How Craig Counsell’s addition impacts the Cubs’ bullpen going forward
The Cubs’ bullpen faltered down the stretch in 2023.
The Brewers’ reliever corps was second in baseball this past season and has been one of the best year-over-year with Craig Counsell at the helm.
So, now that Counsell has found himself 90 miles south at Wrigley Field, that means the bullpen can take an immediate jump up next season, right?
“We didn’t hire him just because we think he’s a bullpen savant,” Hoyer said Monday after Counsell’s introductory press conference. “It was frustrating, and I need to do a better job myself building the bullpen. I thought our bullpen wore down as the year went on.”
The key to solving the Cubs’ bullpen setup in 2024 doesn’t begin and end with Counsell’s arrival. Could the new Cubs’ skipper have fared differently with the same set of Cubs relievers in 2023? Maybe, maybe not. But as Hoyer mentioned, it comes down to bulking up the depth and creating more options for Counsell so that the bullpen isn’t a concern next season and beyond.
Heading into the 2023 season, the Cubs felt confident with their in-house options like Brandon Hughes, Keegan Thompson, Adbert Alzolay, Codi Heuer and Rowan Wick to cover the late innings. The Cubs made only a few additions to their relievers in the offseason — they signed free agents Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger, claimed Julian Merryweather off waivers and brought back Mark Leiter Jr. on a minor-league deal after designating him for assignment. Only four of those names — Alzolay, Leiter, Merryweather and Fulmer — wound up being trusted names for then-manager David Ross and Fulmer dealt with ineffectiveness early in his tenure and injury at the end of it.
At the trade deadline, Hoyer made two moves to bring in pitching help — dealing outfielder Nelson Velázquez for José Cuas from Kansas City and sending Manuel Rodríguez and Adrian Sampson to Tampa Bay for Josh Roberson. Cuas developed into a reliable reliever, while Roberson was assigned to Triple-A Iowa and released in September.
“We probably weren’t deep enough in the bullpen last year. I’m responsible for that, ultimately,” Hoyer said at last week’s GM Meetings. “We’ve done a pretty good job building bullpens in the past. But last year, I think the sprint really wore us down … We have to bolster, add more guys, add depth and that’s certainly a huge priority.”
Bullpens endure rabid volatility and turnover year-over-year — even the best of them. Counsell’s relievers in Milwaukee were never the same year after year, but they did have a common denominator — a lockdown closer. For the first part of Counsell’s tenure, it was Josh Hader. In the last few years, it was Devin Williams.
That security blanket at the backend of games allowed him to find the right mix of guys to bridge the gap. In 2023 it was relievers like Bryse Wilson, Joel Payamps and Hoby Milner for the Brewers. On their NL Central-winning team in 2021 it was Brent Suter, Boxberger and Williams. Their 2018 team that finished a game away from the World Series had three lockdown relievers in Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel and Hader.
The Cubs might have that shutdown reliever at the end in Alzolay, who emerged as the team’s closer and 22 saves to go along with a 2.67 ERA.
“Great relievers are great friends to managers at the back of the game,” Counsell said. “I think teams are composed differently and they’re made up differently. You take advantage of the strengths of your players. Find their strengths, understand their strengths, listen to their strengths and that means it may be different. I think the goal is certainly to find players of that caliber, of course, that’s the goal. But those aren’t easy players to find.”
It comes back to Hoyer and his front office this season — they’ll have to be active to supplement the existing options. The shell of a solid bullpen is there for the Cubs, no doubt — it was the team’s strength for chunks of the season this past year.
Leiter, Alzolay and Merryweather were terrific in 2023 and will all be back next season. If Hughes, who was the team’s most trusted reliever in 2022, can return healthy, that adds a nice lefty option. Cuas and his funky delivery could be another option. Daniel Palencia and Luke Little were young relievers who debuted last season and arms like Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski could factor into the mix, too if they don’t earn rotation spots.
“You have to be creative in the bullpen,” Hoyer said. “You have to find guys with good stuff, find guys on bounce back years, find guys coming off injuries. I think you gotta take all those demographics and then a couple of guys that might provide certainty so to speak and then you gotta blend that together.”
The Cubs need to add depth, especially veteran depth. The unpredictable nature of bullpens means you can’t just rely on any of those in-house names — 2023 showed that. In a perfect world, all five of those players (Leiter, Alzolay, Merryweather, Hughes, Cuas) are the best versions of themselves and can mix in with a few veterans, giving Counsell plenty of tools in his toolbox. Except, it’s not a perfect world and having options allows Counsell and the Cubs to have more margin for success.
The Cubs will want to take a volume approach in their additions, like they have in the past to build a strong and deep bullpen. In 2022, when the three most trusted relievers for the Cubs were Mychal Givens, Chris Martin and David Robertson, the Cubs accomplished exactly that. That offseason and spring, they signed those three, plus veterans Daniel Norris, Jesse Chavez, Robert Gsellman and Steven Brault. Four misses, three hits.
Fast forward to 2023 and the Cubs signed Boxberger and Fulmer to guaranteed deals and signed Leiter, Tyler Duffey and Jordan Holloway to minor league deals. Fewer options and smaller margin for error.
“I do think taking a lot of shots on goal can certainly help,” Hoyer said. “I thought in a bunch of those offseasons, we signed a lot of guys to small deals and you know going in the hit rate’s not gonna be 100%, there’s no way. But if you get two or three of those right, that can really benefit you, so I do think that attacking all those different demographics is something that we tried to do.”
Doing that will allow Counsell to find the right mix and when to deploy each arm. The Cubs hope that allows them to avoid another late falter with their bullpen.
“[The bullpen] changes from the first day to the 60th day of the season, to the 120th day of the season,” Counsell said. “Probably just to understand that, that it’s always changing, that it’s never the same, that there is no one rule that you can live by with your bullpen I think is the best way to have a chance to do it successfully each year.”