Cubs Bullpen Competition Status Check – Who’s In? Who’s Out? Who Could Go Either Way?
No game for the Chicago Cubs today, and we’re just ten days out from Opening Day. I figured that was a good time to check in on the bullpen competition, talk through each categorization, and try to predict an Opening Day group.
Inevitably, things start to feel a lot less crowded by the time Opening Day approaches, and this year is no different. It was a little more crowded than usual early on, and it’s a little more crowded than usual right now – but it’s not looking like an impossible set of decisions. Just some close calls.
My thoughts on where things stand for the Cubs’ Opening Day bullpen, among the guys still in big league camp …
Definitely In, Don’t Even Bother Reading This Section
Not a lot to say here. Fulmer and Boxberger were the big free agent signings in the bullpen and have given no reason to even wonder about their standings. Alzolay has been very good and clean this spring, and was already a lock anyway.
We Assumed They Were Definitely In Until a Week Ago
These two get their own category because of the unique circumstances of even having to discuss. When they are fully right, obviously these two are in the bullpen. They are impactful guys in the bullpen. But because they were delayed in their ramp up, neither has quite looked right yet this spring. So this designation is not really speaking to their quality as relief options for the Cubs, and instead is more about wondering whether they will be considered “ready” on day one.
We Assumed They Were Definitely Out Until a Week Ago (But Not Because They’re Bad!)
You likely know the story here by now. Thanks to his dominating performance in a multi-inning relief role in the WBC, it’s been impossible not to start thinking about whether Assad should be shifted from a “depth starter” role to a “good gravy get that guy in the bullpen right away” role. This becomes all the more likely if Thompson isn’t ready to go on day one. Increasingly, I’m thinking Assad is in the eight-man bullpen on Opening Day, because the guy is just ready to go. Doesn’t mean he can’t still go back to starter later on.
(I won’t officially list them, but I think you have to consider – in a similar vein – whether Hayden Wesneski or Adrian Sampson could wind up sneaking into the bullpen if they aren’t the 5th starter. I tend to think it’s far less likely than with Assad, but not impossible.)
I Think They’re Definitely In, But It’s a Liberal Use of Definitely
He’s in. Definitely. To me, anyway.
Merryweather has shown crystal clear impact-caliber bullpen stuff this spring – and in his career when healthy – and he’s out of minor league options. I don’t really see a reason for the Cubs to let him go for nothing. Unless there is behind-the-scenes data or warning signs or health concerns that we are completely unaware of, Julian Merryweather has to make the Opening Day bullpen.
Almost Certainly In, Right?
Mark Leiter Jr.
With an opt-out on his minor league deal coming immediately before Opening Day, the Cubs kinda have to treat Leiter more like an out-of-options 40-man guy rather than a true minor leaguer. Given how good he was in the second half last year in a pure relief role, and given that he’s looked solid to me this spring, I think Leiter could very well find a big league job elsewhere if the Cubs don’t give it to him. I think the bullpen is better with him in it, especially if there is only one (or none!) lefty in there. Leiter can pitch capably against righties, and can dominate lefties.
Rucker is clearly a solid up-down guy, which to me means he might make it or he might not … but it kinda doesn’t matter, because he’s going to be with the big league team plenty this year. With a mere eight-man bullpen, you simply NEED some guys to go up and down. It sucks for those pitchers, but there’s nothing to say they can’t stay up permanently if they break out.
Wick, who hasn’t ever really been an up-down guy, might be in that tier among this deep pool of relievers. When he’s right, he looks like a back-end guy. When he’s not right – when the velocity isn’t holding or the curveball isn’t available – he barely passes for middle relief. Wick was the former for long stretches last year, but was the latter for big chunks, too. He started to look really good again by the end of the year, and I tend to think that’s what will get him a spot in the Opening Day bullpen. But he does have options remaining, and maybe he winds up going up and down a bit this year.
Lefties Kay and Borucki look to me like possible big league arms for the Cubs out of the gate, but I suspect only one gets the nod, and only if Hughes isn’t ready to go. Each is on a minor league deal.
I find Duffey to be an exceptionally tough call. He’s on a minor league deal, so he’d need a 40-man spot to make the team. But he had a long track record of success in the big leagues with the Twins, and he has the look and feel of the TYPE of veteran the Cubs typically include in their bullpen mix.
Probably Out, But Hey They’re All Good, Man
It’s not impossible to see any of these guys making the bullpen in ten days, especially if there is another injury or two. But generally speaking, I think Elias and Nittoli are seen as veteran depth, Burdi is seen as a reclamation project that really might pay off but needs more time, and Sanders, Rodriguez, and Little are more like prospects whom you’d expect to see more time at Iowa anyway. Any of them could be up with the big league team for parts of this season, though.
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So, to recap, if you assume Thompson and Hughes start the season behind (not a certainty, but we’ll say it for these purposes), you’re looking at …
and two from the remaining names (I’ll guess Wick and Borucki, to be a completist)
That’s how I see things as of today, March 20. Ask me again in two days and some part of it will probably have shifted.