23 for ‘23: What does the Cubs Opening Day bullpen look like?
Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.
MESA, Ariz. — Over the last few years, the Cubs have shown shrewdness in building their relief corps.
It sounds simple, but the Cubs haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel to find that success, either.
Between Tommy Hottovy (pitching), Chris Young (bullpen), Daniel Moskos (assistant pitching) and Craig Driver (game strategy/catching), the Cubs have a whole team of coaches dedicated to making the bullpen fire on all cylinders.
“What I love about the success we have down there, is taking some of the bullpen pieces guys, having them pitch to their strengths,” manager David Ross said. “The pitching group as a whole, just try to identify what these guys do well, make sure they know and what we bring in them for and set them up for success from a matchup standpoint from my end.”
This season the Cubs hope they’ve built the foundation once again to have a steady and reliable bullpen. But who’s in it? We’ll break down some of the candidates for the Opening Day bullpen below.
RHP Michael Fulmer
LHP Brandon Hughes
RHP Brad Boxberger
RHP Keegan Thompson
RHP Adbert Alzolay
There are really no surprises in this group — there’s a pair of veterans in there (Fulmer and Boxberger), a lefty who can pitch in high-leverage situations (Hughes) and a pair of multi-inning relief weapons (Thompson and Alzolay).
Fulmer moved to the bullpen full-time in 2022 after beginning his career as a starter and winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 2016. He pitched to a 3.39 ERA out of the bullpen for Detroit and Minnesota and could see usage in some high-leverage scenarios for the Cubs.
Boxberger is another veteran reliever who will likely assume some high-leverage roles for the Cubs — he was the AL leader in saves in 2015 with Tampa Bay and he has 53 holds over the last two seasons with Milwaukee. He’s pitched in 141 games over the last two seasons, meaning the Cubs should have some comfort in being able to use him whenever they need to.
“A veteran presence,” Hottovy said. “He’s very stoic, very businesslike, knows what he needs to do to be successful. I think he’s gonna be really good with helping a lot of these younger guys understand the routine in the bullpen, how to go about their business.
“Another guy who’s been on some winning teams and has pitched in the postseason, so knows what it’s like to pitch in some of those big games. When you have those guys that are steady contributors, guys that have done it, it helps bridge that game when you’re trying to give young guys an opportunity as well.”
Hughes quickly put himself on the map in Chicago, striking out the first 5 big-league hitters he faced and, by the end of the season, was Ross’ most trusted reliever in the bullpen. He’ll see some high-leverage situations, too, but will be especially useful against left-handed pockets of the opposing lineup.
Thompson and Alzolay present the Cubs’ most unique weapons out of the pen. They can pitch multiple innings – allowing Ross to reset his bullpen or rest some relievers – but they can also bridge the gap from a starter to the back end of the bullpen. There will likely be situations where Alzolay and Thompson rack up some saves, too, especially if they’re pitching the last few innings of a game.
RHP Rowan Wick
RHP Julian Merryweather
Wick had an up-and-down 2022 for the Cubs — he had a 4.22 ERA with 5 blown saves but finished off the year posting a 1.69 ERA over his final 12 outings. His curveball still has the depth and deception to be a very valuable pitch, but wasn’t coming out of the same tunnel as his fastball at times last season, meaning hitters had an easier time seeing the pitch. Opponents hit .286 with a .405 slugging percentage off the pitch in 2022, compared to .211/.211 in 2021.
The Cubs clearly still thought highly enough of Wick that they signed him to a guaranteed contract in the offseason, especially given the team’s 40-man roster crunch. It’s his last option year, too, so that creates more added value for the Canadian reliever.
The Cubs claimed Merryweather off waivers from Toronto in January and it was an interesting pickup. In 2021, the 31-year-old was in a battle with Jordan Romano to be the Blue Jays closer, though Merryweather suffered an injury and Romano established himself into an All-Star.
Merryweather has been struck by the injury bug over the last two seasons, appearing in just 29 big-league games. He’s out of options, so it gives him an inside track to make the Opening Day bullpen and his fastball velocity could help him fit into the mold of past Cubs’ relievers that have found a new life in Chicago.
