A look at the Cubs current bullpen depth, Part 2: RHP

Craig Kimbrel (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Craig Kimbrel (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Incumbents

Craig Kimbrel

Rowan Wick (1 option year remaining)

There isn't much to say about this duo. Rowan Wick was one of the more pleasant surprises for the Cubs in 2019. The Craig Kimbrel signing, and his struggles upon arrival, were a surprise of a different nature. There is no doubt both figure to play key roles in the Cubs bullpen plans next season. Despite the vast difference in experience and accomplishment, both rely on similar mid-to-upper-90s fastball and spike curveball as their primary weapons.

Hopefully, Kimbrel is able to get his fastball velocity back up at the higher end of the spectrum with a normal offseason, but the pitch has been trending down over the past couple years, so Kimbrel may need to adjust his approach to succeed if this is his new normal.

The Cubs badly need Wick to repeat his 2019 breakout.

Tyler Chatwood

Alec Mills, Duane Underwood, Jr.

Assuming he isn't traded this offseason, Tyler Chatwood will have a role with the Cubs as either a starter or reliever in 2020. It seems reasonable to project him to return to the same swingman role he occupied in 2019, but the development of Alec Mills opens the door to a full-time return to the rotation or into a higher leverage role in the pen next year.

Alec Mills

Alec Mills

Mills has always had a good changeup, but with his fringy fastball it was never enough on its own to keep hitters honest. He needed a more reliable breaking ball, and over the last two years Mills has turned both his slider and slow curve into viable weapons. The fastball still scares me if he is asked to take regular turns in the rotation, but he's shown me enough where I consider him a solid option to fill the swing role in the pen heading into 2020.

Like Mills, Duane Underwood, Jr. is out of options and in a make or break situation heading into next spring. While the Cubs should close the book for good on his life as a starter, he is capable of working as a short or long man out of the pen. He also relies heavily on an above average changeup. Unfortunately, despite being able to run his fastball up around 97, it lacks life, and when Underwood struggles to command he ends up getting knocked around. The ability is certainly there but it is likely Underwood enters 2020 on the outside looking in, and will either need to take a further step forward with his consistency, or he will need to take advantage of opportunities provided by the struggles or injuries of others.

40-Man Roster Depth

Adbert Alzolay (1 option year remaining), Colin Rea (2 option years remaining)

Adbert Alzolay

Adbert Alzolay

Even if Tyler Chatwood ends up in the rotation and Alec Mills fails to come through as the swingman, the Cubs have other arms with the potential to fill the role. The big name is Adbert Alzolay. But the organization also promoted former Padres 5th starter Colin Rea to the 40-Man Roster after he posted a bounceback campaign with Iowa, earning the award for the PCL Pitcher of the Year. Alzolay has the upside and Rea the experience. Both figure to get stretched out in Spring Training and could certainly end up as the top two starters in the Iowa rotation, but depending on how things play out with Chatwood and Mills there could be an Opening Day roster opportunity for one of them.

Entering his final option year, the Cubs really need to figure out the best long-term role for Alzolay. With two starting pitchers entering their contract year (Chatwood and Jose Quintana), if the Cubs do not feel confident projecting Alzolay as a replacement for one of them in 2021, then they need to strongly consider transitioning him to a full-time relief role during the year. It would do Alzolay a disservice to leave him in the Iowa rotation as long as the organization did with Underwood in 2019.

Dillon Maples (1 option year remaining), James Norwood (1 option year remaining)

The 2019 Iowa bullpen was as talented as any group I can remember the Cubs sending to AAA to begin a season. It only took about a week into the season before Kyle Ryan was summoned to Chicago, where he pitched well enough that the thought of returning him to Des Moines probably never crossed anyone's mind. Once Rowan Wick gained confidence with his new spike curveball grip he began making the most of his MLB opportunities, even if the Cubs were too slow to trust him. Wick was good from day one and only got better as the season progressed.

