The 2020 Major League Baseball season remains uncertain, as with all things in life during this pandemic. I’m admittedly stir crazy as I’m confined to my Chicago apartment, though thankfully there’s still plenty of baseball to analyze, obsess over, and project.
The Cubs 26-man roster was unsettled even as spring training was in full force, yet with the emergency work stoppage it’s still not impossible to (theoretically) tie up loose ends. Most of the roster uncertainty revolves around the bullpen, with those question marks — both in terms of personnel as well as production — making for a curious final makeup of the unit come Opening Day.
Relief pitching strategies in general will look vastly different league-wide this year, with a new three-batter minimum rule coming into effect once the season begins. Sadly, this new rule means the death of the specialist, meaning we won’t be saying LOOGY all that often anymore. And with all the question marks surrounding the Cubs ‘pen, it’s fair to wonder the extent to which this rule will impact the North Side squad.
There are roster projections everywhere, each iteration for the Cubs expressing little certainty with the Cubs relief corps. Before we get to assessing the impact of the rule changes on the Cubs ‘pen, here’s my take on how the bullpen might shake out:
Examining the ‘Pen Deeper
Given the current hiatus from baseball things could very well change, but this is the ‘pen I would pencil in for Opening Day. The extended break should allow Brad Wieck to fully recover from a heart procedure, and his presence will be especially felt as the second lefty in the bullpen. While Kyle Ryan had a bit of a breakout campaign for the Cubs in 2019, righties still hit fairly well against him (.256/.353/.383) in 35.2 innings, even as he was sturdy overall (3.54 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 61 innings). Ryan wasn’t especially dominant, but he was both durable and effective regardless of the situation, making him well suited as the featured lefty with the new rule changes.
Wieck’s presence therefore becomes especially important. He could theoretically be used as a lefty specialist (what if Joey Votto comes to the plate with runners on and two outs in the latter innings?) while also spelling Ryan. No one yet knows how Kyle will follow up his 2019 season, and that question mark is especially poignant when considering relievers on the whole are impossibly volatile. A second lefty in an eight man bullpen isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity, and Wieck impressed last year after being traded for Carl Edwards, Jr. During his September cameo with the Cubs Wieck posted a 3.60 ERA in 10 innings, with batters hitting a meager .063/.211/.188 slash.
Should Wieck make the ‘pen the many righties jockeying for a roster spot will suffer a demotion to Iowa, be placed on waivers, or potentially outright released. The iteration I proposed above is especially foreboding for Trevor Megill (a Rule-5 selection from San Diego) and Duane Underwood, Jr., who’s out of options and could be plucked by another club. Both pitchers feature quality stuff, but their lack of experience could seal their fate as they compete against a bevy of veteran righties.
Concerning those veteran arms, an intriguing name to follow is Casey Sadler. Acquired from the Dodgers in a quiet offseason trade, Sadler pitched quite well with both Tampa Bay and Los Angeles last season, and importantly, featured the ability to throw multiple innings. His 2.14 ERA in 2019 was belied by a 4.38 FIP, and he isn’t exactly a flamethrower that will net strikeouts (16.1 percent last season). Sadler does induce grounders (51.1 percent), however, and with a superb walk rate (6.7 percent) he would feature nicely alongside long-man Mills and spring training sensation Dan Winkler. Because Winkler has seen a velocity spike, and as they expect the same for presumed set-up man Jeffress, a sinker ball specialist like Sadler — who is finding success with his curve compliments of the Cubs Pitching Lab — slots into the ‘pen quite nicely.
Sadler also happens to be out of options, having been outrighted once in his career already, leaving low-risk signee Ryan Tepera the odd-man out. Tepera has more high-leverage experience, but he’s also under team control through 2021 and still features a minor league option. Tepera will undoubtedly see action this season on the big league club (and could very well make the roster from the get-go), but his roster flexibility makes him a nice depth piece in Iowa, should the front office decide as much.
Even with the 26th man roster addition it’s likely the Cubs carry just eight relievers, and the need for two lefties likely pushes Tepera out of the picture. Along with Dillon Maples, and starter/reliever types like Adbert Alzolay and Jharel Cotton, the Cubs are left with several depth options in what will likely become a bullpen carousel.
A Flexible Bullpen on a Budget
There’s no denying the front office used duct tape this offseason to address an ever-changing unit. The hope is that the organizational infrastructure changes and development of the Pitching Lab can get the most out of several under-the-radar signings and moves.
Despite the several misgivings fans likely have, the reality isn’t nearly as bad as one might think. The Cubs are gambling on players with considerable upside and/or proven effectiveness, which under the current budget constraints is an understandable strategy. Further still, these pitchers are particularly adept to handle the three batter minimum rule changes because of the variety of repertoires and experience pitching more than an inning at a time.
Admittedly there’s considerable risk entrusting the closer role to Kimbrel, but as with all things Cub-related it’s a gamble they’ve foisted upon themselves. Wick has had a shaky spring, but his breakout last season is a more important indicator, as is the reality he’s been tinkering with his pitches in Arizona.
All told, the Cubs ‘pen might be lacking on paper, but if the pieces fall into place they could be a surprisingly effective unit in 2020’s shortened season.
For Now, We Wait and See
We won’t know how well David Ross will be at deploying his bullpen until May/June/July, but it’s fair to say the front office has given him a chance, however uncertain, to prove successful.
The combination of high-leverage power arms, durable multi-inning relievers, and two underrated lefties creates the possibility for Rossy to experiment, to see just what he has at his disposal to buttress his questionable rotation.
Of the many question marks in 2020 the Cubs relief unit is one of the most significant. It stands to reason they just might be up to the task.
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