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If the Cubs’ Pitch Lab really is working, what’s next?

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The Cubs seem to be producing relievers. Could they trade veterans for more prospect pitchers?

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2019, talk of the Cubs so-called Pitch Lab reached my radar. I was glad to hear the Cubs were trying something different, as what had been being done wasn’t gaining an advantage. The 2020 campaign in the pipeline was largely a botch, and that would have been a good time to see if the Pitch Lab was doing anything. But, the crucible of an actual season has waited until now. Suddenly, Trevor Megill, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, and Tommy Nance have gone “bang, bang, bang, bang” in the relative time frame it took the Jordan-era Bulls to stretch a five point lead to 19. If the Pitch Lab is a thing, how does that change 2021?

Before I start, two things I really won’t talk about: What specifically is going on in Pitch Lab, and the future, which would seem much more important than 2021. If the Cubs are going to get better at getting pitchers closer to their possible maxima, that’s huge, but that is a different article.

This has been bubbling about for a while. While Cubs relievers don’t have much “name legitimacy,” Dan Winkler, Andrew Chafin, Rex Brothers and others have done better than expected. Call-ups Steele and Thompson will get more than a few fans to wonder “Why them?” if they get sent down. The reality seems to be that the Cubs have a few usable relievers. As I started tossing this around in my mind last Tuesday, I wondered if Winkler is approaching that odd reliever version of “extend or trade?” He’ll be a free agent after 2021 and would be nice to keep. It’s too early to extend a reliever in May, but the idea had started to cascade down the avalanche.

The next morning, prospect pitcher Tyson Miller was added back to the Iowa roster. He’s an arm who should soon be getting starter innings there, and Dakota Mekkes was returned to Tennessee due to an injury there. Mekkes, a fan favorite with many Minor League Wrap fans, has pitched well in Iowa. However, adding Miller takes innings from Mekkes, and more innings were likely in Tennessee. (Mekkes’ Triple-A ERA in 2021 has been 1.69, so he isn’t stinking up the joint.)

Then, on Wednesday afternoon, Cory Abbott pitched 4⅓ perfectly useful innings for the I-Cubs, but hit 94 pitches, and was finished. Brad WiecK (since called up), who has Cubs creds, got the next five outs. Next came Adam Morgan.

Morgan had previously spent his entire MLB career with the Phillies. His first two seasons, he was a starter. In 2017, he switched to the bullpen, and was reasonably solid there in 2018 and 2019. He signed a minor league deal with the Cubs in 2021, and has been virtually automatic with Iowa early this campaign. Suddenly, it appears, the Cubs have two MLB arms in Iowa in lefties Morgan and Kyle Ryan. In addition to Wieck and Steele, who may get forced back at some point.

If Pitch Lab is working, the Cubs seem to have a glut of usable relief pitchers. The question is, how much more information is needed, and is there use in acting on the information?

The Cubs aren’t going to get major pieces for any of their relievers in any sort of swap, except for Craig Kimbrel. However, if the Pitch Lab is fixing pitchers, doesn’t it make sense to deal from strength? Some people don’t like my incessant trade talk, and some say I over-inflate or under-inflate trade values or the worth of incoming pieces. Here’s my starting point. I’d like the Cubs to take a look at Morgan later in the season. I’d like the Cubs to take a look at Mekkes and Ryan Meisinger. Maybe I’ve gone a bridge or three too far, but if another team is willing to trade a long-term piece of moderate interest for (an expiring) relief pitcher contract, I’m willing to seriously consider it.

With the recent success of recent Iowa call-ups, that doesn’t seem an unreasonable ask.

***

I was going to leave it there. However, with the Cardinals bullpen cart billowing runs in the eighth inning Friday night, more data is available. Their southpaw end of their bullpen seems excrementally bad. Tyler Webb is out of minor league options, and has only Genesis Cabrera to help him. Andrew Miller isn’t healthy, and doesn’t sound near a return.

The Cardinals have five pitchers on their 40-man roster who aren’t on their 26-man active roster (I need a gimmick term for that), and four have pitched this year, three in MLB. Below are the five with their ERA in Triple-A Memphis and St. Louis.

Cardinals 40-man roster pitchers as of 5/21

Pitcher R/L Memphis ERA St. Louis ERA
Pitcher R/L Memphis ERA St. Louis ERA
Junior Fernandez RHP 3.38 27.00
Bernardo Flores LHP 1.38 inf
Johan Oviedo RHP 9.00 0.57
Johan Quezada RHP n/a n/a
Angel Rondon RHP 7.98 n/a

Flores could be activated if Webb is designated. Oviedo started Friday and Fernandez saved the game for Memphis.

However, if the Cardinals are desperate enough to upgrade their bullpen, what would be a tolerable ask? Chafin and Brothers have been good. However, if the Cardinals make a phone call?

To get an idea of what the Cubs might get in return, here is a look at some players in the 2019 and 2020 Cardinals draft classes. Since the Cardinals would have to be a bit desperate to make it worthwhile, I bump the signing bonus number up. It’s entirely legitimate to say “No, never trade with the Cardinals,” but a look at possible talent is permitted.

2019 Cardinals draft

Selected 2019 Cardinals draft picks

Round Player Position Signing bonus 2021 level
Round Player Position Signing bonus 2021 level
3 Tony Locey RHP $604,800 Low-A
4 Andre Pallante RHP $455,600 Double-A
5 Connor Thomas LHP $340,000 Double-A
6 Pierre Pages Catcher $250,000 High-A
7 Jack Ralston RHP $204,800 High-A
12 Patrick Romeri Right fielder $200,000 Low-A
14 Tyler Statler RHP $300,000 n/a
16 Thomas Hart RHP $200,000 n/a
22 Zade Richardson Catcher $200,000 High-A

2020

Selected 2020 Cardinals draft picks

Round Player Position Signing bonus 2021 level
Round Player Position Signing bonus 2021 level
2 Alec Burleson Right field $700,000 High-A/Double-A
3 Levi Prater RHP $575,000 Low-A
4 Ian Bedell RHP $800,000 High-A

The top name on those lists is Locey, whose name you’ve probably seen before. He was dealt to the Rockies in the Nolan Arenado trade. Pallante and Thomas are both in the Springfield rotation, and both are doing well. Pages and Richardson have been a useful-enough catching platoon in Peoria. Ralston is starting in Peoria. Romeri has been hurt part of the season in Palm Beach. Statler was born in Rockford, grew up a Cubs fan, and attended Hononegah High School in the 815, but he’s still trying to get to full-season ball. Neither has Hart debuted. Burleson seems a reasonable get. Prater has done okay in Palm Beach. Bedell has struggled in Peoria.

If the Cardinals want one of the lefty relievers for Pallante, Thomas, or Burleson, or two of Prater, Pages, Richardson, Bedell, and Ralston, perhaps, if the Cubs get to choose. If something in that range is unacceptable, commence clubbing their bullpen, again.

And trading a reliever is delayed until Monday.

And maybe further.

Unless the other team is foolish or desperate.