James Norwood

James Norwood

The rest of the Iowa group battled through inconsistencies though. Alzolay missed time due to injury. Underwood got stuck filling in as an injury replacement in the rotation for much of the first half. With the Chicago bullpen hemorrhaging leads, the Cubs would have benefited greatly if either of their two most talented bullpen arms (Dillon Maples, James Norwood) managed to make a breakthrough.

Alas, Maples continued his career-long battle to find the strikezone, and it wasn't until the second half when James Norwood upped his secondary pitch usage that his season took on new life. Norwood gained enough confidence in his slider to use it earlier in the count. Batters chased the pitch more often and made less contact when they did. By that time though, Wick had supplanted Norwood (and Maples) in the pecking order on the Iowa shuttle, so MLB opportunities were limited.

Norwood did finish the year with some impressive games with the big club in September so his arrow is pointing up heading into 2020. If either one of these two can stay locked in they have the talent to force their way into a MLB role. They are the exact type of power arms the team needs. The Cubs may not be able to count on either securing a full-time job next spring given their lack of consistency, but it would behoove the team to makes sure the roster has the flexibility to make room if they prove ready.

Non-Roster Depth

Tyson Miller, Matt Swarmer

Tyson Miller

Tyson Miller

These two figure to form part of the backbone of the Iowa rotation. Both are Rule 5 eligible, and there has to be serious consideration to promoting Miller to the 40-Man roster given his success with Tennessee during the first half of 2019. He found the goings in Iowa a bit more difficult to navigate, particularly since the AAA rabbit ball took a bite out of him with regularity, but Miller was starting to settle in during the final month of the season. He's heavily reliant on his fastball, which possessing some natural, late cutter action. Miller did make some strides with his breaking pitches but despite starter's size and stamina, Miller currently projects better as a MLB reliever, at least until he shows greater consistency with his secondaries.

Swarmer also struggled mightily keeping the ball in the park (36 HR allowed). But he proved to be a reliable innings eater (organizational high 151.1 IP) in the Iowa rotation. He throws plenty of strikes and possesses the size and stamina of a starter, but his over-the-top delivery has always led to issues against left-handed batters. They hit .324 against him in 2019. While many ingredients are there for him to project as a back-of-the-rotation starter that one hole in his game figures to push him to the pen eventually.

Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Craig Brooks, Oscar de la Cruz, Scott Effross, Corey Black

I'm a big believer in Dakota Mekkes as an MLB reliever. I've made no secret of that the past couple of seasons. His stuff doesn't measure up to Maples or Norwood, but he is capable of hitting the mid-90s, while his slider and change flash as average pitches. What separates Mekkes is his unique delivery. Not only does he employ a low 3/4 arm slot and slingy arm action, the 6'7" righty also pushes hard off the mound to close the distance to the hitter before releasing the ball. It is a combo of deception and extension which regularly eats up opposing hitters.

Dakota Mekkes (photo by Dylan Heuer)

Dakota Mekkes (photo by Dylan Heuer)

I was wrong in thinking Mekkes would force his way into a MLB job by the end of 2019, but I haven't lost faith he can do so in 2020. Lefties killed him in 2019, but had never been an issue for him in the past, including his previous 1/2 season with Iowa in 2018. He still needs to refine his control to limit free passes, but I do believe the Cubs would be wise to add him to the 40-Man prior to the Rule 5 draft. There are plenty of power arms hanging around the upper levels of the Minors with more pure talent but the package Mekkes offers is rare.

Another arm to keep an eye on is Michael Rucker. He made the transition to full-time reliever last year and while there were a few bumps in the road, he grew more comfortable as the year went along. His velocity began to tick up into the mid-90s more consistently and in combination with his solid breaking pitches don't be surprised if he puts together a strong 2020 season. Rucker is Rule 5 eligible and I'm not sure the Cubs have room to protect him. I'm very curious how many of the Miller/Mekkes/Rucker trio the Cubs choose to add to the 40-Man roster.

