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Spring Training Notebooks

Spring Training Notebook: Where Cubs bullpen stands before end of camp

1 month agoAndy Martinez

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The Cubs bullpen picture should be becoming clearer over the next week or so as camp winds down.

It’s one of the more intriguing areas of the team — injuries and ineffectiveness down the stretch last season were partial reasons why the Cubs saw the bullpen struggle down the stretch. This offseason, the Cubs were deliberate in adding to the unit, bringing aboard players with proven experience to augment a nucleus that flashed potential last season and a group of young arms ready to take the next step.

Héctor Neris was the headline addition to the staff, a veteran with experience in the playoffs and proven durability. Yency Almonte, acquired from the Dodgers in the Michael Busch trade, provides another proven option for manager Craig Counsell. The Cubs also added Carl Edwards Jr. and lefty Edwin Escobar on minor-league deals with camp invites this spring.

Add that to the three-headed monster the team had of Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay and the foundation for a solid bullpen is there.

But there are still some question marks with the final spots in the reliever corps.

Chief among them is how Counsell and the Cubs plan to deploy their rotation in the early part of the season. The team could carry up to 7 starting pitchers, with two of Jordan Wicks, Drew Smyly, Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski in the rotation and the other two as swingmen/spot starting options. If that’s the case, it leaves one open spot on the roster for a pitcher, assuming Neris, Almonte, Merryweather and Alzolay are all on the team.

If the Cubs opt to carry 6 starters, using just one of them as a swingman or spot starter, then the team has two open bullpen spots. In either situation, that leaves José Cuas, lefty Luke Little, Daniel Palencia, Keegan Thompson, Edwards and Escobar among the group competing for the final spot or two.

The conventional wisdom would lean towards Little as a lock, ensuring the team has one lefty reliever option, but that’s not how Counsell looks at a bullpen. He takes a wider view of the group instead of just looking at simple handedness splits.

“Their roles are to get outs,” Counsell said. “Like I think first and foremost, what’s their role? To get outs.”

So, the Cubs will look at the reliever room with a focus on the bigger picture: Who can record outs consistently and as long as possible throughout a 162-game season? And that will change throughout the year.

“I think every bullpen has to evolve,” Counsell said. “It should evolve. You shouldn’t be stuck on, ‘This is how it’s going to be Opening Day and it’s not changed.’

“You have to be ready to change your mind because it’s a hard job and it’s fickle and the sample sizes are small.”

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Hendricks solid in buildup

As Spring Training nears an end, the focus is starting to shift from just preparing and working on new tricks to getting results and cranking up the competitive factor.

Kyle Hendricks is turning his attention to the results-oriented part of spring and came away satisfied with his outing against the Guardians where he allowed a run on 4 hits in 3.2 innings and 3 strikeouts.

“The first one on the right track,” Hendricks said after the outing. “Two more left, you’re getting up against it, so it was good to get some positives.”

Hendricks was pulled with a pair of outs in the 4th but went back to the Cubs’ bullpen to warm up and throw another “7 [or] 8” pitches that got him to 75 on the day.

“Felt a lot better today just trying to pitch my game more, get ahead better with my fastball, just be in my mechanics more,” Hendricks said.

That timeline should have Hendricks pitching in the opening series in Texas, although the Cubs have yet to announce any starting plans beyond Justin Steele on Opening Day.

Next Up

The Cubs will host the Oakland A’s on Thursday at 3 p.m. at Sloan Park with Shota Imanaga getting the start.

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