Where Cubs pitching staff stands after recent signings
This offseason has been a slow burn as far as Cubs additions, but Jed Hoyer’s front office has been awfully busy lately.
Over the last couple weeks, the team reached an agreement with veteran catcher Austin Romine and right-handed pitcher Kohl Stewart. This week, they added three more names to the list as the Joc Pederson, Trevor Williams and Andrew Chafin deals were made official.
Pederson is the biggest addition to the roster to date, but Williams, Stewart and Chafin help to fill an important need for the 2021 Cubs.
After a 2020 that was filled with starts and stops due to the shutdown, many pitchers were not stretched out or throwing as often as they would have during a normal season. And even if they were able to get off the mound regularly, they still had only a fraction of the standard game action. No matter how intense a player is in his bullpen, it’s still no comparison to the stress and adrenaline of facing live competition in a game.
As such, most pitchers will face an innings cap in 2021 as organizations prioritize long-term health. It’s impossible to say right now what those ceilings will be, but it’s possible every team in baseball will need more pitching in 2021 than ever before.
“There’s an awareness that we’re going to have to use a lot of different guys to get through a season from a starting standpoint,” Hoyer said in December. “Everyone’s not going to be able to be healthy. People aren’t going to be able to take every fifth turn throughout a season the way we have in the past. I think the whole industry knows that and is talking about that.”
That’s where Williams and Stewart come in.
The Cubs no longer have veterans Jon Lester, Tyler Chatwood and José Quintana on the roster and while Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay impressed in 2020, they haven’t yet proven they can find success over the course of a full season.
With spring training a couple weeks away, here are the guys in the rotation picture for the Cubs right now:
Hendricks and Davies are probably the only locks at the moment, though Mills and Alzolay have likely done enough to earn a look in the rotation.
Williams and Stewart both received big-league deals and will get an opportunity to compete for a starting spot. Stewart is a former top prospect who also has some experience working as a reliever.
Williams will turn 29 in April and has a 4.43 career ERA working almost exclusively as a starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had a great year in 2018 (14-10, 3.11 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), though he has struggled to maintain that form since (5.60 ERA).
Like Stewart and Shelby Miller (a minor-league signing), Williams represents a buy-low option for the Cubs, who are hoping to hit on one or two of these types of pitchers.
Tyson Miller, 25, made his MLB debut in 2020 and has impressed the organization with his development in recent years, particularly at the alternate site in South Bend last summer. Steele, 25, was a former top prospect in the Cubs farm system but has been hampered by injuries the last couple years. He was called up to the big leagues in 2020 but never made an appearance.
Fenter was the Cubs’ selection in the Rule 5 draft in December and has experience as a starter and reliever, though he has never pitched above A-ball. Abbott and Thompson are both pitching prospects who were added to the 40-man roster this winter
Brailyn Marquez — the top pitcher in the farm system — is another option, though he will likely begin 2021 in the minor leagues to continue his development.
With Chafin back in tow, the bullpen also features a long list of guys competing for the eight or so spots:
Duane Underwood Jr.
Stewart, Fenter, Steele and Tyson Miller could also be options here.
That’s a long list of names, obviously, and it still remains to be seen exactly how large MLB rosters will be in 2021. But expect the Cubs to cycle a ton of arms through their bullpen this year.
Kimbrel and Wick are locked into spots while Adam and Underwood Jr. showed enough promise in 2020 to emerge as likely candidates for the Opening Day bullpen. (Underwood is also out of minor-league options.)
Chafin is an important piece of the puzzle, returning to fill the role of a reliable left-handed reliever who can get both lefties and righties out. The Cubs traded for him in the middle of last season but he only made 4 appearances with the team due to a finger injury. The 30-year-old has a 3.67 ERA to go along with 82 holds and 3 saves over his 7-year career.
Winkler was a free-agent addition last offseason and came on strong to finish the season (1.80 ERA in final 14 appearances). Ryan had a bit of a down year (5.17 ERA), but was the team’s most reliable left-handed reliever in 2019. Wieck flashed potential in September of 2019 after being acquired in the Carl Edwards Jr. trade with the Padres, but he missed almost all of 2020 with leg injuries.
Beyond Chafin, Holder is the only other addition to this group on a major-league deal while Stock was claimed off waivers in December. Bourque, Vasto, Kelley and Jewell reached minor-league agreements with the club throughout the winter.
Rodríguez, 24, was added to the 40-man roster after the 2019 season, but he missed much of last year with an arm injury. Maples and Norwood are other options on the 40-man roster, while the left-handed Patterson is among the minor-leaguers who could factor into the bullpen mix.
The Cubs likely have another move or two to make on the pitching staff and they’ve proven adept at finding contributors from unlikely sources in recent years.
However it ends up, the pitching competition will be intriguing to watch in spring training.