Cubs News

How Cubs bullpen is taking shape as season approaches midway point

4 years agoTony Andracki

The Cubs are more than 1/3 of the way through the 2020 season and they currently do not have a defined closer while one of the team’s most reliable relievers wasn’t even on the Opening Day roster.

Presented with that scenario prior to the season, it would have been reasonable to assume the Cubs would be in dire straits with their bullpen but in reality, the team feels like its settling into a good place with the relief corps.

Craig Kimbrel may not have the closer’s title anymore, but he’s looked more like his old self the last couple times out. Ryan Tepera has come up from South Bend to give the team a huge lift, prompting his manager to admit his mistake for leaving the veteran right-hander off the Opening Day roster.

“I was wrong on him,” David Ross said over the weekend. “I went with another guy and Ryan Tepera has done nothing but prove himself and his worth here.”

The overall numbers from the group aren’t great (5.37 bullpen ERA, 23rd in MLB) but the Cubs actually rank 10th in baseball with a 3.54 bullpen ERA since Aug. 1.

The team believes the rough first week of the season may have been as a result of the abbreviated summer camp and are now seeing relievers settling in a bit more even without defined roles.

“You see a lot more guys that are more comfortable getting into games and have had a significant number of outings under their belt now,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “And it’s a lot of new faces out there, too, so a lot of us are getting used to the types of situations guys are comfortable coming into, the amount of time they need to warm up — all the little things that take time in a season to develop. 

“I think you’re seeing guys that are stronger now, deeper into what we had in a short summer camp. … Guys are starting to feel better and we’re starting to see guys have some really good success and we just want to keep that rolling.”

Like Hottovy mentioned, there was also a natural assimilation process that needed to play out, with Ross as a first-year manager and many of the guys in the bullpen either new to the team or lacking significant big-league time.

“I think a lot of it has to do with my inexperience as well, trying to navigate that as best I can and communicating with those guys and seeing who we can trust in the big spots,” Ross said.

Kimbrel has been working on some mechanical changes and in a small sample size, the results have paid off. He hasn’t allowed a run or a hit his last two times out while striking out a pair in each inning.

“With Craig, he wants to prove to everybody that he’s back and that he’s feeling good and where he wants to be,” Hottovy said.

While Kimbrel tries to get back on track, Tepera has quickly earned the trust of Ross’ coaching staff and has emerged alongside Jeremy Jeffress and Rowan Wick as a go-to option.

Tepera, 32, has pitched the second-most innings out of the bullpen (8.2) and has a 3.12 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in those frames while striking out 14 batters. 

He signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs over the winter after five seasons serving as an important part of the Blue Jays bullpen. 

“He’s pitched in some very high leverage situations in his career,” Hottovy said. “We’re not afraid to unleash him in any situation. I think what’s been more interesting in talking to him is making sure that he knows he’s ready to go in some of the biggest moments no matter where they are in the game.”

Tepera came in to pitch the 3rd inning in Game 2 of Monday’s doubleheader and has also worked late in games (7th-10th innings).

Meanwhile, Jeffress and Wick have generally drawn the toughest situations and matched up against the heart of the opposition’s batting order. The two righties have combined for 6 saves and 4 holds and allowed only 1 run each.

The Cubs have seen Casey Sadler, Dan Winkler and Duane Underwood Jr. step up to get some big outs along the way, but the trio has also been plagued by inconsistency. Underwood got the win in Game 2 of Monday’s doubleheader but still sports a 7.36 ERA on the season. Sadler threw a scoreless frame Tuesday night but then ran into trouble in his second inning of work and Winkler couldn’t bail him out, forcing Ross to go to Wick for a 4-out save.

Kyle Ryan — the lone lefty in the bullpen — gave up 2 homers Monday and now sports an 8.10 ERA and 1.95 WHIP on the season, but Hottovy is confident a few minor mechanical tweaks can get him back on the path that made him an important piece of the bullpen last season.

In a season where every game is magnified and the schedule features multiple doubleheaders, the bullpen is a vital piece to the Cubs’ success and will continue to be an evolving situation for Ross’ coaching staff.

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