The mention of Adam Morgan being delayed this spring in the Bullets got me thinking about another lefty in the bullpen who is delayed (Kyle Ryan, COVID list), and that got me thinking about other lefty options for the Cubs’ bullpen to open the season, and THAT got me thinking about all the names the Cubs have in camp to compete for a bullpen job.
Basically, I just wanted to reset the bullpen competition into groups so that I could wrap my head around things. The Cubs will likely open the season with nine or ten relievers on the 26-man roster, depending on how many bench players they aim to keep.
As it stands, there are 33(!!!) names discussed below, all of whom are available to the Cubs in camp as bullpen arms for Opening Day. Some are far more likely to win a job than others, but on the whole, I really love the group the Cubs have assembled as a set of possibilities. There is a really good bullpen group here – heck, there are probably several! – and the Cubs will have to maximize not only performance early in the season, but also the flexibility to keep as many of these guys around as possible, since you’re going to need so many quality arms this year.
You’ll note that the Cubs currently have six presumptive starting pitchers on the roster – Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Jake Arrieta, Trevor Williams, Adbert Alzolay, and Alec Mills – but I’m not counting any in the bullpen discussion for now. Unfortunately, six starters becomes five starters very quickly in the spring, and/or it’s possible the Cubs will have an extra minor league option available on Alzolay. So I don’t really want to get too deep into the “oh, but what if the Cubs have to move Mills into the bullpen?” stuff just yet. We’ll presume all the starters are the starters, and they’re taken care of.
So, then, here are your rough categories of pitchers in camp for the Cubs …
Absolute lock if healthy
Until I actually went through this exercise and broke down the (many) categories below, I don’t know that I would’ve said there were only two sure-fire locks in the bullpen. But – stay with me! – there are. That’s crazy, but it underscores just how much flexibility the Cubs have with the rest of the bullpen. Because having only two locks doesn’t really speak to the substantial competitive volume of relievers the Cubs have available, and I have no concerns about there being “only two absolute locks” right now.
Absolute lock when healthy, but currently not healthy
The delay tied to Wick’s intercostal injury could keep him out for Opening Day, but he’ll still spend the vast majority of the season in the bullpen throwing critical innings.
Highly likely if healthy
These are guys who are in on big league deals, have had big league relief success, and are presumptively in the bullpen. I leave them as only “highly likely,” though, because neither has such a significant contract that the Cubs wouldn’t consider dropping them if it was clear that it just wasn’t going to happen for them in April. If you wanted to call these guys “locks,” I wouldn’t fight you.
40-man roster, no options remaining
Duane Underwood, Jr.
The last chance for Maples to finally stick? We’ve dreamed on the stuff for years now, but the command and control have never been there. Absent an injury, it’s sink or swim time, or else Maples will have to hit waivers at the end of Spring Training, and some other team is going to take a chance on the extreme stuff. It’s too tantalizing.
Underwood has flashed clear big league bullpen ability, but the consistency has been absent. I’m sure the Cubs would love for him to win a job in April.
Fenter gets the asterisk because he doesn’t technically fit in this category. He DOES have minor league options remaining – but the Cubs can’t use them, since he’s a Rule 5 pick. Either he makes the team, or the Cubs have to offer him back to the Orioles. Seems a good chance the Cubs will try to swing a trade to keep him in the org if he’s not going to make the team.
40-man roster, options remaining, but legit competing
Kyle Ryan (COVID list)
Here’s where you start to really see what I was talking about up top, not being super concerned about there being only two “absolute locks.” I mean, based on projected performance and stuff, Jason Adam should be an unholy lock for the bullpen. I’m a huge fan. But he does have that option remaining, so if he were starting out slow, or if there were a severe roster crunch and a lot of inflexible parts were looking studly … I don’t know. I mean, it seems super unlikely that he would be excluded, but the flexibility makes it possible.
Holder, Stock, and Wieck are really strong candidates to make the bullpen, but again, flexibility. Ryan would be highly likely to make it if he weren’t behind schedule, so we’ll keep tabs on that. Norwood has shown big league stuff for years now, but just hasn’t gotten over the command hump. Still, it’s hard to totally close the door on a guy with a 99 mph fastball and a wipeout changeup combo.
40-man roster, options remaining, probably opening in the minors
These are all guys who are in big league camp, but who are probably not going to get serious consideration for the Opening Day bullpen (maaaaaybe Rodriguez and Steele?). They have options remaining, but, more than that, they have more of a “prospect” feel to them. Experience is needed.
Minor league deal, probably legit competing
Adam Morgan (delayed after surgery last year)
Your veterans with big league experience who are in camp to win a job. Any of these guys could be in the Opening Day bullpen, and it wouldn’t surprise me, because they have shown big league ability, and the Cubs might be able to unlock a little more. Miller is probably going to be stretched out and competing for a rotation job, but if there isn’t a spot, it’s possible he’d be an interesting long relief option, especially in a year that might require a lot of that.
Minor league deal, probably opening in the minors
These are the non-roster invitees to Spring Training who are signed to minor league deals (or are team controlled in the minors), and the door is definitely open for them to surprise and win a spot, but it’s less likely than with others in camp. It’s a really, really fine line between some of these guys and those in the group just above. I’m mostly going by my sense of recent experience/success and stage in development, betting that those in this group are just a little less likely to be in competition for a bullpen job *on day one.* That doesn’t mean they might not factor in later into the season.
One final name who isn’t in any of the categories quite yet – is his signing not yet official? because he isn’t yet listed as an official non-roster invitee in camp – is Pedro Strop. The beloved veteran is trying to come back from a down 2019 season and then a kind of lost 2020 season, but I would call him a legitimate contender when he arrives.