I'm not going to dig too deep into Craig Kimbrel's status right now. We know he is a little behind in his preparation for Opening Day, but it is still far too early to be concerned, especially with a veteran who has been around for a long time and knows how to get himself ready. If we get to ten days out and Kimbrel is still struggling, then I'll become concerned, but not before.
Jobs to Lose
The Cubs have three relievers who are out of options and figure to be in the pen on Opening Day: Alex Mills, Casey Sadler and Jeremy Jeffress. Accounting for Kimbrel and two jobs for lefties in the eight-man pen, that leaves them with two more open spots to fill from the right side.
While still in competition for the 5th starter job, Alec Mills is more likely to earn the swingman role at the start of the year. The main threat for the job likely comes from Jharel Cotton. Cotton's fastball and changeup look to be in a good place after missing most of the last two years due to injury, but his curveball is still a work in progress. With an option remaining, I think it is in Cotton's and the team's best interest to have him open the year in Iowa while continuing to work his way back into form. Along with Adbert Alzolay, Cotton can provide flexibility as either a starter or reliever depending on what needs arise early in the season. Both Cotton and Alzolay have higher upside than Mills, but Mills is the only one coming off a healthy season, is not working on fine-tuning a new pitch, and until there is a clear upgrade provided by the competition his status of being out of options actually provides him a measure of protection.
He may not be the hard throwing type who misses bats, but Casey Sadler offers the Cubs sort of a right-handed version of Kyle Ryan. Generating groundballs at a rate higher than 50% in 2019, Sadler settled on a pitch mix that was almost equal parts low-to-mid-90s sinker, slider and curve. Because he changes speeds and is unpredictable with his pitches in certain counts he keeps batters off balance, leading to a lot of weak contact. It requires walking a fine line, but with a strong 2019 under his belt Sadler figures to get first crack at the middle relief job vacated by Brandon Kintzler, as the Cubs value having a groundball specialist they can call upon.
Coming off a stellar 2018 campaign, Jeremy Jeffress was not able to replicate it in 2019 for the Brewers as a hip injury and drop in velocity saw his ERA balloon from 1.29 all the way to 5.02. The Cubs don't need him to get all the way back to his form from two years ago, but Jeffress does offer the most experienced option in the battle for the primary setup job ahead of Kimbrel, and the odds are the Cubs will grant him the opportunity when the season opens.
This trio may not offer the upside some wish (outside of a potential bounceback by Jeffress) but they figure to eat some innings at a low cost while the Cubs sort through the rest of their inventory. They are placeholders, essentially. If some of the more talented arms come through the team can adjust on the fly and move out one or more of these three if necessary.
I hesitate to include Rowan Wick among those with a job to lose, but he is incumbent setup man, so to speak. It took until the final third of the season, but Wick eventually earned Joe Maddon's trust enough to work in high leverage situations. His stuff is good, but a tick below elite. Ideally he is a 6th or 7th inning arm. The Cubs need guys like him who can miss some bats in those innings, and so in all likelihood he'll be given first crack, but there is a lot of competition from similarly skilled pitchers in camp. Given he still has an option season remaining he needs to prove he can replicate his 2019 success before inking his name to the roster.
Two of those similar arms belong to Rule 5 pick Trevor Megill, and former top prospect Duane Underwood, Jr. Both need to make the Opening Day roster in order to remain with the organization so there will be pressure to keep them. It will take strong spring performances to push Wick out of a job, but they have the talent to do so. Megill flashed upper-90s heat at times last year, and so far in camp has been sitting around 95-97. His secondaries are solid, and he is working on a new spike curveball which has shown a ton of promise, but has also been his most difficult offering to control. Ideally, he works in low leverage innings early in the season while looking to lock in the new curve and then grows into a larger role.
Underwood, Jr. becomes the most intriguing decision of the spring in my opinion. Early in his career as a starter, he relied heavily on above average fastballs and curves while his changeup remained a weak link. Over the past two years however, the roles have been reversed. The change has developed into a borderline plus pitch and his go-to offering. Meanwhile, the command of his fastball and the shape on his curve has faltered at times. Underwood would often cruise through multiple innings as a starter but then get knocked around in another frame as his command fell off.
