Cubs can't let Morel's home run mask lingering isssues
North Siders went home happy Wednesday night, but Christopher Morel's walk-off 3-run homer against the White Sox obviously didn't solve all the Cubs concerns.
Here's a look at some lingering questions for an important off-day. The Cubs are scheduled to play on 26 of the next 27 days, which includes one makeup doubleheader at Cincinnati.
Is there enough pitching?
Hard to say. It's too soon to declare Marcus Stroman out for the season with a right rib cartilage fracture, but probably a safe guess he'll be out at least a month.
A big key will be Drew Smyly. He was the winning pitcher Wednesday after pitching a scoreless ninth inning. But Smyly has made just two relief appearances since his last start on Aug. 7. In his eight most recent starts, the veteran left-hander has posted a 9.00 ERA.
So maybe it's a leap of faith to think Smyly can turn it around. Assuming he starts Monday in Detroit, that will give him essentially two weeks to rest, which could do the trick.
The Cubs are dreaming of last year's late-summer Smyly, when he posted an August ERA of 0.90 in five starts. That happened after he was on the injured list with an oblique injury from roughly Memorial Day to the All-Star break. Smyly has already surpassed last year's innings total, so maybe he did need some rest.
The backup plan would be Hayden Wesneski. He's had some issues with left-handed hitters (.311 average), but he's also had to deal with an inconsistent role.
Wesneski has a better ERA as a reliever (2.61) than starter (5.51). He's also allowed 3 earned runs or less in 7 of his 10 starts -- not including the time he opened for Smyly.
Employ the Iowa shuttle?
If Smyly or Wesneski struggle, or there's another injury to a starter, the next move is anyone's guess. The most logical replacement is right-handed prospect Ben Brown, who has yet to make his major league debut. But Brown has been out since July 30 with an oblique strain.
"He's feeling good," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said of Brown. "He's in Arizona so he's hopefully going to start moving toward pitching. He's a guy who could certainly help us if he's healthy."
Brown is on the 40-man roster. The Cubs' other two top pitching prospects, Jordan Wicks and Cade Horton, are not. Typically, teams wait until they're in danger of exposing a player to the Rule 5 draft before putting them on the 40-man roster. That's because once they're on the 40-man, they can't come off it without going through waivers. We'll have to see if the Cubs are ready to make such a move with Wicks or Horton.
In the old days, when MLB rosters could expand to 40, September was a good time for major league debuts, maybe catching an opponent off-guard with an unfamiliar pitcher. But these days, teams are allowed to add just two players on Sept. 1.
"Right now, I feel pretty comfortable in-house with where we are," Hoyer said. "We'll move forward with the guys we have. Obviously, when you're in a pennant race, you act differently than you would if you're not. If it comes to it, we'll make those decisions, but right now we don't have to make those decisions."
It feels like Brown is by far the most likely candidate to get a call in September, if he's healthy. If the Cubs are in a bind for starting pitchers, they might dig deeper into the minors.
Help for hitters?
The White Sox series ended well for the Cubs. Before the comeback, though, they were blown away by Mike Clevinger's fastball and flummoxed by Touki Toussaint's splitter. Last week, they managed just 8 runs in three games against the post-deadline Mets, and they've needed late-inning heroics in three of the last four wins.
Since the Mets series began, Morel, Mike Tauchman, Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ and Yan Gomes are all hitting below .200. The Cubs are one of only five MLB teams to score at least 600 runs, so the offense in general has been fine. But with starting pitching a potential problem, they don't need prolonged slumps at the plate.
"Different guys are going to have to carry us at different times," Hoyer said. "I don't think we can count on Cody (Bellinger) hitting .400 every month the rest of the way. We're going to need other guys to step up and have a hot 10 days or two weeks."
Nick Madrigal's home run Wednesday served as a reminder he hit .340 in June, before going on the IL with a hamstring injury. Manager David Ross wants to use his best lineup down the stretch, but there's still room to search for hotter bats.