Rick Renteria has to temper inclination to rely too much on relievers
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter July 21, 2014 9:38PM
Chicago Cubs closing pitcher Pedro Strop (46) celebrates with manager Rick Renteria after the Cubs defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-5 in a baseball game in Chicago, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty) ORG XMIT: CXC113
Updated: July 21, 2014 9:40PM
One of the Cubs’ few success stories also might represent one of the bigger challenges manager Rick Renteria and his staff face these last 10 weeks.
Three seasons into Theo Epstein’s rebuilding plan, the Cubs have assembled a strong group of power pitchers in the bullpen, including impressive rookie Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon — all acquired in the last 20 months through trades and the Rule 5 draft.
But a seasonlong priority of protecting the young arms got more difficult with the trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics a week before the All-Star break.
And it might come down to Renteria balancing his tendency to liberally use his pen against giving his remaining starters more of a leash in the sixth and seventh innings.
For instance, Renteria lifted Edwin Jackson at the 88-pitch mark with one out in the sixth Friday in part because he wanted him to “feel good” about his outing. Three pitching changes in a five-batter span later, and a 4-3 lead had turned into a 5-4 deficit that held up for the final score. And the string of relievers used that inning doesn’t even count Justin Grimm, who warmed up for the sixth but wasn’t used.
“Like any club, you want your guys to go as deep as possible,” Renteria said. “But every game is different; every circumstance is different; every situation is different. You’re dealing with the physical and emotional aspects of the athlete. . . .
“I can’t tell you I’m going to write it in stone. I’m not going to do that.”
Despite complaints by some starters that they haven’t been allowed to pitch deep into games, the rotation ranks almost exactly average in the majors in innings per start (5.9 compared to the 6.0 average) and pitches per start (97, one more than the average).
But the team’s decision in recent months to carry an eighth reliever and Renteria’s tendency to go to left-right matchups as early as the sixth inning have resulted in the Cubs’ pen ranking third in the majors in appearances at 312.
In two of their first three games out of the All-Star break, the Cubs didn’t get six innings out of their starters. But a ninth reliever on the roster for the series helped compensate.
That changed with lefty Zac Rosscup’s demotion to Class AAA Iowa to help make room for fourth and fifth starters for the upcoming stretch of 13 games in 13 days and 33 in 34.
That means rookies Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada starting against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday and Wednesday, each making his second big-league start. Dan Straily, the promising young right-hander acquired in the Oakland deal, waits in the wings at Iowa for the chance to fill one of those slots in the next couple of weeks.
They’re taking the place of the Cubs’ top two innings-eaters, who ranked first (Hammel) and third (Samardzija) on the staff in pitches per start.
The other pitchers are well aware.
“That’s a big gap to fill in the rotation,” said 2013 All-Star Travis Wood, who admits to feeling more responsibility now. “I really want to go out there and give seven or eight innings as strong as I can every time to help fill that void. So far it’s not happening, but I promise you we’ll get there.”