Foresight is 2020: Who will emerge in Cubs bullpen?
Hindsight is 20/20, they always say. But as the 2020 Cubs season gets underway, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight — foresight is the only option at the moment. So let’s play a game of 20 questions, tackling the most important topics surrounding this Cubs team entering the campaign.
Next up: Who will emerge in Cubs bullpen?
Without the signing of high-priced, potentially impactful relievers in free agency, the Cubs have instead had to get creative, adding all the buy-low options they could.
It remains to be seen if this volume game approach will pay off, but it certainly might. Bullpens are notoriously volatile and the most expensive units don’t always equate to the most successful.
Every season, there are dozens of relievers around Major League Baseball who enjoy breakout — or breakthrough — campaigns. Last year, the Cubs’ Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick were among that group and both look ticketed for important roles in 2020.
The Cubs’ highly-touted “Pitch Lab” deserves credit for the success Ryan, Wick and Brad Wieck had down the stretch last season and the organization is hoping to add a few more names to that list.
For the first time in a while, the Cubs entered spring training with very few spots in the bullpen locked up. Only Craig Kimbrel and Jeremy Jeffress have long track records of success. Veterans Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler are gone and even though Brandon Morrow is back, he’s run into multiple setbacks along his road back to the big leagues.
So, the opportunity exists for several arms to earn one of the remaining spots.
“I do think the best bullpens evolve over the course of the year,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “When you look at a lot of the bullpens in the playoffs last year and think about the Nationals and the Braves, their bullpens really evolved over the course of the year. That’s gonna happen. Whatever eight guys break camp out of the bullpen, a lot more guys than that are going to participate.
“But it kinda brings me back a little bit to our bullpens — 2014, 2015, where we didn’t have a particularly established group of guys. Those bullpens ended up being really good and they were good because our pro scouting department did a good job picking names and it was good because our pitching infrastructure did a good job of developing those guys in-season. I still feel great about those two aspects of our organization.
“The guys we brought in we like a lot. I totally trust [pitching coach] Tommy Hottovy and [bullpen coach] Chris Young and [run prevention coordinator] Brad Mills and that group to bring those guys along. We like the group we have and we trust the guys we have that work here to get the most out of them.”
Hoyer’s point on bullpens evolving over time is key. The bullpen the Cubs opened 2019 with was far different from the group that finished the season.
Yet despite all that turnover, the Cubs finished eighth in MLB with a 3.98 bullpen ERA. In 2018, amid a rash of injuries to the relief corps, the Cubs paced the NL with a 3.35 bullpen ERA.
It’s also a good reminder that change is inevitable when it comes to the bullpen mix, whether because of injury, ineffectiveness or reinforcements from outside the organization. “Best laid plans” and all that.
In this year’s group, Kimbrel and Jeffress are locks, assuming they’re both still healthy in three weeks. Wick and Ryan are also safe bets, with Ryan serving as potentially the only left-hander in the Opening Day bullpen. All four come into the season with something to prove — Kimbrel and Jeffress are aiming for bounceback seasons while Wick and Ryan look to build off their breakthrough success from last year.
Beyond that, things are not as clear.
“There’s so many unique arms,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “Part of building this bullpen out through this process of spring training is taking the right eight guys we want, but also, how do they work together? Do we have guys who have unique stuff? Can we match up differently with different guys?”
Here’s a look at the top candidates to make an impact in the Cubs bullpen at some point in 2020:
Assuming Chatwood earns the fifth starter’s spot, Mills is a pretty good bet to nab one of the spots in the bullpen.
Mills, 28, is out of minor-league options and has found success during brief stints in the big leagues the last couple years (3.17 ERA over 54 innings working as both a starter and reliever). He also represents a multi-inning option for first-year manager David Ross and the right-hander admitted he came into camp feeling more confident after proving his worth in the majors last year.
