs, but he came up after the WS and is a few years younger than most of that group. So that's where I see a bit of a differentiator and why Cubs may view him as sort of the leader to bridge the gap moving forward. But again, it only works if they can agree on an extension this offseason. Otherwise, he too gets dealt next year.

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    Thank you Michael. This reminds me of the prospects we had in the early to mid 2000's. There seems to be not only position players this time but pitchers also--a complete farm system.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    It's getting there. More diverse group than the previous decade, for sure. It will be difficult to ever match the success they had developing bats in that time, but the balance between bats/arms hopefully leads to organizational success of the same heights the previous core brought them to. Definitely more reminiscent of the Hendry farm systems in terms of athletes. I just hope they have better success molding those athletes than that regime.

  • Looks like the Mets nabbed Locke St. John off of waivers.

  • Michael - I have always been a Morel fan, and I think he has come a very long way in improving his skills. But I wonder if he isn't the exact kind of prospect that needs time in AAA. Contact has always been his main weakness, especially with breaking balls and chase pitches. Although you see some of these in the lower minors, it is at AAA that a young player can be exposed to a lot of those, without doing damage to his team, and perhaps his career. This year will be a lost year for the Cubs. I would hate to see a young prospect brought up when he isn't quite ready.

    If the Cubs feel that they need some added offensive punch, (and I HOPE they feel that way), I would rather see them bring up Maldonado.

  • In reply to OldFan:

    He absolutely needs time in AAA. I'm not advocating a permanent call up. Just use him as a versatile defense oriented bench guy for a week until Simmons is ready.

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