Cubs spring notebook: Bullpen picture coming into focus
MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs bullpen has undergone a ton of change in the month the team has been in Arizona for spring training. That’s to be expected, especially with the pandemic impacting every facet of the game over the last calendar year.
Jed Hoyer’s front office reached a deal with veteran Brandon Workman at the beginning of camp and brought back Ryan Tepera and Pedro Strop shortly after spring training kicked off.
Meanwhile, the back end of the bullpen took a hit when Rowan Wick was slowed by the intercostal injury that shut him down late last season and closer Craig Kimbrel continues to work through some adjustments.
With the start of the regular season just over two weeks away, here’s how the bullpen picture is coming into focus:
Let’s start with the back end. Manager David Ross confirmed again Sunday morning Kimbrel will be the closer to start the 2021 season assuming he’s healthy.
Spring training stats ultimately don’t matter, but Kimbrel has surrendered 9 runs in 2.2 innings in Cactus League play.
He struggled to begin the 2020 shortened season but made some mechanical changes and was dominant down the stretch. These aren’t quite the same issues as the Cubs are happy with the path his arm is taking but they are are working to clean up some of his lower-body mechanics.
“Once that comes together, it’s gonna be a more finished product, but he’s ahead of the game in terms of where he was, even at this point in spring training last year and what we went through in summer camp too,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “The things we’re talking about now are so different than what we talked about last year. He understands what we’re trying to accomplish and now it’s just about getting the reps to be able to go do it.”
Wick walked off the mound in the middle of September last year with a serious oblique strain in his left side that ended his season. Five months later, he was still bothered by the mysterious intercostal injury and still hasn’t pitched off a mound yet this spring.
That’s the bad news. The good news is the Cubs have now pinpointed the exact issue under one of Wick’s ribs and he turned a corner a couple weeks ago. He’s been on a throwing program from 90 feet on flat ground and plans to throw from 105 feet Monday.
There’s currently no timetable and with the season right around the corner, the Cubs will begin the year without one of their top setup options. But Wick’s progression is certainly a good sign for the big-picture prospects of the Cubs bullpen.
“It’s been a good last 10 days for Rowan,” Hottovy said. “Really getting more comfortable with what he’s feeling. Rowan’s such a strong dude, so when he feels good, it looks really good too ’cause it comes out so easy.
“Watching the progression over the last 10 days makes me feel really confident what the next 10 days to 2 weeks will look like.”
The 32-year-old right-hander tossed a dominant inning in Sunday’s game against the Angels, striking out a pair. He has not allowed an earned run this spring in 4 appearances.
Dropping the hammer 🔨 pic.twitter.com/TQUOcbsd5d— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 15, 2021
After posting a 1.88 ERA with 16 saves in 2019, Workman had a 5.95 ERA last season between the Red Sox and Phillies.
Ross has a long history with Workman dating back to their playing days in Boston and the Cubs manager sees a guy hungry to rebound after last year.
“Work is a guy thats really mentally tough,” Ross said. “He’s got a really good chip on his shoulder to go out and be good and wants to be good.”
Dillon Maples and Jason Adam
These two right-handers have dynamic stuff but don’t quite have the track record in the big leagues yet.
The Cubs face an interesting decision with Maples later this month as he turns 29 in May and is out of minor-league options. The team has been very impressed with the work he’s put in over the last year.
Adam, 29, joined the bullpen in Chicago during the middle of last season and really came into his own down the stretch.
“Both of those guys have continued their progressions of where summer camp was last year to the end of the season and now where things are at the beginning of camp,” Hottovy said. “I think the biggest thing for them is every time they get opportunities to continue to go out there and show us that it’s consistently there and that they can do it every time out.”
Adam made the most of his opportunity in Sunday’s game, striking out the side in the 8th inning against the Angels’ backup players. He has 5 strikeouts without walking a batter this spring.
Maples has 6 strikeouts in 4.1 Cactus League frames and has not walked a batter.
Strop threw his first live bullpen Sunday on the backfields at the Cubs complex. He tossed 16 pitches and will throw another live bullpen later this week. His first appearance in a game will come a couple days after that if all goes according to plan.
Strop, 35, is in camp on a minor-league deal and missed a couple days of action earlier this month after violating COVID protocols. But there still might be enough runway for him to be ready to go for Opening Day.
Tepera was a huge piece of the Cubs bullpen last season and a late addition to the group this year after spending the winter in free agency.
He has thrown two live bullpens so far against Cubs hitters and the second one turned some heads late last week.
“The readings were well, the slider was good,” Ross said. “It was like, ‘OK, there’s the guy we saw last year. As much as he got a late start, I think he’s in a good place and felt like he got really good work coming into camp.”
The plan is for Tepera to make his Cactus League debut in Monday’s game against the White Sox. The 33-year-old struck out 31 batters in 20.2 innings and is in the mix to fill one of the high-leverage roles in the Cubs’ 2021 bullpen.
Trevor Megill was a Rule 5 selection in December 2019. He didn’t make the Opening Day roster in 2020 but the Cubs worked out a separate deal with the Padres to keep him in the system.
The 6-foot-8 right-hander sat 96-98 mph with his fastball Sunday as he came into the middle of the 4th inning and faced the heart of the Angels order. He gave up a double on a ball lost in the sun and then induced a groundout from Justin Upton.
Megill, 27, has not allowed a run this spring and has 6 strikeouts in 4.1 innings.
The veteran southpaw continues to inch closer to carving out a spot for himself on the Opening Day roster. With Kyle Ryan slowed at the start of camp due to COVID protocols and Brad Wieck yet to appear in a Cactus League game, the Cubs have room for another left-hander alongside Andrew Chafin.
Brothers struck out Anthony Rendon in Sunday’s game and has not allowed a run in 5 Cactus League appearances. He has struggled with his control in the past but the only hitter he has walked this spring is Mike Trout.
Dan Winkler and Jonathan Holder are both strong options to make the Opening Day bullpen. They’re in camp on big-league deals and have track records of success in the majors. The Cubs believe they figured out how to utilize Winkler in the middle of last season and they’re intrigued by Holder’s potential after a five-year run with the Yankees.
James Norwood was hitting 99 mph on the radar gun Sunday and he still holds a spot on the 40-man roster. Joe Biagini, 30, is in camp on a minor-league deal and has 221 MLB appearances under his belt.
The Cubs will begin the year with a long relief option out of the bullpen — one of the pitchers who doesn’t crack a spot in the rotation. That could be Alec Mills or Adbert Alozlay and Shelby Miller is emerging as a strong bet to make the Opening Day roster in some capacity after an impressive spring.