Wieck initially looked in line for an Opening Day bullpen spot, but a minor heart procedure in late February threw a wrench into that and it’s now more likely he winds up beginning the season in extended spring training or the minor leagues.
Whenever Wieck is able to join the big-league bullpen, he’s a name to watch. The 6-foot-9 southpaw came over from the Padres in the Carl Edwards Jr. trade last summer and after a month in the Cubs system working in the Pitch Lab and in minor-league games, he had an impressive debut in Chicago (3.60 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, 18 Ks in 10 IP).
“I feel like the Cubs put quite a bit of trust in me from the word ‘go’ and that gave me confidence,” Wieck said. “They told me as soon as I was traded that I was gonna get called up to the big leagues in a big situation and have to get an out and they were not lying. It happened quite a few times in September where I had to go get a pretty big out.
“Them telling me that as soon as I got traded, that told me, hey, they got plans for me here. As long as I do my job, good things are gonna happen.”
Duane Underwood Jr.
The former second-round pick (2012) is out of minor-league options, so the Cubs either have to keep him as a part of the Opening Day bullpen or risk losing him on waivers. Underwood, 25, hasn’t been able to stick as a starter in his career, but he’s shown flashes as a reliever with a dynamic changeup. He has only 15.2 big-league innings under his belt, but the potential is there for a middle reliever who is capable of going multiple innings if needed.
Dillon Maples + James Norwood
This pair of right-handers fall into the same category — they’ve both been in the minors for a while and have nasty stuff, but have yet to put it all together.
Maples misses bats like crazy (15.3 K/9 in MLB, 16.4 K/9 in Triple-A) but he also struggles with his control and hasn’t been able to stick in the big leagues during limited opportunities over the last three summers.
Norwood was a 7th round pick in 2014 and began as a starter in the minor leagues before transforming into a reliever capable of going longer than an inning at times. He has 23 career saves in the minors, continues to improve his strikeout rate and has a fastball that consistently sits in the upper-90s to go along with a burgeoning splitter.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see it finally click for either guy and become a mainstay in the bullpen this season.
Right now, it’s all about consistency with the likes of Maples, Norwood and Underwood — younger pitchers looking to take that next step in their careers.
“With all these guys, we’re working on specific things to help simplify overall approach or what they worry about in between innings or outings or pitches,” Hottovy said. “It’s easy for those guys to listen to all the outside noise and try to do everything all at once, so we try to really simplify things for them, giving them each something very specific to work on every day.
“That kinda helps the focus on what’s important and not listening to all the other stuff that can easily get caught up with guys that have no [minor-league] options and thinking about external factors.”
Megill was the team’s Rule 5 pick in December, so if he is not on the 26-man roster all season, the Cubs will have to send him back to the Padres. The 6-foot-8 right-hander has not yet made his MLB debut but generated a ton of whiffs in three minor-league levels last season (12.9 K/9 in 60.2 innings).
“What I’ve been most impressed with is how he handles himself between the lines,” Hottovy said. “He understands who he is. That’s one significant thing with a lot of minor-league guys is understanding how they fit into the major-league level and he has a really good idea what makes him successful. So just continuing to help him hone that in and just get more consistent every time out. Definitely somebody we need to get a good look at, because you’re talking about somebody who’s gonna have to be with us the whole year. But so far, early impressions have been outstanding.”
Megill, 26, is also capable of going multiple innings and his potential might be too enticing for the Cubs to pass up, so expect him to get a shot in the Opening Day bullpen to see if he can stick.
While it might seem like he’s been around forever, Alzolay just turned 25 on March 1 and he’s entering a pivotal season in his career. He spent the last few years as the top pitching prospect in the Cubs system but has been delayed by injuries. He finally broke through and made his big-league debut last summer before another arm issue (biceps inflammation) limited his workload in the second half of the season.
Alzolay struck out 104 batters in only 77.2 innings between the big leagues and Triple-A last year and has tantalizing potential as a big piece of either the rotation or bullpen in Chicago for years to come.
