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The new 3-batter minimum rule is one reason the Cubs are signing all these relievers

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There’s a method to this apparent madness.

New Cubs reliever Dan Winkler
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Cubs haven’t made a single signing of a major-league free agent to a guaranteed contract this offseason. This has frustrated many Cubs fans.

Over the last weeks and months I’ve reported here on the Cubs’ signings or acquisitions of various fungible relievers, including Dan Winkler, CD Pelham, Ryan Tepera and Travis Lakins, among others.

One of the reasons pitchers like this — and guys like Brad Wieck, acquired last summer — have been stockpiled by Theo & Co. is the fact that they can get hitters from both sides of the plate out, according to Mark Gonzales in the Tribune:

The versatility is key in light of new rules that will affect strategy as well as bullpen construction.

Pitchers must face a minimum of three batters unless the side is retired or an injury occurs. This was designed to speed up the pace of play, but it also places a premium on pitchers who can neutralize left-handed and right-handed hitters.

“The change is for the better, but we have to focus on relievers who can get out hitters from both sides of the plate,” Cubs President Theo Epstein said.

This makes a great deal of sense. The use of type of pitcher known as a LOOGY (Lefthanded One Out Guy) has declined in recent years, but something like that won’t be useful at all with the new rules. Lefthanded relievers brought in to face a tough lefthanded hitter (Gonzales uses Christian Yelich as an example) will also have to be able to retire righthanded batters, often in key situations late in close games.

Thus the following acquisitions:

Dan Winkler, whom the Cubs signed as a free agent, possesses a sharp cut fastball that helped him limit left-handed and right-handed batters to a .222 average in 27 appearances with the Braves last year.

Wieck, a 6-foot-9 left-hander the Cubs acquired from the Padres in a July deadline deal, limited right-handers to a .181 average, compared with a .230 mark against left-handers.

Ah, ha. Here are two examples of relievers who can retire batters from either side of the plate.

Another rule change in 2020 will increase the minimum amount of time a pitcher has to stay on the injured list from 10 days to 15. (For position players, it remains a minimum 10 days.) This was done to eliminate the roster manipulation many teams were doing (and let’s be honest, the Cubs were one of those teams) in shuttling relievers and starters back and forth from their minor league affiliates.

Something like this might still be possible for the Cubs, as Winkler, Tepera, Lakins and Pelham all have options remaining. Gonzales further points out:

So do Adbert Alzolay and newcomer Jharel Cotton, who are competing for the fifth spot in the rotation and could serve as long relievers.

Only about half the spots in the Opening Day bullpen are locks, writes Paul Sullivan:

Lakins is expected to be one several candidates for a bullpen spot, with only closer Craig Kimbrel and set-up men Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan assured of relief roles to start the season. Tyler Chatwood is likely to be moved back into the rotation if he performs well this spring, while former closer Brandon Morrow will make the opening day roster if he’s healthy.

So while the Cubs have not made any splashy, “sexy” free-agent signings or trades, the ones they have made could position them quite well for the way a 2020 bullpen has to be arranged due to new rules.