State of the Cubs: Bullpen littered with plenty of options — and question marks
The 2022 season is over and the Cubs are facing one of the most important offseasons in recent memory. Before the stove starts heating up, we examine where the Cubs depth chart stands at each position and where the holes might be for Jed Hoyer’s front office to fill.
Next up: Bullpen
- Brandon Hughes
- Manuel Rodríguez
- Mark Leiter Jr.
- Michael Rucker
- Keegan Thompson
- Adbert Alzolay
- Jeremiah Estrada
- Adrian Sampson
- Rowan Wick
- Erich Uelmen
- Steven Brault
- Anderson Espinoza
- Brailyn Marquez
- Brendon Little
As the offseason nears, the Cubs’ bullpen situation proves to be a mixed bag — there are some locks, but, certainly, plenty of question marks. The Cubs pitching infrastructure has improved enough where there are plenty of homegrown arms that can round out the bullpen, but the team will need to look outside of the organization to add proven options to the relief corps.
The Cubs traded away four relievers prior to the trade deadline in 2022 in Scott Effross, Chris Martin, Mychal Givens and David Robertson. That was a massive part of the Cubs’ bullpen in the beginning of the season as the foursome went 11-6 with 17 saves, a 2.88 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 192 strikeouts across 156.1 innings.
Still, there were plenty of young arms who stepped into leverage arms and showed promise after the deadline.
Hughes was a prime example in 2022 of the success of the Cubs pitching infrastructure — he was a relative unknown heading into the season, called up in May and by the end of the season was David Ross’ top relief option. A converted outfielder who was almost released by the organization, Hughes racked up 8 saves and a 1.4 WAR across 57 appearances with a 3.12 ERA and 1.092 WHIP. Heading into 2023, the lefty has secured a spot in the Cubs’ bullpen.
“I think that’s the biggest part is finishing a full season; that’s what makes me proud,” Hughes said. “I haven’t done that as a pitcher. I’m happy to make it all the way through the season.”
Behind him, another pair of homegrown arms pitched in leverage moments for the Cubs in late 2022 — Rucker and Rodríguez. Both present interesting options for the Cubs; Rucker was recalled on Aug. 2 from Triple-A and posted a 2.93 ERA across 30.2 innings in the final two months of the season and the hard-throwing Rodríguez returned from an elbow injury to pitch in the final month-plus of the season with a 3.29 ERA across 13.2 innings.
Leiter bounced around for the Cubs early in the season, starting and pitching in a mop-up role before finally settling into a leverage option over the final two months of the season for the Cubs. He was recalled on July 30 and in his final 21 games pitched to a 2.17 ERA across 28 innings with 3 saves and 4 holds. Leiter Jr., Rucker and Rodríguez could be options in the bullpen for the Cubs in 2023.
While the group of four pitchers could be late-inning arms, there’s another group of interesting pitchers the Cubs could opt to use in the bullpen that can serve very valuable roles for the team.
Keegan Thompson, Adbert Alzolay and Hayden Wesneski — provide interesting options for the Cubs’ bullpen. Thompson and Alzolay both featured in 2022 as long-relief options that Ross classified as “weapons.” Depending on what the Cubs do with their rotation in terms of offseason acquisitions, a mixture of the three could provide rotation or long-relief options for the Cubs in 2023. As a reliever, Thompson made 12 appearances, pitching 36.2 innings and allowing a miniscule 0.90 WHIP and a 1.47 ERA. Alzolay appeared in 6 games after returning from a lat muscle injury and posted a 3.38 ERA and 0.83 WHIP. But the Cubs aren’t married to just having Alzolay be a reliever.
“I think we still feel like it’s important to get him stretched out,” Tommy Hottovy said in Pittsburgh near the end of the season. “Being able to have starting depth is always valuable … But having that multi-inning guy — you’ve seen when [Justin] Steele was in that role, when Keegan has been in that role when Adbert was in that role last year — it’s such a valuable role to have.”
Wesneski, who was acquired for Effross, made two appearances in relief, but overall was 3-2 with a 2.18 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP in 6 games (4 starts). Any one of the three — and add in other starting depth like Javier Assad, Caleb Kilian or Sampson — could fill in the long relief/spot starter role.
Beyond that, there’s a set of interesting arms the Cubs will face decisions on this winter.
Uelmen made his major league debut in 2022, pitching to a 4.67 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP across 25 games. He likely will pitch innings in 2023 but could start the season in the minors if the Cubs add enough veteran help this offseason. Wick is arbitration eligible this winter and the Cubs have to decide if they should tender him a contract. Across 64 games, he posted a 4.22 ERA and a 1.688 WHIP. Steven Brault was signed last spring and is arbitration eligible. He made 9 appearances in 2022, posting a 3.00 ERA and a 1.444 WHIP for the Cubs as he battled injuries throughout the year.
Estrada and Little both made their debuts for the Cubs in 2022 when the team played in Toronto. Estrada impressed and was added to the 40-man roster, making 5 appearances and posting a 3.18 ERA with 8 strikeouts in 5.2 innings. His repertoire — a powerful 4-seam fastball with a mid-80s changeup and a strong slider — makes him an interesting option for the Cubs’ bullpen next season.
Codi Heuer was acquired from the White Sox in 2021 for Craig Kimbrel and underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring, just before the lockout was lifted. He could return late in 2023 and become a bullpen option for Ross.
Espinoza provided length for the Cubs in 2022, but he could be on the outside looking in this winter as the Cubs face a 40-man crunch. Marquez missed 2022 and hasn’t pitched in a competitive game since he made his major-league debut in 2020.
Beyond the Cubs’ current 40-man roster, there’s a handful of intriguing minor-league arms that are interesting options to pitch for them in 2023. Ben Leeper and Danis Correa are some of the names in the Hughes mold that could pitch their way into the Cubs bullpen.
“Anything can happen once you give somebody an opportunity,” Hughes said.
But the Cubs have made no secret of their desire to seek outside help to round out their bullpen.
“I think you always want to have some stabilizers in the bullpen for sure,” Jed Hoyer said at his end-of-season press conference. “I’d love to think that we can get to a point as an organization where we can almost entirely build our bullpen internally. We’re not there yet. And we’re not going to be there next year. So that that will be a focus.”
The Cubs have had success in doing that the past few seasons, signing veterans like Ryan Tepera, David Robertson and Chris Martin via free agency. Seasoned relievers have provided a boon to the team on the field, but they are also invaluable with what they provide to the younger relievers as they carve out roles.
“A lot of it is just seeing their example,” Rucker said. “They’ve done it, they’ve been in all kinds of situations. They were the ‘high-leverage guys’ so we were able to see what they had to do, how they got prepared.”
There’s plenty of free agents that could be options for the Cubs. Veterans like Ken Giles, Archie Bradley, Zack Britton and others are free agents and all have experience closing games. They fit in the mold of arms the Cubs have acquired and have been able to reignite their careers. It’s unlikely they’ll be in the market for someone like Edwin Díaz, the Mets’ electric closer who is likely to command a big, multi-year contract. But a deep market could net the Cubs with a solid core for the backend of their bullpen, much like they’ve done the last few seasons.
While the Cubs will likely be mentioned a lot for some of the big-name free agent targets at shortstop or starting pitching, they’ll also be just as active — if not more — in the free agent reliever market. There are some homegrown and young options, but the Cubs will need and want to fill out the bullpen with experienced arms that can pitch in leverage situations, like they’ve done in the last few seasons.