Emerging From the Shadows, Concepcion Shines

The struggles that the Cubs’ Opening Day bullpen have recently endured are still somewhat beneath the surface, as no truly crippling detrimental issues or real red flags have popped yet, but the Cubs organization is still taking no chances. “We’re aware of it,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer told the media on Monday, and with the second half of the season just a little over a month away, it’s time to make some try out new arms and make some precautionary changes. “You always have to anticipate something’s going to go awry,” Maddon told the media earlier this week.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

The Cubs may not have an overflowing list of positive feedback to collect after being swept by the St. Louis Cardinals this week at home, but one of the biggest takeaways the Cubs saw this series was the emergence of 24-year-old left hander Gerardo Concepcion.

Concepcion failed to make the Spring Training roster this year, and after a barrage of injuries plaguing the Cuban-born pitcher (who was once envisioned as a starter back as far back as 2012), his future role and value with the Cubs suddenly became a question.

Concepcion has emerged from the shadows for the casual fan, but he certainly let those unfamiliar with him know who he was during his first outing of the season with the club on Tuesday night. This may not have been defined as a statement series for most, that’s a ludicrous panic-button thought, but it was a statement outing for Concepcion on Tuesday night.

Replacing Jason Hammel in the sixth inning at Wrigley Field, Concepcion struck out Brandon Moss to begin his Major League career. He ended up pitching 1 ⅓ inning, posting two strikeouts while facing four batters including Kolten Wong, the pesky Matt Carpenter, and starting pitcher Adam Wainwright.

Looking at Concepcion’s minor league numbers in isolation may not be the most comforting thing to most, seeing as he posted a 6.90 ERA in 44 innings of work between his time in High-A and Double-A with the Cubs organization last year. He allowed 4 home runs in that time, and issued an unsightly 37 walks and 34 earned runs over the course of those innings.

But that all changed in 2016. Concepcion turned things around in Iowa, posting a 1.29 ERA in 35 innings of work there, while only allowing five earned runs and issuing 34 strikeouts.

“I was frustrated when everything was going wrong,” Concepcion said through interpreter and coach Henry Blanco, according to CSN’s Patrick Mooney. “But I stepped back and learned how to do things. And here I am.”  

Control was a major concern for Concepcion, who issued nearly one walk per inning during his time in the minors in 2015. But Concepcion found something that clicked, and he threw 19 pitches with an impressive 13 of them going for strikes on Tuesday. For a pitcher who struggled with control issues, that’s quite the turnaround and something the Cubs certainly hope to see more of.

Watching Concepcion pitch in one of the oldest and most menacing rivalries in baseball was quite significant. Concepcion looked sharp, his delivery looked clean, and his stuff was downright exceptional. He located his pitches well and was able to get in on lefties. Concepcion threw three curveballs with good breaking action, but his fastball was the pitch that stole the show. Sitting between 91-93 mph with good movement, Concepcion induced nine swings on 12 strikes with the pitch.

The Cubs are currently struggling to find a competent left handed pitcher, and if Concepcion continues to pitch the way he did on Tuesday, he will be a strong contender to take over for a struggling Clayton Richard once he returns from the DL. Travis Wood has become quite the solid left-handed relief option since his move to the bullpen early last season, but he can’t be relied upon to be the only consistent left hander in a pen that is as well-furnished as the Cubs’ is in the dog days of summer.

Bullpens are the most volatile and ever-changing part of baseball throughout the course of the season, but in such a delicate area of your club, it’s hard to predict when is the right time to experiment and feel comfortable with the potential outcome of those experiments. The Cubs are currently taking their chances before trade talks start heating up, giving three recently recalled relievers in Concepcion, Spencer Patton, and C.J. Edwards a try—none of whom have been wildly disappointing in their times out against the Cardinals this past series. That’s a statement being made in and of itself.

If Concepcion can continue to harness the control he demonstrated on Tuesday evening, he can serve as valuable LOOGY asset or simply just another solid left-handed option in the Cubs’ bullpen. He’s shown that not even pitching in the midst of what would become a series sweep by the Cardinals can faze him, so perhaps when the pressure is on and every strike becomes more meaningful late in the season, Concepcion will be the man for the challenge. Even if he isn’t, let’s enjoy the moment, because his story is part of the experiment—which is ultimately part of this journey.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.

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