It’s been a while since we’ve laid out the state of the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen, as it currently projects heading into 2020.
In a lot of ways, it looks very similar to what the Cubs aimed to do the last couple years: go with a lot of volume and see what happens.
But in a couple key ways – one good, one bad – it is starting to look different. In the bad way, the Cubs do not currently have a single veteran setup man under contract. Not one. Not a single guy who has generally been consistently solid in a bullpen for a number of years to have available for the 7th or 8th innings. That’s risky. In the good way, the Cubs DO have a very substantial number of younger/upside guys who simply haven’t had a chance to show what they can do for long, and often, that’s where great relievers emerge for the small-market clubs that *have* to give those guys a chance year-in, year-out.
So, then, here we go. The current state of the Cubs’ bullpen:
He’s the unquestioned guy heading into the season, even after last year’s ugly blip. You just hope it was a total derailment of his year because of the lengthy free agency, and he’s back to being very good again in 2020. Not much else you can do in that spot at this point to open the year.
Spot Locked Up
It’s insane that there are only two other guys here, and only Wick has the look of a setup man (with a whopping one year of experience to back it up). He could be very, very good – he flashed it last year for sure – but you have to remember that we see year-to-year fluctuations from guys like Wick all the time. As for Ryan, same story. He’s more fungible than a “setup” man, but if he’s right, he can be very useful.
(Tyler Chatwood would be in this group, too, but for now I’m counting him as the fifth starter.)
Competing for a Regular Spot
These are guys who have had big league success and, if healthy, are presumptively going to be in the bullpen. Winkler and Tepera are on minor league split deals, though, so they don’t have to make the big league club. Mills is out of minor league options, so unless the Cubs want to lose him for nothing, he’s sticking in the bullpen to open the year.
Big Upside Types
These are the guys that we KNOW have huge, big league caliber stuff. They’ve shown it in the big leagues already in flashes. They are the types that break out all across baseball every year when something finally clicks. The Cubs will have innings available to these guys, so that’s good! But obviously, there’s plenty of obvious downside here, too.
Rule 5 Guy
He gets his own category because, while he’s got big stuff, he’d more fairly fit into the up-and-down type category … except he’s a Rule 5 pick, so he cannot be shuttled up and down. My guess is, if the Cubs like what they see in Spring Training, but he’s not OBVIOUSLY an immediate impact guy, they’ll make a minor trade with the Padres so they can keep him and then option him to Iowa.
Out of Options
Duane Underwood Jr.
Another guy who gets his own category, because he hasn’t quite flashed as much as the four guys above, and he’s also not a sure thing to make the big league bullpen. He’s got the starter kit for a great reliever, with a good fastball and a plus change. But he’ll need to look mighty impressive in the Spring.
Minor League Up-and-Down Depth
You need a lot of usable bullpen depth available at AAA, and some or all of this group could be there. I doubt they make the big league bullpen out of Spring Training, but I’d be shocked if at least a few didn’t see some big league innings this year.
Minor league signees with plenty of talent, and even more questions about the health. If Morrow is totally healthy, my guess is he’ll get a shot very early in the year with the Cubs, because they’re gonna want to know what he can do. Hultzen still hasn’t had his minor league contract finalized, per Arizona Phil, so I’m not quite sure what’s going on there. I hope he’s healthy.
On the whole, as you can see, the Cubs do have a ton of bodies and a ton of upside. There aren’t a lot of (any?) sure things, though, so the onus will be on the coaching staff and the front office to very quickly and effectively identify the right guys out of the gate.
This is the kind of group that you see small-market clubs succeed with all the time (yes, I know that’s the second pointed “small-market” reference I’ve made, but I’m just pointing out that this is where you see it most). I love the potential upside with this group. I’d just feel a lot more comfortable if there were at least one more veteran, semi-sure-thing in the mix. Maybe the Cubs will eventually be able to bring back Brandon Kintzler or something. When they have the dollars …
(A reminder that, in 2020, because of the advent of the 26-man roster, teams will be limited to 13 pitchers total. That means no more of those nine-man bullpen days, and even more need to have useful bullpen depth circulating back and forth from AAA Iowa … which, in turn, has been made a little more challenging by the Injured List stint for pitchers raising from 10 days to 15. The Cubs, like other clubs, will have to be very creative to keep guys fresh.)