Health is a big factor, but he’s also missed out on valuable developmental time the last few years due to the injuries. The Cubs will probably start Alzolay out in the minors to begin 2020 and he will have an innings limit of some sort to protect his arm, but he could be a game-changing type of addition to the big-league pitching staff midseason.
The Cubs acquired Sadler, 29, from the Dodgers in mid-January after Los Angeles designated the 29-year-old right-hander for assignment. He had success in the big leagues last season (2.14 ERA in 46.1 innings for the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays) but only made 9 MLB appearances prior to 2019 (6.86 ERA in 19.2 IP).
Like Underwood and Mills, Sadler is also out of minor-league options so the Cubs face a tough decision on him.
The 32-year-old right-hander signed a split deal with the Cubs over the winter after posting a 4.98 ERA in the Blue Jays bullpen last season. He has 216 career MLB appearances and carried a 3.49 ERA and 10 saves before 2019.
Like Tepera, Winkler signed a split contract in the offseason that would pay him $750,000 if he makes the big-league club. The 30-year-old is a native of southern Illinois (Effingham) and was a big part of the Braves bullpen in 2018 (3.43 ERA, 23 holds, 2 saves) but struggled last season (4.98 ERA).
The ultimate wild card, Morrow could be a big midseason addition into the bullpen capable of succeeding in a high-leverage role. But he hasn’t pitched in nearly two years after suffering a forearm/elbow injury midway through the 2018 season and has been delayed this spring by a chest strain and now a calf injury (though no issues with his arm).
If his injury luck ever turns, it could be huge boon for the Cubs. Morrow had a 1.82 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 24 saves in 80 appearances in 2017-18 before injury struck.
“Getting Brandon Morrow at any time in the year is beneficial for us, whether it’s Opening Day or it’s mid-June or it’s September,” Hottovy said.
The key for the former No. 2 overall pick will be health. If he’s able to stay on the mound this year, Hultzen has the talent and pedigree to emerge as another left-handed option out of the bullpen.
Other names to watch
The Cubs assigned a slew of pitchers to minor-league camp Friday (Tyson Miller, Justin Steele, Manny Rodríguez, Jason Adam, Óscar De La Cruz, Caleb Simpson, Brock Stewart, Tyler Olson, C.D. Pelham). While that eliminates this group from making the Opening Day roster, a handful of these pitchers could wind up getting an opportunity in the big leagues.
Miller, Steele and Rodríguez are on the 40-man roster already and Rodríguez, in particular, is intriguing. However, the 23-year-old right-hander currently has a Grade 2 biceps strain and will likely miss at least the first few weeks of the season.
Adam, 28, posted a 2.91 ERA in 23 appearances for the Blue Jays last season. Olson, 30, has 124 big-league games under his belt and also represents another left-handed option.
Fellow veterans Rex Brothers and Ben Taylor could also emerge while young arms like Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker and Wyatt Short may put it all together in 2020.
Colin Rea and Jharel Cotton are being stretched out as starters in spring training and would most likely represent rotation depth in the minor leagues to begin the year, though both have a little experience as relievers in their careers.
Cubs fans are understandably giddy over top prospect Brailyn Márquez, but the 21-year-old lefty had only 5 appearances at Advanced Class-A last season and is probably still a year or two away from the big leagues.
As we approach the start of the regular season, read more on our “Foresight is 2020” series:
–Will Nico Hoerner start the year in the majors?
–How does Jason Kipnis fit into the Cubs mix?
–How will second base shake out?
–Will Jeremy Jeffress regain his 2018 dominance?
–Will Craig Kimbrel bounce back with a normal offseason/spring training?
–Who will emerge in Cubs bullpen?
–Can Kyle Schwarber put it all together after a huge second half?
–What role will Steven Souza Jr. have?
-Will somebody grab the everyday center field role?
-Can Willson Contreras maintain his 2019?