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Who will be in the Cubs’ bullpen on Opening Day?

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This is not as easy as you might think.

The Cubs’ bullpen at Wrigley Field
Al Yellon

The Cubs seemed to have a fairly set bullpen before this offseason began. It was filled with veteran pitchers, some of whom had tough years in 2018, but seemed primed for a rebound in 2019.

And then Theo Epstein went out and signed a whole passel of pitchers with big-league experience who will compete for jobs in the bullpen.

At MLB.com Tuesday, this article was posted with reports on all 30 teams and “battles” they’d have for positions during spring training. The Cubs’ battle was listed as “bullpen,” and here’s what reporter Jordan Bastian wrote:

With closer Brandon Morrow (right elbow) likely to be out for all of April, the Cubs have a long list of arms in the hunt for spots in the bullpen. The only sure things appear to be Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery and Brad Brach. Behind that group, Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing and Brandon Kintzler enter camp with something to prove. Chicago also signed Tony Barnette and Xavier Cedeno, and has a considerable amount of rostered and non-roster candidates jockeying for position. That gives manager Joe Maddon a lot of things to consider for a competition that will likely take the entire Spring Training to shake out.

I count 10 names there for eight bullpen spots, and to those you can add these two, who had big-league experience for the Cubs last year: Dillon Maples and Randy Rosario.

Something’s gotta give, obviously. I concur with Bastian’s five “sure things,” and we might add Duensing and Kintzler to that list, only because both have significant big-league experience and $8.5 million worth of contract between them. On the other hand, Theo Epstein didn’t sign Barnette and Cedeno, both of whom also have significant big-league experience, to not have them in the pen when the season begins.

It turns out, according to AZ Phil at The Cub Reporter, that Barnette has options remaining. A note on that site says:

any international player with Article XIX-A contractual rights (Tony Barnette) has the right to refuse an Optional Assignment and remain on his club’s MLB Active List (25-man roster) or elect free-agencv if optioned.

Article XIX-A refers to the fact that Barnette, even though he went through the MLB draft and was in the Diamondbacks’ system for four years, is considered an “international player” since he was signed by the Rangers in 2016 after he played six years in Japan’s NPB. Now, would Barnette refuse such an assignment? Impossible to tell at this point.

It’s possible, I suppose, that the Cubs will let Duensing and Kintzler go at the end of spring training if they don’t show well. Or, if they do show well, it’s possible they could be traded.

Regarding Chatwood, I suppose we simply don’t know what will happen with him. He simply can’t be on the 25-man roster if he’s going to pitch the way he did in 2018. On the other hand, maybe he’s fixed things. He does have good stuff and was a reasonably effective pitcher with the Rockies. Perhaps if he has a good spring, the Cubs can deal him somewhere. They’d likely have to eat some of the money, but that’s a better outcome than eating all of the $25 million they owe him.

So while the Cubs’ starting rotation and position-player lineup seem set, pay close attention to all of these relievers (not to mention the other 23 pitchers in camp) and how they are used during spring games. There might be more than one the Cubs are putting on display for scouts.