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Dillon Maples might be the midseason relief weapon the Cubs are looking for

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Maybe the Cubs won’t need to look for bullpen help at the trading deadline.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today, you read here about the Cubs’ re-signing of Brian Duensing, which likely completes the eight-man bullpen you’ll see on Opening Day in Miami.

Josh’s third entry in his Top 20 Cubs prospect series ranked Dillon Maples as the team’s No. 13 prospect.

I’m here to tell you that I think Maples should rank higher than that, and that he might be able to help the team as soon as midsummer, so I wanted to expand on Josh’s coverage.

If Dillon Maples had had his way in 2016, you wouldn’t be reading this story.

He was having a rough year, having been demoted all the way to South Bend, and was ready to quit baseball after a rough outing. Then he called his dad, and the advice he got helped him rededicate himself to the game. He developed a cutter, and last year was quickly promoted to Iowa and then made his major-league debut with the Cubs in September.

His overall numbers in six outings with the Cubs don’t look good: 5⅓ innings, six hits, six walks, six earned runs, 10.13 ERA, 2.250 WHIP.

However, five of those six runs were allowed in a horrific appearance September 4 in Pittsburgh, when the entire pitching staff turned in a clunker in a 12-0 defeat. The other five games were good-to-excellent and overall, Maples struck out 11 of the 27 batters he faced — that’s 41 percent, or 18.6 batters per nine innings. There’s good movement on this pitch [VIDEO], which registered his first big-league strikeout on September 3.

The problem is the walks — six walks in 5⅓ innings is 10.1 per nine innings, worse even than Justin Wilson (who had 9.8 BB/9 as a Cub), though in a very small sample size. At Triple-A Iowa in 2017, Maples posted a 2.27 ERA and struck out 14.2 per nine innings, but his walk rate was 5.3, also too high. Overall his minor-league walk rate is 5.8 per nine innings, and if he’s going to be successful at the big-league level that will have to come down.

Maples’ Fangraphs page says that in those major-league innings, he threw almost exclusively fastballs (43.1 percent) and sliders (52.3 percent), with the rest (4.6 percent) curveballs. He averaged 97 miles per hour on his fastball; he just needs to learn to control and command it better.

That, obviously, is where new pitching coach Jim Hickey and new pitcher whisperer Jim Benedict come in.

The Cubs gave Maples $2.5 million in 2011 as a 14th-round pick at a time when it appeared he’d be headed for the University of North Carolina to play football. According to that link that’s the largest bonus for anyone drafted after the third round (and with the current draft rules, it probably will remain so). Maples struggled through his first five years in the system, often with awful walk rates, before turning in the fine 2017 season that got him a big-league callup.

Carrie Muskat posted this profile of Maples in which she details the way in which he was told about his callup, which interrupted his reading of a biography of George Washington. Maples appears to be an intellectual sort:

“I love reading about battles and wars and people who lead people into battle,” he said. “George Washington did everything. He formed this great nation, he was a leader of a bunch of rag tags. It’s just awesome. His leadership and stoicism and everything he took on and was able to propel this nation. I enjoyed it.”

The book was about 700 pages and a little intimidating, Maples said. He expected to need a year to read it. Getting to the big leagues can be intimidating, too.

”I’m trying to read about all of the people who were the glue to this country,” he said. “They’re all pretty interesting. I’ve got [Alexander] Hamilton lined up.”

This tells a lot about Maples, I think, that he’s an intelligent guy who looks outside baseball for inspiration. He won’t start the year in Chicago, most likely, but you can be reasonably certain you’ll see a lot of him in spring training. If he can get that walk rate down, maybe he’s the guy the Cubs call on in July instead of making a trade for a big-league reliever. Maples has the talent to perhaps be a future closer. I’ll be rooting for him.