Cubs Bullpen Already Running on Fumes, Kyle Hendricks Looks Cooked

Craig Counsell was hired in part because of his accounting skills, but here we sit a couple days after the filing deadline and the Cubs bullpen has been overtaxed. Through two games in Arizona, the Cubs have used eight separate relievers — that’s the whole ‘pen — for 10 appearances to cover 9.2 of their 21 total innings. Taking it back to the final two games in Seattle, they’ve needed 18 relief appearances for 16.2 innings.

Four of those arms have been called upon three times and two more have been used twice, which I probably don’t need to tell you is a far cry from good. Adbert Alzolay is one of those who saw the most action, saving two games in Seattle before blowing his MLB-leading third of the year Tuesday night (or Wednesday morning) in Phoenix. Yency Almonte has also pitched thrice in four days and had an adventurous outing that included a pair of walks.

Luke Little uncorked two run-scoring wild pitches and generally had a very rough outing but wasn’t saddled with much of the damage due to a situation we’ll get into here shortly. Mark Leiter Jr. had another clean outing and may be in line for save opportunities as Counsell tries different combinations to figure out what works best.

Rather than run through all the different relievers, I think we can all agree that the Cubs need a little help. Some of that is to be expected since no one believed a new manager with a cobbled-together unit would avoid any growing pains. If you’ve ever slept with a blanket that’s a little too small, you know how your toes end up being exposed. Well, Jed Hoyer gave Counsell a patchwork quilt even Nick Madrigal couldn’t use comfortably.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that was part of the plan for a skipper who was renowned for his bullpen management in Milwaukee, but I don’t have the energy or ability to argue against you if you hold that belief. The simple fact of the matter is that, after talking about how the Cubs needed to buy a measure of “certainty” for the relief corps, Hoyer opted to add only an inconsistent Yency Almonte and an aging Héctor Neris to a group that is otherwise pretty young and/or unproven.

The horse is already out of the arm barn, so it’s not as though the front office can go out and find another high-leverage guy to fix everything tomorrow. That said, they will most likely need to do a little shuffling to get some fresh relievers up to the big club for the weekend, if not sooner. Speaking of which, they’re going to have another big pitching decision to make as Jameson Taillon prepares to return.

While rookie Ben Brown provides easy flexibility due to his options, the Cubs are going to have to think very seriously about how to proceed with Kyle Hendricks. Once one of the best and most underrated pitchers in the game, Hendricks has slogged through 17 innings in four starts and now has a 12.71 ERA with 11 strikeouts to seven walks. He has also allowed seven homers after serving up two last night.

The big flies themselves aren’t even my biggest concern for Hendricks, though it’s difficult to watch knowing he’s going to be tagged for at least one dong a game on an absolute dick-ball of a sinker. What’s far more worrisome as I watch him is that the number of uncompetitive pitches appears to have skyrocketed. Hendricks has never thrown hard and has thus had thin margin for error, but he used to be able to dot his sinker or either changeup variation wherever he wanted.

Now, however, he seems to lose his feel for the zone at times and will end up throwing pitches that batters have no choice but to spit on. Through four starts so far, Statcast has Hendricks in the first percentile for overall run value (-14) and fastball run value (-11), with his offspeed run value (-3) in just the fourth percentile. Compare that to last year, when he was in the 67th, 27th, and 98th percentiles in those respective categories.

A lot of folks were questioning why Hendricks went out for the 5th inning, which is what happens when a guy gives up a hit and walks two batters without retiring anyone. As questionable as it was in hindsight, and in the moment as well, there’s that whole overworked bullpen to consider. At the same time, Hendricks pitching the way he did only served to put additional pressure on a unit that desperately needs an easy inning or three.

While it’s possible there’s something mechanical at the root of his struggles, I’d be willing to bet this is a predicament that starts somewhere between his ears. Hendricks was noticeably solemn and almost appeared defeated when speaking to reporters even before this recent start, which is really saying something when you consider how emotionally reserved he is most of the time.

“I feel like I am making progress but it’s still not showing,” Hendricks explained. “It’s tough. I’m going to have to go back and watch and break it down again and clearly get back to work.”

However the Cubs choose to proceed, it’s become evident that Hendricks can’t remain in the rotation once it’s back to full strength. Sending Brown back to Triple-A Iowa or even shifting him to a relief role once Taillon is back would severely decrease the team’s competitiveness. Barring a legitimate physical issue that requires an IL stint — something I see as increasingly likely — I can’t see the team unceremoniously disposing of its most tenured and respected elder statesman.

But what’s the inflection point at which the thinking shifts from giving him one more chance to knowing they no longer have a chance when he’s pitching? Unless Hendricks can turn that perceived progress into actual production, the bullpen will continue to be forced to carry more of the load than necessary at least every fifth day.

Hope is a pretty shitty strategy, but that’s about all the Cubs have to go on for the time being. So I guess I’ll just cross my fingers and radiate good vibes until something changes.

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