As last season fades into a distant memory while a new one takes its place in the minds of fans, you can be certain that the reasons for failure are still fresh in the minds of the Cubs’ front office. The Cubs’ inability to hit the Mets’ vaunted pitching staff in the NLCS led Theo Epstein’s desire to become more left-handed and to make more contact. A bullpen he did not fully trust led to the controversial acquisition of Aroldis Chapman, as well as the additions of Mike Montgomery and Joe Smith. However, the overwhelming success of the 2016 iteration of the Cubs’ starting staff may be disguising a lesser-discussed piece of this puzzle, specifically that the starting pitching rotation—most notably Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks—wore down coming into the late portion of last season.
This appeared to be an area the Cubs’ front office addressed when the season started, as they had long relievers Trevor Cahill, Adam Warren, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood all available in the bullpen. This move was made specifically in an effort to keep pitch counts down for the starting staff. As usually seems to happen in four months of baseball, things have changed. Warren was dealt back to the Yankees, Richard was designated for assignment and is no longer with the team, while Wood has evolved into a more of a late-inning reliever. That leaves just Cahill from the original group, who was kind enough to give BP Wrigleyville his thoughts on the matter in an exclusive interview this week, given while a member of the Iowa Cubs:
Cahill was a prominent member of the Cubs’ 2015 bullpen down the stretch, striking out 11.6 per nine innings, en route to a 2.12 ERA while with the Cubs. This came on the heels of two brutal years as a starter with Arizona and Atlanta, so the success out of the ‘pen injected life into a career that was threatening to slide into the abyss. Concerning the role itself, he said he is comfortable and doesn’t have much preference between starting and relieving:
“If I start and I struggle, it’s easier to go from starting to the bullpen than it is from bullpen to starting, [which] is tough to do. Especially in the middle of the year… so I’ll always feel comfortable in the bullpen, I have that in my back pocket. If anything it’s just one less thing to worry about, because I can always try the pen in the case of starting not working out…I had fun in the bullpen, I guess starting is nice knowing you’re pitching [with a regular] routine, so whatever they need.”
The versatility Cahill alludes to here could be key for the Cubs down the stretch, as they could rely on him not only as a sixth starter in September, but the recent injuries to Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop mean he could still find himself with a key bullpen role as well. As for today, it appears the plan is for Cahill to join the team on August 16th as their 26th man, while getting the opportunity to start the second game of a doubleheader played that day. Beyond that, he acknowledged he had been asked to stretch out in an effort to give the regular rotation members some rest down the stretch:
“They want me to get as many innings as possible and stretch out in case something happens or that need arises, but everything is kind of up in the air right now… but getting some guys some rest down the stretch [is the goal].”
This is somewhat of a departure from last season, when the Cubs were still battling for playoff positioning late into the season. This year, it appears that the Central Division lead will be substantial enough to allow them to give starters regular rest, and also to position their rotation in exactly the manner they prefer for the playoffs. In today’s era of two wildcard winners, this is no small luxury, as the Cubs’ first round opponent will have likely already expended their ace in an effort to advance to the NLDS.
As for Cahill, don’t let the unassuming nature of the Oceanside, California native fool you. He scored a 1950 on his SAT, and he shares something in common with Dartmouth graduate Kyle Hendricks, as he also committed to going to the prestigious university, before eventually signing with the Oakland A’s out of the 2006 draft. Hendricks is a master at planning his attack on the mound, and it seems as if Cahill attacks his various roles with their own specialized plan, as well:
“Out of the bullpen I throw more changeups. I come in and try to get swings and misses. As a starter, you’re trying to get early contact, so it definitely changes a little bit. You know, I’m not going to throw a first pitch curveball as a starter. Coming from the pen, I might come straight into [a situation with] a guy on second or something like that.”
It won’t be an easy transition back to the rotation for Cahill (assuming he is asked), as his three starts in Iowa have yielded nine runs and three home runs, in just 9 2/3 innings pitched. He understands this, but as mentioned earlier, stretching out to start won’t preclude him from possibly finding a spot in the bullpen. He also spoke to the importance of finding a feel for his various pitches night-to-night:
“It changes start to start, usually it’s the changeup, then last night I only threw like 3-4, as my feel for it [wasn’t there], [so instead] I used my curveball more often. So for me, it just changes with every outing, or start-to-start, whatever it is.”
It remains to be seen what Cahill can offer the team down the stretch, but a handful of five inning starts in September would do wonders for the overall health of the starting staff. Beyond that, look for him to press for a role in the October bullpen, as he seeks to earn his chance for a ring.
Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports.