Cubs May Be Getting Too Cute Balancing Workloads

“And now you know…the rest of the story,” the legendary Paul Harvey intoned countless times during his long-running radio program. While I can’t say I’d care to hear that trademark timbre explaining many of his personal views, I could probably listen to Harvey opine on the state of the Cubs for quite some time. I’d be particularly interested to get his thoughts on Shōta Imanaga, Dansby Swanson, and Nico Hoerner, though being a fly on the wall in conversations between Craig Counsell and members of the front office would be even better.

After initially being scheduled to start the series opener against the Cardinals, Imanaga was pushed back a full turn in the rotation when the game was banged due to rain. Many questioned the move at the time, even though the explanation tracked with the club’s desire to keep the starter’s workload more in line with his time in Japan.

“This is a proactive move,” Counsell told reporters prior to last Saturday’s game in St. Louis. “And it’s really about the innings during the course of the season. We’re tracking towards 170ish innings, and just trying to know that that’s the number. And know that there are very few spots in the schedule where you have a chance to maybe use the schedule to your advantage. This was one of them.”

As much as that makes sense on paper, it felt like an overcorrection. That sense was magnified as Imanaga laid an egg in Milwaukee Wednesday night, allowing more earned runs (seven) through the first three innings than he had in nine previous starts combined (five). To add insult to injury, he had to pitch into the 5th inning because the Cubs don’t have another scheduled day off until Monday.

Imanaga brushed aside the idea of being rusty from the extended break, but what else is he going to say?

“It was good for recovery,” Imanaga explained via translator Edwin Stanberry. “I got my training in and I felt good. I think there wasn’t really an issue with that. I felt really recovered.”

This strikes me as a situation in which Counsell and/or upper management got a little too cute in trying to massage Imanaga’s innings. After all, you can’t save him for important games late in the regular season or playoffs if you aren’t competing in them. Remember when the Nationals had a hard cap on Stephen Strasburg‘s innings and had to shut him down before the end of the 2012 season? They left him off the postseason roster as well.

Strasburg ended up 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and even won the Silver Slugger with a .277 batting average and a homer. Maybe the Cubs could let Imanaga DH.

There’s a fine line between prevention and overprotection, one the Cubs may at least be toeing as they look kind of like helicopter parents in the wake of that last loss. If the goal is to limit Imanaga’s innings and keep him on more of an NPB cadence, why not just bump him back a day every once in a while? I’d say they could also pull him from his starts early, but that’s not in keeping with what he’s used to.

During his time as an ace for the Yokohama Bay Stars, he would routinely exceed 120 pitches every sixth day. That won’t fly in MLB because of the third-time-through-the-order penalty, but the point is that he doesn’t need to be coddled with innings limits or pitch counts in individual games. Of course, the Cubs can’t very well stretch to a six-man rotation at this point either.

So yeah, just bump him back a day when they get a break due to the schedule or inclement weather, and maybe go with Hayden Wesneski as a bulk man every once in a while. Imanaga was never going to maintain an ERA that started with 0, but saving him for the end of the season when the games immediately in front of them are far more important right now might not be in the Cubs’ best interest.

The flip side of this coin is that the everyday middle infielders look like they could very much use an occasional break. Hoerner didn’t require an IL stint for his balky hamstring, through maybe a little time on the shelf would have done him good. He’s started all eight games since returning to the lineup against the Braves on May 21, over which time he’s slashing .164/.235/.194 with a 29 wRC+ in 34 plate appearances. Even with the small sample, the eye test says something isn’t quite right.

Swanson has likewise started all eight games since being activated from the IL after suffering a mild knee sprain, and he’s been only slightly better than his double-play partner. Over 31 plate appearances, he’s slashing .179/.258/.214 with a 42 wRC+ and one double. That line would look a lot different had he gotten about five more feet on that ball Wednesday night for a grand slam, but if a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass when it hopped.

If only the Cubs had a young middle infielder who could spell either of those starters for a game here and there. No, I’m not talking about Nick Madrigal. Since promoting Luis Vázquez on May 21 — yes, the same day Swanson was activated and Hoerner returned from the bench — the rookie has gotten one plate appearance and has played one inning at shortstop. While I believe more strongly with each game he doesn’t play that the Cubs promoted him to give him a reset, they’ve effectively hamstrung themselves (pun more or less intended) in the process.

Vázquez was struggling mightily at Triple-A Iowa over the first three weeks of May, batting .143 with a .505 OPS, a far cry from his .361 average and .989 OPS the previous month. The offensive potential is definitely there, but my theory is that the Cubs wanted to reward him with a low-pressure taste of the bigs to help him recalibrate mentally before optioning him back down. That experiment is now nine days old and it’s past time to either end or alter it.

Swanson has been batting at the bottom of the order as it is, so it’s not like having the rookie spell him for a game would be any more of an affront than having to scroll past seven other names to find his spot. Hoerner’s glove hasn’t looked as sharp and he doesn’t seem to be seeing the ball very well at the plate, so a day off here and there wouldn’t hurt. Even if either player was actually hitting well right now, one game with a backup isn’t going to make or break the season.

And let’s not forget that Vázquez has flashed the potential to be a plus hitter with the ability to run into one even when he’s slumping.

I just don’t understand what the Cubs are doing if they’re going to roster both the youngster and Madrigal if their only jobs will be to pinch run and lay down bunts. Again, they’re getting way too cute with the roster because of what appears from the outside to be a lack of focus on either development or competitiveness. It’s like they can’t decide which to prioritize, so they’re doing neither rather than both.

As noted previously, however, none of the fringe work matters if the key players on the roster aren’t pulling their weight. Perhaps a few games against the Reds and White Sox will be the cure to the Cubs’ ills, though hoping to get right against bad teams doesn’t say a whole lot for the outlook of what should be a feistier group.

Update: The Cubs have recalled Pete Crow-Armstrong and optioned Vázquez back to Triple-A Iowa.

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