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The Cubs should send Keegan Thompson back to Iowa to extend him to 70 pitches

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He’s not doing much in the Cubs bullpen, and likely needs the work.

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

I’m writing this on a Friday morning. Thursday, the Cubs organization had its second four-way no-hitter on successive nights. DJ Herz, Jeremiah Estrada, Bailey Reid, and Danis Correa combined for a four-way no-hitter on Wednesday for Low-A Myrtle Beach. More than a couple fans have objected to a multi-pitcher no-hitter even counting. Part of that is due to unfamiliarity of newer ideas. I’m completely in favor of riding the unfamiliar wave as far as it goes. Keegan Thompson should be returned to Iowa, and extended to 70 pitches. As it is, he’s not getting any work in Chicago — he’s pitched once, and only for 16 pitches, in the last 10 days.

Before I get back to Thompson, here’s a look at a Friday morning MLB Trade Rumors article. I’m not looking at David Hale as an acquisition piece. I’m examining Hale as a traditional DFA wire piece. He’s 33, with an ERA over 6 this season. He’s had enough good years in the league to probably get a look if totally available, but his numbers don’t scream “moderate leverage” at the MLB level. That’s what a DFAd reliever looks like. If your plan for the next move includes DFAing someone markedly better than those numbers represent, you’re misunderstanding player distribution.

Back to Keegan Thompson.

The Cubs have nine games remaining on the current road trip, including a day off before the Cincinnati series, followed by a seven-game homestand. After that comes the All-Star Break, leading to a three-game stop in Arizona. My recommendation is to get Thompson off to Des Moines to get extended into a 70-pitch pitcher by the end of the Snakes series.

Last year, Thompson did not pitch in any actual games, instead joining the alternate training site in South Bend in July 2020. It’s reasonable to assume he could be used as a modified version of an MLB starter, but upgrading his durability and tertiary pitches might help. While it’s a popular opinion among some to use Thompson in the rotation now, his pitch maximum was 61 in his lone start (a Cubs win against the Dodgers), where Thompson worked into the fourth inning), but that was in early May.

To extend a pitcher in Triple-A isn’t a maniacal scheme, wage suppression, or service-time manipulation. Instead of having a young pitcher sit endlessly at the back of a bullpen, teams have sent pitchers to the minor-leagues for many decades to work on their games. To throw all their pitches. To get better outside of the public eye. Even if a somewhat struggling veteran takes the last place in the bullpen, the younger arm gets to succeed, and fail, in relative obscurity. As it should be.

My hunch is that Thompson could probably go 50 or 55 pitches in his first outing with the I-Cubs, and bump it up eight or ten pitches each time. Hopefully, he would work on all of his pitches, focusing as much on developing the secondary offerings as the fastball. Let’s put him at 52, 60, 68, 76, 80. In five starts or so, he cold be built up to enough stamina to compete in a MLB game as a four- or five-inning starter.

My probable timeline preference would be to return Thompson to Iowa shortly after being used in a two- or three-inning relief stint. Since Kyle Ryan and Cory Abbott have recently been returned to Iowa, Kohl Stewart might make the most sense as a call-up for the short-term, though he left his last start with a possible injury. However, with Dillon Maples and Justin Steele closing in on being ready a roster move would loom, anyway.

With the Hale comparison above, keeping Maples (at least, for now) seems better than losing him for surrender value (the $50,000 waiver fee, or something similar). Getting Thompson to Iowa to start on Tuesday and Sunday would get two of the extension starts done before the road trip concludes. Another should be accomplished during the homestand, with one more in the All-Star Break, and one with the trip in Arizona. By then, the Cubs should have some sort of feel for how prepared Thompson would be to fill a rotation spot at the back end of said rotation. Does he look good as opposed to a July trade addition?

And if everything goes sideways? And Thompson is needed in Wrigley before he’s built up to 70 Triple-A pitches? He gets recalled if a starting pitcher is injured, or whatever the calamity. Too often, baseball fans fall in love with “what’s been done before”. A reasonable mindset is “Given our current talent structure and restrictions, how can the team get more toothpaste out of the tube?”

Thompson’s periodic role has suited him and the Cubs well. With Jake Arrieta wobbling a bit, and Trevor Williams not back yet, the two best starting pitching options in Iowa are Stewart and Abbott. Sending Thompson to the I-Cubs for three or so weeks changes the calculus of the situation. Might it, for a few weeks, weaken the bullpen a bit? Possibly, yes. However, if Maples and Steele return soon, the Cubs ought to aggressively gamble with their pitching depth.

Since it doesn’t appear teams are willing to trade future quality for relievers like Rex Brothers or Dan Winkler (or trades might have already happened), contemplating Thompson as a piggyback-starter type seems a realistic gamble. Triple-A teams exist so pitchers like Thompson can get to 70 or 80 pitches regularly. Herz’ start in his four-way no hitter? 70 pitches.