Trying to stabilize their bullpen, hoping for a spark and showing faith in their most advanced pitching prospect, the Cubs will drop Jen-Ho Tseng into the middle of a pennant race and start the Taiwanese right-hander on Thursday night against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field.
Tseng put himself in position to make his big-league debut with a breakthrough season, going 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA in 24 starts between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. The Theo Epstein regime – which is still waiting to fully develop a homegrown starter – sees Tseng as someone who can throw four pitches for strikes, keep hitters off-balance without overpowering stuff and follow a scouting report. Think Kyle Hendricks as an absolute best-case scenario.
But the Cubs also couldn’t ignore how far lefty swingman Mike Montgomery has already been pushed (116.1 innings) and how much lefty reliever Justin Wilson has struggled (6.39 ERA in 16 appearances) since getting traded from the Detroit Tigers at the July 31 deadline.
The Cubs made the surprise announcement around 5 p.m. Wednesday, or roughly two hours after naming Tseng as their minor league pitcher of the year for the second time since 2014, his first professional season after getting a $1.625 million bonus as an international free agent.
“I just sat down with him in my office,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I said: ‘I guess you’re here in town to accept an award.’ He just looked at me and I said: ‘How about you start tomorrow night’s game instead?’ He didn’t even blanch. Actually, his interpreter was more taken by the whole situation than Jen-Ho was. But I heard nothing but good things about this kid.
“We think right now – in order to get us all set up pitching-wise – it was the right thing to do.”
Bumping Montgomery from the rotation should help keep him fresh after getting the final out in last year’s World Series Game 7 and give Maddon another trusted option in a bullpen with too many question marks. Koji Uehara has been struggling and dealing with an infection in his right knee and may have reached his limit after making 49 appearances during his age-42 season.
By the time the Cubs finalized the Tseng decision, they hadn’t yet scheduled a next-step bullpen session for Jake Arrieta, who strained his right hamstring on Labor Day, the same day Iowa’s season ended. The Cubs sent Tseng to their Arizona complex to stay sharp and continue his throwing program. It’s unclear when Arrieta will be able to rejoin the rotation or if this will be a one-and-done situation for Tseng.
But Maddon recalled how the Tampa Bay Rays unleashed young pitchers in the playoffs, from using David Price as a reliever while winning the 2008 American League pennant and giving Matt Moore his second big-league start in a 2011 first-round win over the Texas Rangers.
“You just never know,” Maddon said. “On a different level, I went through that with Matt Moore with the Rays, also. I remember the meetings for that in Texas in the manager’s office, bringing in minor-league guys that had seen him more. They were absolutely adamant that this guy can do this – and he did.
“Lightning in a bottle happens, and you never know what happens after that with some young players. And even if it’s not a start that happens afterwards, maybe he’s going to help us in another way.
“David Price did it with the Rays out of the bullpen, also, in a pretty good run, so keep an open mind. I’m keeping a very open mind. I’m actually excited about seeing it.”