The remaining four pitchers on the list are a collection of guys at a crossroad. Their career's have stalled at the AA due to inconsistency (Craig Brooks, Scott Effross), injury (Corey Black), or both (Oscar de la Cruz). It is unlikely there will be room in Iowa for all of them so the competition for any jobs should be fierce.

Craig Brooks has a wipeout slider. He's used it to dominate AA, but his spotty control and straight fastball have yet to translate at the AAA level. He needs to develop some other weapon or improved command to fall back on.

Scott Effross hit a similar wall the past two years, but at the AA, rather than AAA level. We've already seen a midseason adjustment (to a side arm delivery) in the hopes Effross can unlock a new level of production. He pitched well in the AFL this fall which should give him some momentum heading into next season.

I honestly don't know what to make of Oscar de la Cruz at this point. He just hasn't been able to establish any consistency. The Cubs thought enough of him to add him to the 40-Man two years ago, but it is telling he went unclaimed on waivers late last season when the Cubs dropped him from the roster. But the Cubs still felt there is enough ability to re-sign him to a successor contract for 2020. His stuff and command plateaued a few years ago as the injuries mounted. He's been moved to relief and de la Cruz is in need of an extended stretch of health and on-field success.

Acquired way back in 2013 in exchange for Alfonso Soriano, two Tommy John surgeries limited Corey Black to just 7.1 innings over the past three seasons (all in 2018). When healthy, Black has flashed MLB quality stuff, including a mid-90s heat and a starter's mix of secondaries.

Comments

Leave a comment
  • Outside of Wick, they have no one from the minors who has shown any consistency at the Major League level. Theo is gonna have to go outside and sign a couple of reliable, power arms for that BP. Right now, they just don't have the in house horses.

  • Nice write-up, Michael. While the minors may be lacking pitchers with star quality, there ARE some names that will be contributing at the MLB level, or at least have enough value to help swing a deal.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Cliff1969:

    The only pitchers we have that other teams would be interested in are Marquez, Jennings,Mcfarlane and possibly Alzolay and Underwood...

  • In reply to tater:

    And Corey Abbott, Tyson Miller, Riley Thompson, Yovanny Cruz & several more as the year goes on & they progress. Also I assume you mean Jensen & Mcavene. Castellanos was traded for Paul Richen & Alex Lange. Abbott & Miller (and probably some others) are arguably better & have higher upsides.

  • In reply to tater:

    Why would you assume that the only prospect trades that ever happen are future "stars?"

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    We need a pitching coach. We had a great one in Chris Bosio, his development of pitchers lead us to many trades for Theo to lead us to a World Series. Maddon did zero, zero! Who did Maddon develop? We won a World Series thanks to pitching we acquired and developed due to Bosio, and trades and drafts by Theo. Maddon did nothing, but he claims it. Bring back Bosio.

  • In reply to Roe Skidmore:

    Absolutely. There's nothing that motivates black players like referring to them as "little spider-monkeys." Every team needs some of that.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    I'd like to know who those names are? Michael doesn't seem particularly excited about any of them and with good reason. And counting on another Wick would be foolish. Every team in the playoffs last season had at least a couple of strike throwing power arms. I don't believe that's coming from Iowa.

  • In reply to Ronson54:

    It's hopeless. The Cubs are Doomed with a capital "D."

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Without some additions, yes, they are.

  • In reply to Ronson54:

    But they can’t add. Because the arm chairs here say “they’re broke” & “there’s nothing left in the farm system to deal from.” So...

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    ...And that's why at least one if not more of the core will be dealt. And for my part, from my armchair to yours, I was referring to the total lack of ML ready arms in the system.

  • Bullpen management might be the toughest part for any manager, especially a rookie. I don't know where they're gonna be able to find a couple solid relievers for cheap but they had better.

  • I know it's a long shot and many would call it crazy talk or commenting under the influence. But just to dream for a moment let's say Morrow is finally healthy again. Speculation bubbling he'll sign a minor league contract with the Cubs, Kimbrel, Morrow on the back end wouldn't be bad.

