How Cubs bullpen is taking shape as spring training opens
MESA, Ariz. — When the Cubs take the field for their first official pitchers workout Wednesday, the bullpen is going to be far from solidified.
That’s what the next six weeks are for leading up to the regular season opener April 1 at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs have a long list of names who could slot into the initial bullpen and they are likely adding one more soon, as president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer teased another major-league signing in the Cubs’ pre-spring training Zoom press conference Tuesday.
The Cubs are also facing some uncertainty with two pitchers who have played key roles in the bullpen the last couple seasons.
Rowan Wick is still dealing with an intercostal injury after missing the last few weeks of the 2020 campaign with a badly strained left oblique injury. Hoyer said he will probably be a bit slower than some of the other relievers as result.
A healthy Rowan Wick is a big part of the Cubs bullpen after bursting onto the scene in 2019. Over the past two seasons, he’s posted 6 saves and 10 holds with a 2.66 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 50.2 innings. He is projected as one of the team’s top high-leverage relievers in 2021.
Kyle Ryan is also going to be delayed and will likely be placed on the COVID-19 list. The left-hander has made 91 appearances with a 3.87 ERA over the last two seasons in the Cubs bullpen.
However, the Cubs do have one bit of clarity in the bullpen: Craig Kimbrel will be the unquestioned closer to start the season.
The 7-time All-Star got out to a rough start to the shortened campaign last year but really turned things around at the end of the year. He sported a 1.42 ERA over his final 14 appearances and in September, he did not allow a run or walk a batter in 7.1 innings.
“Talking to him, he feels great this offseason,” manager David Ross said. “The work, the videos he’s sent in, he looks really polished already. He’s a veteran guy, knows how to prepare himself for spring training. We’ll give him a pretty long runway just to get ready.
“As long as Craig is who we know him to be, he’s going to be our closer. But I do think there’s so many guys in our bullpen that are going to help to our success. Craig’s a big part of that on the back end. There’s a lot to deal with as far as how long a season goes. In my mind’s eye, Craig’s our closer and things will fall in after that.”
It’s still too early to tell how guys will “fall in” after Kimbrel, especially with the timelines for Wick and Ryan uncertain at the moment and another impending addition to the group.
But the Cubs expected that all offseason as they understand a lot of things will be different this year after a strange and truncated 2020.
“The bullpen’s going to have to be fluid,” Hoyer said. “Guys are going to have to step up and step into different roles. … It will be fluid and that’s the way it always is in the bullpen. I think it’s rare that you know exactly what the roles are going to be going into spring training.
“We were a little bit spoiled by a guy like [Pedro Strop], for example, as sort of the 8th inning guy for a number of years. That’s not normal. I like the arms we have down there and I like our infrastructure’s ability to get the most out of those guys. I think Rossy will have a lot of options but exactly how it’s going to sort out after the closer I think will be the question.”
Andrew Chafin’s re-signing checks a major box as a veteran left-hander who has a lot of experience pitching in high-leverage situations. The emergence of Jason Adam and Duane Underwood Jr. late in 2020 could also provide some hope for this year. The same goes for Dan Winkler, who was a reliable option for Ross for most of last season after some early hiccups.
The Cubs will also have a lot of decisions to make with the mix of starting pitchers they have at their disposal. Guys like Alec Mills and Kohl Stewart have experience pitching out of the bullpen and could provide some valuable depth to this unit if they don’t carve out spots for themselves in the rotation.