Now in a relief role, he's shown some of the same unreliability, just spread over multiple outings instead of within the same game. In two of his three spring games he's breezed through his assigned inning, but in the other he missed or caught too much of the plate, which led to surrendering a crooked number. It was a pattern he followed in the second half of last season as well, which he will need to break if he ever hopes to reach his full potential.
If I had to bet on the composition of the Opening Day pen right now, six of the seven arms highlighted above (Kimbrel, Jeffress, Sadler, Underwood, Megill, Mills and Wick) would comprise the right side. It is possible Wick is the one pushed out as he is the only one the Cubs would not lose on waivers (or have to offer back to San Diego in Megill's case) but I would still expect him to be a part of the pen in Chicago given his 2019 performance. It is more likely someone in the group gets hurt and opens on the IL, or the Cubs decide one of Megill or Underwood simply isn't ready and the team can't afford to deal with their inconsistencies in a season which figures to have little margin for error.
Wick, Megill and Underwood have competition for those final two spots, however. Dan Winkler was a key cog in the Braves pen late in 2017 and throughout 2018, relying heavily on a plus cutter and slider. He fell off in 2019, finding himself returned to the Minors and eventually released, but the early returns this spring give hope that Winkler has rediscovered his top form.
Always a guy capable of generating high spin rates, the Cubs worked with him in the Pitch Lab to fine tune his fastball and slider in order to maximize the efficiency of that spin. Winkler's fastball, which had never been a strength previously, is showing well this spring, leading to more whiffs and pop-ups. If that becomes a reliable pitch to go along with the cutter and slider Winkler could quickly work his way into a high leverage job in Chicago, potentially even by Opening Day.
The other name to keep an eye on is Ryan Tepera. A solid performer for the Blue Jays from 2015-18, he fell off in 2019 just like Winkler. Another guy who relies heavily on a cutter, I haven't seen him this spring but I know AZ Phil has mentioned Tepera is throwing well. Both Winkler and Tepera have an option so the Cubs don't need to rush a decision, but given the uncertainty in the pen, if the team feels the need to rely on the veterans they may get the call sooner rather than later. This would displace one or more of Wick, Underwood, and Megill. The team could also decide Winkler and/or Tepera offer more than Sadler/Jeffress and choose to simply replace one veteran with another.
That brings us to the pair of hard throwing enigmas who have spent most of the last two years in Iowa trying to sort out their control problems. Dillon Maples and James Norwood are each capable of hitting the upper-90s with a potential plus out pitch to back it up (or in the case of Maples, his slider is a potential plus-plus offering). But not if he can't throw enough quality strikes.
Maples has yet to appear in a spring game, but that appears to be because the Cubs are attempting to make subtle adjustments to his mechanics and arm slot in an effort to help him harness that elite stuff of his.
Dillion Maples’ live BP session pic.twitter.com/qvBsKVtuGM
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) March 1, 2020
Ross on Dillon Maples pic.twitter.com/IkYCKf8069
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) March 1, 2020
David Ross was pretty effusive in his praise for Maples. I'm not sure, but I imagine he may have caught Maples at some point during his playing days. Ross knows, we all know, what type of potential Maples possesses. If he has become even a tad more reliable he can and will force his way into the bullpen picture regardless of who is in his way and whether they have options remaining or not.
Norwood has a steeper hill to climb. His fastball command may be better than Maples, but he struggles with his secondaries just as bad. The slider in particular is a pitch he rarely hits locates where he wants it. His splitter is likely the better of his offspeed pitches, but even that requires additional fine-tuning. Norwood is capable of forcing his way into a job, but the Cubs will be more hesitant to move guys out of his way than they will be with Maples.
Stop me if you've heard this one, but Brandon Morrow has suffered a couple of minor setbacks. He was never really an Opening Day option in my mind, so I almost look at this as a blessing in disguise. It was too much to expect Morrow would be ready for a full season load and it made no sense to push him into cold weather games this April. His arm hasn't been the issue this spring, so nothing has cropped up that puts his career in jeopardy. Slow him down, keep him back in EXST, with an eye toward a June return.
Brandon Morrow helps the Cubs in 2020.
I'm willing to die on this hill.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) January 30, 2020