Rather than one of the team's All-Star starters, Kyle Hendricks will take the ball first against the Red Sox this weekend. Marcus Stroman will follow him on Saturday, and Justin Steele will get a full cycle of rest between his one-inning All-Star appearance and his first start of the second half--this after he last pitched Wednesday, heading into the break.
To be sure, the Cubs are partially managing Steele's workload with this setup, and they're probably pleased to give Stroman an extra day's rest (making it nine days between starts for him) as he tries to permanently put the hot spot on his finger out of his mind and to shake off the slightly wavering command he showed during his final few starts of the first half. Primarily, though, this arrangement is about making sure that both Stroman and Steele make their two starts on this homestand against the two toughest opponents the team faces between now and the deadline: the Red Sox and the Cardinals. By lining things up this way, the lowly and unimposing Nationals get some combination of Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly, then Hendricks in the series finale Wednesday.
At the end of the stretch of 10 at Wrigley, the team also gets a true off day, having played a Sunday day game and not needing to travel before starting their two-game set on the South Side Tuesday night. That's a nice chance to catch their breath before the White Sox series, and it lengthens the rotation out by a day already, but it'll be interesting to see (depending on how well they do during the homestand, of course) whether they elect to stretch it even further. The Sox are even worse than the Cardinals, right down there with the Nationals among the game's truly ghastly teams. The schedule the team has created would have Hendricks and Stroman pitching in those crosstown games, but after that, they have to go to St. Louis for four games against the Cardinals, then come back to Wrigley to face the Reds to finish July and begin August.
In his only official start since going back to Iowa to stretch out, Hayden Wesneski went three scoreless innings, allowing two hits and one walk while striking out six. He missed bats with both his four-seamer and his sweeping slider. If he has two more good starts over the coming fortnight at Triple A, it's easy to envision the Cubs bringing him back up to face the right-leaning White Sox lineup in one of those two contests. That would not only continue the trend of giving extra rest to the veteran rotation members whenever able, but set up Stroman and Steele to start the first two of those games under the Arch.
Whether Wesneski would then fold into a six-man rotation, or whether the team might then consider demoting Drew Smyly to the bullpen, is a question for a much later date. It will be interesting to see how Smyly and Taillon look coming out of the break, not only because the Cubs need to get at least two victories in their four starts on this homestand, but because Smyly has been so untenably awful over the last month and a half. In eight starts dating to May 28, he's averaging about 4 2/3 innings per outing; has a 6.75 ERA; has walked 22 against only 28 strikeouts; and is allowing a .996 OPS to opposing batters. Taillon, while still inconsistent, has certainly trended upward from rock bottom. Smyly is taking his place there. The southpaw, much less protected by his two-year, $19-million deal than Taillon has been by his four-year, $68-million one, could be out of the rotation for good if he doesn't come up big soon--even if the Cubs flop here and end up trading one of their other veterans at the deadline.
The set of the rotation coming out of the break is exactly what Cubs fans should want to see. It signals purpose and determination, even in the face of long odds. That doesn't mean it will work, but the decisions are right. The bullpen should be more rested, too, and perhaps David Ross can be more proactive with Smyly or Taillon if they struggle, calling upon Javier Assad for long relief or converting to a bullpen game on the fly, before letting the game get away from the team. One way or another, the Cubs need wins. The coaching staff and the front office have set them up for success, and the schedule ahead is soft. This team has to prove itself.
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