State of the Cubs

State of the Cubs: Bullpen

2 years agoTony Andracki

Uncertainty will be the name of the game around Major League Baseball this winter as the league navigates its first offseason following the pandemic-shortened campaign.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how things will play out in a winter unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the sport, but let’s take a look at where the Cubs stand with each position group heading into the offseason.

Next up: Bullpen

Depth Chart

  1. Craig Kimbrel
  2. Rowan Wick
  3. Ryan Tepera
  4. Jason Adam
  5. Kyle Ryan
  6. Duane Underwood Jr.
  7. Dan Winkler
  8. Brad Wieck
  9. James Norwood
  10. Dillon Maples
  11. Manuel Rodriguez

Analysis

The list above includes all the players on the Cubs 40-man roster currently under team control for 2021. Some of those guys on the list may wind up being non-tendered or moved in other ways. 

The Cubs could also shift any of the excess rotation options — like Colin Rea — into the bullpen as multi-inning relievers and may opt to give starting pitching prospects like Tyson Miller or Justin Steele (or Brailyn Marquez further down the road) a softer landing in the big leagues by deploying them out of the bullpen.

Then there’s the minor-league arms who are not currently on the 40-man roster: Jack Patterson, Michael Rucker, Dakota Mekkes, Wyatt Short, Burl Carraway, etc.

All told, that’s a solid group the Cubs have to choose from to build a bullpen next season. There’s some nice upside, especially if Carraway and Marquez can continue to develop and Wieck, Norwood and Rodriguez return from the injuries they suffered in 2020.

Kimbrel is a reliable anchor at the back end of the bullpen. After a tough 2019 season and a bumpy start to 2020, the veteran was lights out to finish the shortened season. Over his final 14 outings, Kimbrel had a 1.42 ERA with 26 strikeouts and 0 homers allowed in 12.2 innings while holding opponents to a miniscule .098 batting average.

If the same Kimbrel returns for 2021, that will be a huge boon to this bullpen, though the front office will undoubtedly add some more veteran depth this winter to pair with Kimbrel.

Carraway was the Cubs’ 2nd-round pick in this summer’s draft and the organization loves his upside as a left-handed reliever who can dial it up to 100 mph with his fastball and an above-average breaking ball. The Cubs feel he could move through the system quickly and become a staple in the bullpen in the near future, though he has yet to pitch in a professional game with no minor-league season this year.

Wick suffered a bad oblique strain at the tail end of the regular season, but is expected to be ready to go for the start of 2021. He has emerged as a stalwart in the bullpen, posting a 2.66 ERA with 10 holds and 6 saves over the last 2 years. When Kimbrel struggled early in 2020, Wick emerged as a trusted option to close games for manager David Ross.

Tepera, Winkler and Adam were all under-the-radar signings last offseason that paid big dividends for this team. Tepera posted a 3.92 ERA with 3 holds and 13.5 K/9 in 21 appearances. Winkler got over some early control issues to record a 2.95 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Adam began the year at the alternate site in South Bend but became a mainstay in the bullpen midseason and whiffed 21 batters in 13.2 innings with a 3.29 ERA.

Underwood also came on late in the year, as the 26-year-old right-hander sported a 2.53 ERA with 14 Ks over his final 10.2 innings. 

Ryan led the Cubs in appearances in 2019 and had a 3.54 ERA that season, but he was a late arrival to summer camp due to a process-related issue and recorded a 5.17 ERA with 5 homers allowed in 15.2 innings in 2020.

As a whole, the Cubs bullpen finished 4th in MLB with an impressive 27.8% strikeout rate and sat 13th with a 4.38 ERA.

What’s next?

The Cubs are losing a big part of their 2020 bullpen with Jeremy Jeffress headed for free agency. Left-hander Andrew Chafin was also impressive in his 4 appearances with the team after recovering from a finger injury (the Cubs acquired Chafin ahead of the Aug. 31 trade deadline). 

Bringing both veterans back would certainly help stabilize the Cubs bullpen, but we’ll see how the uncertain market plays out for Jeffress and Chafin.

Theo Epstein’s front office will undoubtedly be in search of bullpen upgrades this winter. They need some veteran help from the left side and Jeffress’ 2020 season proved how valuable it is to add another high-leverage arm or two to the back end of this unit. 

The Cubs have plenty of upside, some solid velocity and swing-and-miss amid their stable of relievers, but they also don’t have much experience. Only Kimbrel, Tepera and Winkler have extensive full-season experience among the group.

Bullpens are notoriously volatile from year to year plus injuries and roster turnover are to be expected, so the Cubs would like to have a plethora of quality relief options heading into spring training.

Bottom Line

The MLB postseason proved once again how important bullpens are in today’s game, so expect the Cubs front office to continue to add to this group this winter both with proven veteran additions and high-upside, buy-low options.

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