The Cubs, like many teams, could use another good arm in the bullpen. With Opening Day less than two weeks away, closer Craig Kimbrel has shown signs of the same mechanical issues he had to work through at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. Last season the Cubs managed to plug that hole first with Rowan Wick and later with Jeremy Jeffress, but Wick is still sidelined by the oblique injury that sent him to the IL on September 16 (although there is good news on that front for the first time in months) and Jeffress is a player without a team a little more than a week after the Nationals mysteriously parted ways with the reliever for “personnel reasons.”
That leaves the Cubs with a less than certain closer and a depth chart in the bullpen that looks like this according to FanGraphs projections:
No offense to Brandon Workman or Andrew Chafin, but having them in key setup roles and primed to take over should Kimbrel falter isn’t exactly my idea of an optimal situation. Which leads me to the subject of this post and someone I’ve long hoped would figure out that last tick of command to be the Cubs late-inning setup solution: Dillon Maples. You might remember him from appearances like this one against Adam Jones in 2019:
Adam Jones on a Dillon Maples Middle/Middle 90mph Slider. pic.twitter.com/HTs11S2tKV— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 27, 2019
During Thursday’s game against the Cleveland Indians Maples had the most Maples inning ever. The pitcher who has incredible stuff that can dazzle fans and mystify the most veteran opposing hitters had thrown eight pitches for two strikeouts and an 0-2 count on the third man he faced when instead of throwing the rare immaculate inning he plunked Bradley Zimmer sending him to first base instead of to the dugout. Known Cubs killer Ben Gamel then promptly hit a double and faster than you could say “wipeout slider,” Maples had given up the go-ahead run.
It honestly looked like the entire inning was about to unravel, when Maples put an exclamation point on this performance by striking out Bobby Bradley on a ball that hit him on the thigh:
Bobby Bradley strikes out on a ball that hits him on the thigh. pic.twitter.com/Tn6KwayZqy— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) March 18, 2021
Dillon Maples is what Winston Churchill called a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma. The stuff is electric, incredible, and at times completely unhittable. The problem is that no one, including Maples, seems to know how to command the power of his pitches.
That problem is complicated by the fact that after nine years of the Cubs hoping and praying that Maples would find the ability to command those pitches in the minor leagues Maples is out of options. It’s clear from this piece written by Marquee Sports Network’s Tony Andracki that the coaching staff loves Maples. Just look at this quote from manager David Ross:
“Dillon’s done a really good job,” Ross said. “He’s throwing a lot more strikes. He’s a guy that [Saturday] I wanted to get him in against the ‘A’ lineup and see how that played out for him.
“I think some of the issues that he’s had in the past are kind of long gone and behind him. He’s throwing a lot of strikes. The slider’s got great depth.”
Or this glowing praise from pitching coach Tommy Hottovy:
“Dillon was arguably our best pitcher in summer camp last year and really came in and did some good things and then things got out of whack for him and it’s difficult to make the adjustments,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “But he really did a lot of work at the alt site last year. Worked on a ton of stuff over the winter and then has come in and kinda re-invented himself.
“You see different mechanics, you see him doing quick pitches and wind-ups. He has a freedom about him now. It’s one thing to have the stuff, but when you start to see that freedom and that willingness to kinda do all these different things, that shows me that a guy is mentally in a really good place to take on a lot of things.”
The Spring Training stats across 5⅓ meaningless innings are not impressive, but the fact that Maples hasn’t issued a walk this month after sporting a career BB/9 of 9.64 over 23⅓ big league innings absolutely has my attention. The Cubs no longer have the choice of sending Maples to Iowa and hoping he figures it out, so my hunch is that he’ll be on the Opening Day roster. Here’s hoping the guy who reduced Edwin Encarnación to this back in 2019 shows up in the regular season and is here to stay — if he does, the Cubs have an elite setup man waiting in the wings.