23 for ’23: Who will close for the Cubs?
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. — The Cubs have had something of a revolving door at the closer’s spot over the last few years.
During David Ross’ first season at the helm in 2020, the Cubs entered the year with Craig Kimbrel as the clear choice to get the ball in the 9th inning. But he experienced some struggles early in the shortened season and it was veteran Jeremy Jeffress who wound up leading the team in saves that season with 8.
In 2021, Kimbrel reclaimed the closer’s role…until he was traded to the White Sox at the deadline.
Last year, the Cubs added several veterans to the bullpen in camp and despite a whirlwind spring that included the birth of his third child, David Robertson emerged as Ross’ top choice from Opening Day and held down the job until he also was traded at the deadline.
“There’s sometimes when you have an established closer, the guys fall in from the back end and you work backwards from that,” Ross said. “But I don’t think I’ve ever come in here and established a closer unless you’ve got a Craig Kimbrel or you’ve got questions about whether he’s ready or not.”
This spring mirrors last year with the addition of several veterans but there’s one major difference — a quality in-house candidate.
Brandon Hughes made his Cactus League debut Sunday, racking up a strikeout and a walk in a scoreless frame. The Cubs have been taking things slow with Hughes this spring but he is fully expected to be ready for Opening Day.
And if the Cubs have a lead against the Brewers in Game 1 on March 30, it certainly could be Hughes that gets the ball in the 9th inning.
More likely, it will be based on matchups with Hughes in the mix alongside newcomers Brad Boxberger and Michael Fulmer. Multi-inning weapons Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson could also pick up saves in the right situation, especially if they’re in a groove and Ross has them finish the game.
“We’re looking for outs,” Ross said. “We’re looking for guys to get outs every single inning. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 4th or the 6th every single night. Somebody will get the majority of those opportunities and I think those things kinda play out through Spring Training and through the season. I go back to my first season — Jeremy Jeffress closed out a lot of games for us while Craig was working through some stuff and then Craig kinda took the reins from the last month.
“I think every year, somebody kind of grabs that and steps forward. It was D-Rob last year for a little while and then the second half we kinda used a little bit of everybody. I think we’ve got a lot of talented pitchers down there, some guys that are continuing to make names for themselves. I’m excited about watching them compete for it.”
The tricky part about Hughes earning the role is that at the moment, he’s the only left-handed reliever on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. That means Ross will likely save him for certain pockets of the opposing lineup and those spots can often pop up at important times in the 7th or 8th innings.
Ross also subscribes to the modern-day theory that the 9th inning isn’t always the most high-leverage frame that the bullpen has to cover. If the opposing team’s heart of the order is coming up in the 8th or if there are runners in scoring position in the 7th inning of a close ballgame, those situations call for the best pitchers more than saving a guy specifically for the 9th inning.
“Making sure you’re using guys in the right leverage spots and the right pockets where we feel like they match up the best and their stuff matches up the best is something that we try to lean on,” Ross said. “I think our pitching infrastructure here is really strong in identifying those things. We work really well together with setting those guys up for success. So whoever that person is, it’s a lot about matching them up with the hitter, can they handle the moment?”
Hughes picked up 8 saves last season but also threw far and away the most innings of his adult life (74.1) after being drafted as an outfielder and switching positions as a minor leaguer in the Cubs system.
Boxberger, 34, is entering his 12th MLB season. He has a lot of experience in the late innings (82 career saves), including leading the league with 41 saves in 2015 with the Rays.
“He’s very stoic, very businesslike, knows what he needs to do to be successful,” Tommy Hottovy said. “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.”
Fulmer has also closed, racking up 17 career saves and a career-high 14 with Detroit in 2021.
Rowan Wick has picked up at least 2 saves in each of the last 4 seasons for the Cubs but is coming off an up-and-down season.
When it comes down to it, Ross and the Cubs just want the least amount of stress possible in the 9th inning.
“I talk to the pitchers all the time — the manager just likes outs,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter who’s getting them.”
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?