Cubs rotation lacking stability without Wade Miley

CHICAGO – One year ago, Wade Miley was mobbed by his former Reds teammates on the infield in Cleveland, following the final out of a no-hitter authored by the veteran lefty. Saturday’s anniversary is a reminder of who the Cubs acquired.

“We picked him up in hopes of getting who he’s been,” Cubs manager David Ross said on Saturday morning.

Claiming Miley off waivers in November was a shrewd early move by the Cubs, whose top offseason priority was to remake the rotation. To date, Miley has yet to throw a pitch for Chicago due to injury, and his absence has been felt by a starting staff yet to find its collective rhythm.

Saturday’s doubleheader against the Dodgers at Wrigley Field – featuring a 7-0 loss in Game 1 and a 6-2 loss in Game 2 – was the latest look into the North Siders’ need for more rotation stability. Lefty Drew Smyly started the first tilt after eight days off, and reliever Daniel Norris offered four outs to open the night game.

The bullpen-led nightcap pushed the relief corps’ innings (114 2/3) ahead of the rotation’s work (110 1/3) this season. Only five other teams had more relief innings than rotation innings going into Saturday. The Cubs have had 17 games in which their starter lasted fewer than five frames. Only the Pirates and Reds had as many such starts before Saturday.

The abbreviated Spring Training made an increase in early-season relief work a necessity. That is one reason why Keegan Thompson has resided in the ‘pen as a multi-inning weapon (he gave 2 2/3 innings in Game 2). Still, it has not been a sustainable formula for a Cubs team that was counting on the starters to help shoulder the load and set the tone this year.

“We have the mindset that we’re going to lead this team to a victory,” Smyly said, “and go pitch well and do our job. It takes a lot to win a game. They’re never easy. I think we ‘re throwing the ball pretty well. “

Marcus Stroman (slated to take the ball Sunday against the Dodgers) is coming off an impressive seven shutout innings in his last start against the Brewers. Kyle Hendricks has endured a rocky start (5.64 ERA in six turns) but has looked better in recent outings.

Smyly, for his part, has logged a 3.04 ERA in his five starts for the Cubs. The lefty has been the most consistent starter to date, but he has averaged fewer than five innings per start. Against LA, following a stint on MLB’s bereavement list, Smyly allowed three runs (two earned) in 4 1/3 innings.

“Eight days off, it’s tough to be sharp,” Ross said. “I think the rust kind of got knocked off there.”

Beyond those three, there have been “learning lessons,” as Ross phrased it, for left-hander Justin Steele (5.50 ERA in five outings), a pair of bullpen games (Norris and Scott Effross opening) and a rough audition from Mark Leiter Jr. (7.84 ERA in four games), who is back with Triple-A Iowa.

Other planned rotation pieces – Alec Mills (lower back strain), Adbert Alzolay (right shoulder tightness) and Miley (left elbow inflammation) – have been stuck on the injured list this season. Alzolay’s timetable is cloudy. Mills is ramping back up after a minor setback. Miley could be coming soon.

On Thursday’s team off-day, the 35-year-old Miley suited up for Iowa and worked four shutout innings on the road against St. Louis. Paul. He threw 41 pitches and then simulated a fifth inning in the bullpen. Miley will throw a bullpen session on Sunday before the Cubs determine his next step.

“I feel like I’m healthy,” Miley said. “That kind of proved it the other day to me, that I can go out and turn up the intensity in a game situation and get out of it feeling good. That was my goal and that’s what we did.”

The additions of Miley, Smyly and Stroman were intended to help solidify a starting staff that turned in a 5.27 ERA in last year 91-loss season. Entering Saturday’s twin bill, the Cubs’ starters were 26th in strikeout rate (17.6 percent), 27th in MLB in ERA (5.16) and 29th in Fielding Independent Pitching (4.87).

Being an observer amid those rotation-wide troubles has been tough for Miley, who had a 3.37 ERA over 163 innings last season for Cincinnati. The lefty did not plan on discussing a rehab outing one year after etching his name in baseball’s record books.

“Of course, you want to be out there,” he said. “That’s the hard part about when you’re dealing with an injury – staying smart and trusting the process.”

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