How the Cubs plan to build their bullpen for 2023 and beyond
Over the last three seasons, the Cubs have executed a clear plan in the free agent relief market.
Buy low, find success, sell high.
From 2020 to 2022, the Cubs have added six veteran relief pitchers on short-term deals that have fared well for the team — five (Jeremy Jeffress, Ryan Tepera, Chris Martin, David Robertson, Mychal Givens) via free agency and one (Andrew Chafin) via trade.
In that time, those 6 pitchers combined for a 2.75 ERA and 1.06 WHIP across 242 innings of work.
Five of those pitchers were traded away as the Cubs continued to stockpile young, controllable players:
– Tepera was traded to the White Sox for Bailey Horn, who posted a 2.79 ERA across Double-A and High-A in 2022.
– Chafin was sent to Oakland for Greg Deichmann and Daniel Palencia. Palencia shined in the Cubs system in 2022, posting a 3.94 ERA in 20 starts for High-A South Bend and ranked No. 18 on Lance Brozdowski’s Top 25 Cubs Prospects.
– Martin was traded to the Dodgers for Zach McKinstry, a versatile utility infielder who played in 47 games for the Cubs in 2022.
– Givens was dealt to the Mets for Saúl González, a 23-year-old pitching prospect who posted a 3.63 ERA at Class-A Myrtle Beach last season.
– Robertson was sent to Philadelphia for pitcher Ben Brown, who was added to the 40-man this offseason and ranks 13th on Brozdowski’s Top 25 list.
The moves have paid off for the relievers, too. Tepera, Martin, Givens and Robertson all pitched in the playoffs the year they were traded away (including Robertson pitching for the Phillies in the 2022 World Series) and signed free agent contracts valued at nearly $60 million in the ensuing offseason.
It’s a recipe that’s worked for the present and future of the Cubs. But it’s not the long-term recipe that Jed Hoyer and the front office hope for the Cubs relief corps. After all, there’s probably no more volatile position group in the game than relief pitchers.
“My goal, my hope is that over the next 2-3 years that those guys are all coming out of our system,” Hoyer said at Cubs Convention. “The real goal is to provide great stuff in the bullpen that’s also coming.”
There have been early signs of that, even throughout the free agent success the Cubs have found in the reliever market. The most prominent come in the form of multi-inning relief weapons Keegan Thompson, Adbert Alzolay and, in 2021, Justin Steele. That trio combined for a 2.03 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over the last two seasons in relief.
That multi-inning relief pitcher will become more valuable going forward. This season will be the first full season with a 13-pitcher limit on the roster. Couple that with the 3-batter minimum for relievers and the ability to get multiple hitters out increases the value of pitchers like Thompson and Alzolay.
“I think that’s where the game’s gonna go to a certain extent,” Hoyer said. “You just have to use more platoon-neutral, multi-inning type guys to get through it.”
But there’s been the more traditional relievers, too, like Brandon Hughes, who posted a 3.12 ERA and 1.092 WHIP in 57 games in his first season in the majors. Scott Effross posted a 2.66 ERA before he was traded to the Yankees for Hayden Wesneski. Jeremiah Estrada and Ethan Roberts made their big-league debuts in 2022 and showed flashes that they could be valuable, big-league relievers.
There are other benefits to homegrown pitching, too.
First, often, they’re likely cheaper options than delving into the free agent market. Second, they have minor league options creating more flexibility within the 40-man roster — a relief pitcher can be optioned to create a roster spot for an injured player or overworked pitcher, rather than having to remove someone from the 40-man roster and risk losing them for nothing.
“Young guys with options that are less expensive,” Hoyer said. “That’s certainly what we want to develop.”
That’s partially why the Cubs haven’t been so active in the “buy-low market” for relief pitchers. Yes, they signed Brad Boxberger this offseason and he could very well fit into the category of Chafin, Robertson and the rest of that group. But it’s also a bet by the Cubs that their pitching infrastructure is producing big-league relievers like Hughes, Estrada and the multi-inning guys.
It’s a balancing act. In a perfect world, the Cubs aren’t signing multiple relievers. Instead, these arms are coming up from Iowa and Tennessee, getting outs and helping the Cubs close out games.
“I think when you look at the cost at some of the players we were able to do that on, it was — I don’t wanna say low-risk — but low stakes as far as what we were paying those guys and I do think the buy-low reliever market, so to speak, has been a lot higher than in the past,” Hoyer said. “I think that it’s made that job difficult, but all that said, really we have to be able to develop our own relievers in house and I love the offseason where I don’t have to sign anybody to be candid with you.
“I think that means we have a ton of arms and go with what we have internally. It’s a place you love to have efficiency.”