    Kimbrel
    Morrow
    Chatwood
    Wick
    Ryan (L)
    Wieck (L)
    Mills
    ?

    Not a bad start.

  • In reply to Cubmitted:

    Pass on Morrow

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Wrong again.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    It would have to depend on the terms of any new contract with Morrow. When he was healthy back a season+ ago - he was a useful closer. Something with a low base salary - and lots of incentives based on achievements maybe?

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Morrow said he would accept a minor league deal with the Cubs. IF. “If” he rehabs & comes back, he’s a heck of a pitcher. On a minor league deal there’s no real risk at all.

  • In reply to Cubmitted:

    I agree cubmitted, that is a good start. I would have liked them to have brought back Phelps. Most of the pens troubles last year, were early with Edwards and Stroop. And, of course later, with Kimbrel. I’ll give Kimbrel a pass cause he didn’t get a full ST.

  • Thanks, Michael, for the excellent analysis. I have enough trouble just keeping track of the Wick/Wieck brothers.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    We need a John Wick.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    I feel the same way with WaitUntilNextYear and WaitTillNextYear.

  • In reply to TexasCubsFan:

    LMAO! But true... :o)

  • Hi everyone, Larry from Oregon. I only recognize a few of names that the Cubs have brought up to the Majors, so pardon the ignorance. I wish them luck. What's Morrow doing now. Rehabbing? Able to throw farther than 60'6"? I hear the Windy City had some bad weather, whilst me, I'm wearing flip flops

  • In reply to LRCCubsFan:

    Morrow is throwing from what I understand. At his age he is at the point that he understands that if he is forced into surgery again his career is likely over. So, I expect he is going to sign a Minor League deal and give it one more shot to see if he can contribute. The Cubs will not count on him in any way, so any innings he ends up providing are gravy.

  • If Corey Black is an option, we are in trouble.

  • In reply to Hagsag:

    1 of more than a few options right now. The offseason has barely just begun. An awful lot can happen between now & spring training let alone season.

  • Corey Black is still 'lurking' down in the Farm system - had forgotten all about him. Would be interesting seeing they guy we got for Soriano finally pay some MLB-level dividends.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to drkazmd65:

    I seem to remember that when we acquired Corey Black the someone in the Yankee system was really ticked off he was traded. Did they know something we didn't or could have handled him differently? I know he was injured a few times and that could have something to do with his (lack of) development.

  • Its nice to read the Cubs are trying to sign Javy to a long term extension.
    If the Cubs could acquire a couple of players with above average speed, would be a boost for the club.

  • With 26-man rosters, I think it is important that they think through how they deploy these guys as much as who they start the season with, since 15 or more arms will likely get innings in the show.
    Rather than pigeon-hole certain guys into starters or relief, I'd like to see a couple of guys paired as openers to prop the back of the rotation. After Yu and Kyle, things get dicey. But if Mills opened for Quintana, and went once through the rotation, followed by Q going twice through, we should be singing the stretch and six outs from singing Go Cubs Go. Similarly pair Chatwood with Alzolay (either opening or stretched out). If Rea or Underwood have a better spring, substitute as situations warrant. That gets through two more games and if Lester has anything left in the tank he's a damn good fifth starter. And roles are irrelevant-he could pitch opening day and the logic still holds. Just need to spread out the openers and keep one other guy who could go multiple innings when asked. But an opener for Q and two guys piggybacking would take enormous pressure off of the traditional middle inning, bottom of the pen guys, so that Ryan, Wick and Weick can set up for Kimbrel.

  • I wonder if there is any chance of Kris Bryant going to the Angles. There #1 prospect would look great in center field for the Cubbies !

  • In reply to ronvet69:

    Heck even the ‘Angel’s’ #2 prospect looks good & almost ready. They could be a good fit for trading if Joe wants 1 or 2 of our guys for his team.

  • In reply to ronvet69:

    dodgers or padres are the teams I hope want to acquire bryant. Doubt the angels give up adell for bryant , would be shocked if they did

Leave a comment