At a crucial moment in the season where the Chicago Cubs need as many wins as possible to stave off their scorching hot playoff rivals, they'll be without one of their biggest weapons in the bullpen. It was reported yesterday that Adbert Alzolay was going on the injured list and almost immediately, the relief corps was tested in Colorado. The Cubs blew a 3-1 lead to the Rockies after Jose Cuas entered the game and once again faced danger when Michael Fulmer couldn't find the strike zone in the ninth.
One game isn't enough reason to be worried, but it's an illustration of how big of a test awaits. This group, specifically the core four of Alzolay, Fulmer, Julian Merryweather, and Mark Leiter Jr., has been worked to the bone. Now, without their closer, even more pressure will be placed on other arms to cover crucial innings in some must-win games.
Some of that needs to come from guys like Daniel Palencia, Luke Little, Hayden Wesneski, and Drew Smyly. For one, concerns are starting to crop up about the Cubs' usually reliable core relievers. Fulmer just returned from injury, Merryweather has been working especially hard even compared to other relievers, and Leiter seems to have lost the feel for his splitter of late, having given up three runs in his first 3 1/3 innings in September.
Palencia has shown flashes of brilliance with his triple-digit fastball and devastating breaking pitches, but his 5.4 walks per nine is high and the control has been costly at times. Still, he boasts a 3.60 ERA and, more than ever, he'll be one of the first in line to fill in when David Ross's circle of trust isn't available. Much of the same can be said about Wesneski who has paired some gems with a few clunkers where the control wasn't there at all. As a reliever, though, he's generally been much better - a 3.69 ERA compared to a 5.51 mark as a starter as well as an improved 9.1 strikeouts per nine. Smyly, too, is shaping up as a reliable reliever with a 3.38 ERA in his new role.
Then there's Little who has bafflingly gotten next to no playing time since his debut inning. Ross has time and time again emphasized he's not playing guys for development, but Little deserves to get into more games to spell the core across this stretch. The Cubs would be riding a hot streak from the big lefty who posted a dominant 2.12 ERA between Tenessee and Iowa.
Cuas and a returned Brad Boxberger are also available if needed, but both have major question marks. For Cuas, the issue is his 6.8 walks per nine since becoming a Cub, a problem on full display against Colorado even if he can just as easily be dominant. Boxberger, meanwhile, failed to make a good impression before going on the IL, posting a dreadful 5.53 ERA.
Reinforcements Could Be on the Way for the Cubs
The Cubs aren't entirely limited to the players on their current roster. A few arms are rehabbing in the minors like lefty Brandon Hughes and fireballer Nick Burdi who could contribute down the stretch. Ben Brown is also on the 40-man and still boasts a tantalizing pitch mix worth considering. The strangest of their potential options is Marcus Stroman, who is gearing up to rejoin the team early in the bullpen after suffering a rib cartilage fracture. Although he wasn't pitching before going on the IL, there's hope he can ease back in and find a groove in relief.
Whatever path the Cubs take in regards to covering late innings over the next couple of weeks, it's clear help has to come from guys who haven't been routinely thrown into the fire. After Colorado, they face the Diamondbacks in another crucial series that could ultimately decide their playoff fate.