The 2020 Cubs bullpen will look significantly different than the one that ended the 2019 season. Among the departures are Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and David Phelps. Those four accounted for 206 of the Cubs’ 576 relief appearances in 2019, or 35.7 percent. Someone’s going to have to pick up the slack. Here’s a look at who is a lock for the Opening Day bullpen, who’s on the bubble, and who will likely be on the Iowa Shuttle.
I am operating under the assumption that the 26-man roster with a mandated maximum of 13 pitchers will result in an eight-man bullpen.
Opening Day locks
Craig Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck, Tyler Chatwood
I’m listing Chatwood with the relievers even though there’s a fair chance he opens the season in the rotation. Personally, I’d rather see Alec Mills (or even Colin Rea or Jharel Cotton) get first crack at the fifth spot behind Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana. Mills and Rea probably head to Iowa if they don’t make the Cubs rotation; Cotton could wind up a reliever.
Chatwood did all right in his five starts in 2019 (3.97 ERA, 1.456 WHIP) but was somewhat better in relief (33 outings, 3.67 ERA, 1.278 WHIP). His K rate was better in relief (8.8 per nine innings, compared to 8.3 as a starter), and his walk rate was similar in both. He can throw harder (up to 97) in relief. and posted four holds and two saves.
On the bubble
Dan Winkler, Duane Underwood Jr., James Norwood, Dillon Maples, Trevor Megill, Ryan Tepera, Travis Lakins, Jeremy Jeffress
The remaining three relievers (or four, if Chatwood is in the rotation) in the Opening Day bullpen will likely come from these eight pitchers. These men are all righthanders, which is all right because Ryan and Wieck are lefthanded.
Megill has a very good chance to be one of the three if he has a good enough spring, since he is a Rule 5 pick. If management doesn’t think he is that good, they will likely make a minor trade with the Padres so they can keep him at Triple-A Iowa.
This is probably a last chance for the “woods,” Duane and James. If one or both don’t make it, they might wind up designated for assignment.
The same is true for Maples, and you know I have an irrational like for him. If he can ever get his command and control harnessed, he can be a solid reliever in the major leagues. Big “if,” though.
Jeffress has been very good at times in the big leagues. Last year he wasn’t, largely due to injury. If he’s healthy, he probably makes the Opening Day pen.
Lakins, Tepera and Winkler all have options remaining and could wind up on the Iowa Shuttle along with the guys below.
Minor-league invites, Iowa Shuttle and miscellaneous
Tyson Miller, Manuel Rodriguez, Justin Steele, Tyler Olson, Caleb Simpson, Rex Brothers, Jason Adam, CD Pelham, Danny Hultzen, Brandon Morrow
The first three listed above are guys from the Cubs system on the 40-man roster. None has pitched in the big leagues yet; Miller and Steele are likely to be at Iowa as starters and Rodriguez at Tennesee as a reliever. I list them because they are all on the 40-man and likely to get some time in spring games.
The others all have varying levels of experience at the big-league level. For Brothers, this will be his second spring in Cubs camp (also 2016). Pelham and Adam have options remaining and Olson does not. Simpson has yet to pitch above Double-A.
Hultzen and Morrow are perhaps the most intriguing names on the minor-league invite list. Hultzen is a former No. 1 pick (Mariners, 2011) who went through several injuries and releases before making his MLB debut with the Cubs last September. He can still throw hard and as a lefthander, is intriguing.
Morrow probably makes the Opening Day bullpen if he’s healthy. That could be a real boost to the pen if he could get back to his 2017 level. At the very least, he’s then a solid setup man, and possibly could close if Kimbrel is injured or ineffective.
That’s 23 pitchers in camp (and there could be others; the Cubs have not released their full NRI list year) for eight bullpen spots. With so many pitchers competing for those eight spots, the Cubs have a pretty good chance at putting together a solid bullpen this season.