State of the Cubs

State of the Cubs: The many potential paths Cubs can take in building 2024 bullpen

7 months agoTony Andracki

The 2023 season is over and after narrowly missing out on the playoffs, the Cubs are staring down a pivotal winter. Before the stove starts heating up, we analyze the Cubs depth chart at each position and how Jed Hoyer’s front office might address the team’s needs.

Next up: Bullpen


1. Adbert Alzolay
2. Julian Merryweather
3. Mark Leiter Jr.
4. José Cuas
5. Daniel Palencia
6. Brandon Hughes
7. Luke Little
8. Drew Smyly
9. Hayden Wesneski
10. Javier Assad
11. Keegan Thompson
12. Michael Rucker
13. Jeremiah Estrada
14. Ethan Roberts
15. Codi Heuer
16. Nick Burdi
17. Brendon Little
18. Bailey Horn
19. Brailyn Marquez


That is quite the list above and the Cubs will undoubtedly add several more names to it before Spring Training 2024 opens (though there is no guarantee all the players listed above will be back with the Cubs).

The bullpen should be one of the main areas of focus for Jed Hoyer’s front office this winter. The overall numbers were pretty good for the unit in 2023 — 3.85 ERA (13th in MLB), .222 batting average against (4th), 26% strikeout rate (4th).

But there were also some concerning signs, including an 11% walk rate (2nd-worst in baseball) and a lack of depth down the stretch as injuries hit the group hard. As the Cubs were fighting for their playoff lives in September, the team saw Adbert Alzolay and Michael Fulmer hit the IL with forearm injuries and Brad Boxberger joined them after missing four months with the same injury earlier in the season. And on top of that, top setup guy Mark Leiter Jr. was banged up and down for several multi-game stretches even though he never went on the IL.

“That really affected us,” Hoyer said at his end-of-season press conference. “Losing three of your four guys you’re counting on towards the end, I think that’s gonna affect anybody.

“But certainly the lesson is learned from the year. When our bullpen was in good shape, we were very effective. We had times during the year that we were unable to hold leads, both in May and at the end of the season. And that’s something we have to address.”

Adding to the bullpen trend, the Cubs entered 2023 expecting Brandon Hughes and Keegan Thompson to be huge parts of the relief corps and instead the pair of homegrown arms dealt with a combination of injury and ineffectiveness.

Credit to David Ross and his coaching staff for piecing together a solid bullpen all season and helping some under-the-radar pitchers transform into core pieces.

Alzolay appeared in only 6 games in 2022 due to injury but emerged as a lockdown closer with an epic celebration.

Julian Merryweather was a waiver claim in January after years in Toronto of teasing elite stuff but struggling to stay healthy. He put it all together in Chicago, going wire-to-wire with 98 strikeouts, 2 saves and 17 holds in 72 innings.

Leiter was designated for assignment in January, re-signed on a minor-league deal and wound up pitching his first full professional season as a reliever, posting a 3.50 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 4 saves, 28 holds and 10.8 K/9.


Expect the Cubs to be active in the reliever market this winter. They were relatively quiet on that front a year ago, adding only Boxberger in free agency and Merryweather on waiver claim before signing Fulmer shortly after Spring Training started.

Hoyer and Carter Hawkins would prefer to find buy-low bullpen candidates rather than signing the top relievers to big contracts — a strategy that has worked out well in recent years with players like David Robertson, Chris Martin, Ryan Tepera and Andrew Chafin. The Cubs front office also likes to build a bullpen from within the organization and they entered 2023 feeling like there was a multitude of young arms on the cusp of helping out the big-league unit.

They will likely take the same approach this offseason, though they won’t be banking on the farm system producing reliable options — since it did not play out that way in 2023.

Jeremiah Estrada was one of the team’s most enticing relief prospects but he had a 6.75 ERA and 2.25 WHIP in 12 MLB games and didn’t pitch in Chicago after June 11. Daniel Palencia was shifted from a starter to the bullpen in the minor leagues and flashed a triple digits fastball and had some good moments in the majors but he also struggled to find consistency and pitched mostly in low-leverage situations.

Thompson took a big step back and spent most of the year in the minor leagues, Hughes battled a knee injury all season and Michael Rucker spent most of the final two months in Triple-A.

Beyond Palencia, Luke Little was the only young reliever to come up through the system and make an impact in the second half and the big lefty looked great (0.00 ERA, 12 strikeouts in 6.2 IP) albeit exclusively in low-leverage spots.

Hoyer would love to be able to build a bullpen almost exclusively from within the organization but in order to do so, the Cubs need to get more production out of young pitchers in 2024 and beyond.

“We do have a lot of good arms coming,” Hoyer said. “We have to develop those guys into good relievers and that transition is not easy.

“We do have to spend the offseason building up that depth. Because we lost a number of guys that we were counting on and that’s probably normal. So we have to assume that level of attrition.”

Expect the team to be in the market for a veteran left-handed reliever. Hughes is expected to be ready for 2024 Spring Training and Little could make the leap but the Cubs will want reliable depth. They do have some in-house options — Brendon Little, Bailey Horn, Brailyn Marquez — that could help out and the team might also opt to have Drew Smyly work in the bullpen.

Smyly began the year in the rotation but struggled as the season wore on, ultimately moving to the bullpen. He was dynamic as a reliever, posting a 2.51 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 12.2 K/9 out of the bullpen. He’s due to make $10.5 million in 2024, which is a lot for a reliever, but he represents another left-handed veteran option.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the injured players recover and if they can snag key bullpen roles in 2024.

Ethan Roberts looked to be a promising young reliever in spring of 2022 but had to undergo Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2023. With improved health, can Hughes return to the dynamic form we saw in 2022? Nick Burdi flashed wicked stuff in a brief stint before being hit with a couple of injuries and Codi Heuer fractured his elbow as he recovered from his own Tommy John surgery.

The bullpen will also be impacted by how the rotation shakes out. Beyond Smyly’s status, the Cubs could also utilize Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad as multi-inning or short-burst relievers.

A return to form from Thompson would be a welcome addition for the team after a lost season.

One important factor in the Cubs’ 2024 reliever group will come on Ross’ staff as the team is searching for a new bullpen coach following the departure of Chris Young after he held the position for the last four seasons.


The Cubs will build up their bullpen depth this offseason with multiple additions — either via free agency, trade or waiver claims. Expect there to be a bunch of minor-league signings with invites to Spring Training that could also impact how the Opening Day bullpen shakes out.

There are a lot of question marks within this group and the Cubs are also working hard to develop relievers from every level of the farm system.

State of the Cubs series

First Base
Second Base
Third Base
Left Field
Center Field
Right Field
Designated Hitter
Starting Rotation

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