An Old Idea as New: Let’s Turn This Thing Down to Eleven

Baseball is a beautiful game but also a cruel one. Often it can be both at the same time. That might lead one to call baseball a crueltiful game. On second thought, don’t call it that. That would be weird.

Perhaps no better example of the sport’s essential duality has been the recent injury bug to bite the Cubs. Gerardo Concepcion made his big league debut last night because Clayton Richard had to go to the disabled with a case of being bad blisters. It was beautiful watching a guy that had been left for dead provide big league value for at least one night. The cruel twist that it came at the expense of a guy that had to suffer through numerous injuries himself. Richard had found some magic last year but that same success has remained elusive all year. Baseball is indeed a cruel game.

The Cubs’ recent youth explosion in the lineup is also a direct result of these forces. Willson Contreras is the fifth top 100 prospect the Cubs have called up in two calendar years, but he is only here because Miguel Montero, either due to injury or age has looked like a shell of the player the Cubs, traded for last year. Albert Almora, Jr. only received a call up because Jorge Soler went down with yet another leg injury. The cruel twist being that Jorge Soler was just starting to go on another tear after earning more playing time following Kyle Schwarber’s season ending injury.

Almora has been thrust into the starting lineup on a regular basis with Dexter Fowler needing a trip on the DL with a hamstring injury as well. Almora has shown his potential usefulness to the big league club with his glove and base running. He also does not seem to be overwhelmed by the big stage. That may change, but it has led many to wonder how the Cubs can possibly keep all of the young position players when some of the currently-hobbled Cubs are ready to return to active duty. Almora or Soler returning to Iowa is a common suggestion, and it might be for the best to find each enough playing time. Others have pointed to Chris Coghlan as being expendable when Tommy La Stella is ready. That seems less likely as a return to the Friendly Confines has seen Coghlan’s numbers creeping back up, in albeit a very small sample size. One option that has not been discussed is the Cubs trying an older roster configuration, and that is by carrying only 11 pitchers.

This does not seem likely, as the Cubs bullpen has swelled to 13 pitchers with the two fresh faces added last night. Also, teams don’t carry 11 pitchers anymore. No team is willing to carry less than 12, and many carry 13 or sometimes 14 pitchers. There is a reason that this happens: specialization is effective. Run scoring is down and the emphasis has rightfully shifted to run prevention. Going against the grain will be difficult task especially for a manager that is so adept at using all of his unique relievers.

Despite it not being likely I think it is something that needs to be considered. The Cubs appear set to carry three catchers who are truly just catchers. There was some outside talk about Contreras taking on a Kyle Schwarber-like role playing the field occasionally while not catching, but that appears to have been just idle speculation. Contreras’ development behind the plate is rightfully taking center stage, and currently that leaves the Cubs with just two other bench players. The extreme flexiblity of the players on the roster makes this doable, but it is an open question whether it is optimal.

Last week, Henry Druschel wrote about Maddon’s use of the starting staff and bullpen this season. He attempted to understand why Maddon appears to have gone back on earlier vows of limiting his starters’ workloads, especially early in the season. The why does not matter much for our purposes here though. Instead the object is to use the fact that Cubs relievers have thrown the fewest innings of any team, and try to leverage that into an advantage.

The composition of the Cubs bullpen also would make it more possible to carry just 11 pitchers. The usage of relievers to get just one out or one inning is one the biggest factors in needing to carry 12 or more pitchers. Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill each have the ability to pitch more than a single inning. Carl Edwards, Jr. and Concepcion also have the ability to pitch more than an inning. Adam Warren is being stretched out to be an occasionally spot starter could also fill a long man/swing role in the future. The flexibility of the additional position players should make double switching easier to accommodate relievers needing to pitch longer outings in some cases.

There is no pressing need to make a move to 11 pitchers right now. The Cubs are probably better off carrying the extra pitchers while La Stella, Fowler and Soler recuperate. This gives them a number of advantages right now. The biggest is that the Cubs are in their longest scheduled stretch of consecutive games to play. That is part of what prompted the move to send Adam Warren to Iowa to be stretched out. He is going to be a temporary sixth starter to give the Cubs staff an extra breather as they head into the break. There is some talk of him starting a game after the All Star Break as well. The Cubs could be creative and send him down in between starts to give them maximum roster flexibility during this tough stretch.

The other advantage is having a period of time to evaluate young relievers in Edwards Jr., Patton and Concepcion. The Cubs could make decisions on how to send down or cut depending on their performance during this time. Tommy La Stella is nearly ready for a rehab assignment, and so the first such drop in pitchers will come soon. While Soler’s timetable remains something that no one is willing to even write in pencil yet, there is hope that Fowler will only need a minimum stay on the DL. This is where the Cubs will need to weigh the benefits of carrying an extra shaky reliever in a bullpen that is the weakest part but hardly an Achilles Heel of this ballclub.

Instead of playing it safe and following the herd I hope the Cubs try something old. The Cubs could try all sorts of different matchups with the extra position player available. Not having to choose between Soler’s power or Almora’s glove being on the roster seems like a better option than carrying a seventh reliever who only sees the light of day when the game is out of hand. It is doubtful that Maddon and the front office will see it that way, but one can hope for something so old it is new now.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.

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