Julian Merryweather has some nasty stuff.— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) March 15, 2023
He's always had a big fastball and Cubs have been working on his secondary stuff. Looks like the work is paying off. pic.twitter.com/7EfYMNo3kj
“He’s been a strike-thrower,” Hottovy said. “He’s got really good stuff, high velocity. We’re trying to continue to work on some of the secondary stuff to give him a few more weapons to add to that but his biggest thing has been his health.
“He fought some injuries and stuff the past couple years and it felt like his mechanics were not quite as efficient as they needed to be, which was leading to a lot of those injuries. He spent a ton of time this offseason – even before we claimed him – on cleaning up some of those things that he felt were putting too much strain on his body.”
Competing for the final spot(s)
RHP Mark Leiter Jr.
RHP Tyler Duffey
RHP Michael Rucker
LHP Roenis Elías
RHP Jeremiah Estrada
If the first seven relievers listed are in the Opening Day bullpen — and it’s no guarantee, there’s still two weeks and injuries and performances could change things — then that leaves one spot for a handful of interesting candidates.
On paper, Leiter Jr. would be a no-brainer. He was effective for the Cubs out of the bullpen last year, can get righties and lefties out and his splitter was one of the better pitches for the Cubs in 2022. But there’s also the roster game to play — Leiter Jr. is out of minor league options and if he makes the team and someone from the pitching side has to be sent down, the only real option would seemingly be Wick. If a second injury pops up or another player needs to be sent down, you’re looking at a waiver move or sending down someone like Alzolay, Hughes or Thompson, which would be very unlikely.
Jed Hoyer and the Cubs could opt to use that last bullpen spot on someone with options like Rucker or Estrada who can be sent up and down if needed and would still provide quality work out of the bullpen.
Estrada has some of the best stuff in the Cubs’ organization, but, like Christopher Morel on the position side, the Cubs could opt to keep him in the minors to continue to develop and pitch regularly. Rucker had a solid second half after he was recalled following the trade deadline, pitching to a 2.93 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a .212 batting average against over the last two months of the season.
Duffey was one of the best relievers in baseball from 2019 to 2021, posting a 2.69 ERA and 1.063 WHIP and 50 holds in 144 games for the Twins. If the Cubs opt to go the veteran route for that final spot, he could be a solid choice, too, but, like Leiter Jr., is out of minor league options.
Elías was stellar in the Dominican Winter League this past offseason (0.92 ERA in 7 starts), then looked sharp in Cuba’s second game in the WBC, allowing 2 hits and striking out 3 over 5 shutout innings against Italy. He could be in the bullpen as another left-handed option to complement Hughes and he can get hitters from both sides of the plate out. But, the Cubs could opt to use him as Triple-A depth for Thompson and Alzolay and use him as a multi-inning relief role if they choose.
Minor league depth
LHP Anthony Kay
LHP Ryan Borucki
LHP Eric Stout
RHP Manny Rodríguez
RHP Cam Sanders
While the Cubs will have eight relievers in the bullpen, it’d be foolish to think only those eight pitchers would cover the entire 162-game season. Injuries and poor performances will occur, so having depth at the minor-league level is pivotal for the Cubs.
The early signs in spring suggest the Cubs might not see a whole lot of a drop off if they have to dip into the well. Rodríguez and Sanders have looked solid as right-handed options in camp and they’re fireballers that provide another dimension to Ross’ bullpen. Kay, Borucki and Stout are southpaws that can fill in and get outs, too, for the Cubs.
As was the case with Hughes and Estrada last year, there’s the chance a pitcher can burst onto the scene and carve out a role in the Cubs’ relief corps.
23 for ’23 series
What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?
What is the plan for Matt Mervis?
Who are some under-the-radar players that could make the Opening Day roster?
What will Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer bring to this team?
Which young Cubs pitchers will take the next step this season?
What can we expect from Kyle Hendricks when he returns this season?