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The delicate balance the Cubs are striving for with their bullpen

2 years agoTony Andracki

The Cubs bullpen may be coming into focus, but the picture still isn’t crystal clear.

With Opening Day just a couple days away, there are still so many different directions the Cubs can go with their initial bullpen.

Lock Craig Kimbrel in as the closer and Jeremy Jeffress provides veteran depth as a guy who has experience in both setup and closing roles. Jeffress threw a scoreless inning Monday night, walking a White Sox hitter and striking out another. Kimbrel worked around a hit and a walk and struck out a batter in his inning of work on the South Side.

Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck and Kyle Ryan look primed for spots in the Opening Day bullpen given what they accomplished last season and their respective potential. The only question of that group was health and even with Ryan joining summer camp late, all appear to be on track at the moment.

That leaves a bunch of options, depending on how many pitchers the Cubs decide to roll with on the 30-man rosters. There was going to be a limit of 13 pitchers on a roster in 2020, but that’s been thrown out the window now for this shortened season, so the Cubs could conceivably have a 12-man bullpen if they so choose.

With Alec Mills likely joining the rotation to fill José Quintana’s spot and the fact the starters are not stretched out the way they normally would be to start a season, the Cubs will plan to take several guys who can give them length out of the bullpen. But they’ve also stretched as many guys as possible out for that exact reason.

“Yeah, there’s gonna be some tough decisions not only on how we want to shape this thing out, but when we want to use guys,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Monday. “I think you always have the veteran guys that have the track record that you trust in some big spots and we also have some young guys that are really throwing the ball well.

“Usually over the course of the season, you have the time and a longer runway for some of the veteran guys to fall into that role and ease into it. And you have the young guys who have opportunities to prove themselves up to this point. We don’t have that runway.

“I think you’re gonna see some veteran guys in some situations that they’re used to — some back end situations. But you’re also going to see some young guys who are going to be given a longer leash. Instead of coming in and throwing 1 inning, you can see a guy throw multiple if he feels good and looks good. There’s gonna be a lot of opportunity early.”

One of those young guys who could step up and emerge is James Norwood, who tossed a scoreless inning of work in Monday night’s exhibition game against the White Sox. Norwood flashed his tantalizing velocity, touching 98 mph on a perfectly located pitch to strike out Yoan Moncada.

Then there are veterans like Dan Winkler and Ryan Tepera vying for spots in the bullpen. Winkler threw a perfect inning of relief in Sunday’s exhibition and Tepera followed suit Monday, racking up a pair of strikeouts in his inning of work.

With their respective level of experience in the big leagues, Tepera (216 games) and Winkler (117) could be valuable resources in the Cubs bullpen. But Hottovy, David Ross and the rest of the organization have to prioritize the guys who can help the team win right now, regardless of experience. In a shortened season, every game takes on added importance.

“March was important, but I would argue that right now, what we’re seeing and what we feel is going to give us the best chance of winning,” Hottovy said Monday afternoon. “Right out of the gates, we have to be aggressive with that approach. We by no means have everything decided from [Sunday] and we’re gonna take a good look at a lot of guys [Monday] and over the next two days.

“We really have these next three days to make some good decisions and give guys opportunities to go out there and show us what they can do not only in a controlled setting but also against another opponent.”

Bullpens have becoming increasingly more valuable in today’s brand of baseball and for the Cubs to make a playoff run, they’re going to need to rely heavily on their relievers — especially in the early going.

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