Sorting through the right-handed bullpen competition

Craig Kimbrel (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Craig Kimbrel (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

The Closer

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.

Alec Mills

Alec Mills

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.

Duane Underwood 2Two 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.

The Competition

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.


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.

Filed under: Bullpen, Spring Training

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  • Excellent recap for the 2020 relief options. I will miss Cishek and his availability no matter the situation. Really wanted him back for at least another year... Strop, I was done with, Kinzler, meh..

  • Very good article Michael,

    Sounds like the Cubs are short at least one dominant reliever- especially if Wick stuff is more typical of a 6/7th inning arm.

    I think we all know the Cubs will be looking at other team relievers/pitchers who are also out of options. There might be more movement then typical at the end of spring training, when it comes to adding, and dropping players from the Cubs 40 man roster.

    I like the idea of a low cost bullpen. Keeping my fingers cross a few of these players can become reliable. Anything can happen with the bullpen, it is tough seeing a dominate shut down guy developing from this group.

  • In reply to Naujack:

    Jeffress is a big key. He was a dominant 8th inning guy two years ago. If he can rediscover that it sets the bullpen up nicely, with others in their proper place. If he doesn't (or Kimbrel struggles) then the Cubs could be in trouble.

    Someone from the Wieck, Winkler, Megill, Maples group needs to step up as a guy the Cubs can call upon to miss bats in the 8th. Wick, Sadler and Ryan can fill in, but they need a bit of BABIP luck to consistently perform in that role.

    I like the depth. They shouldn't have much issue during the 6th and 7th innings. The names are different, but right now I don't expect much difference from the 2019 bullpen, which overall had some of the best numbers in the Majors. They struggled in high leverage situations however, likely due to an inability to miss bats in comparison to the number of free passes they allowed. The number of blown leads the Cubs gave up last year was a bit fluky though, regardless of talent. That type of poor showing will be difficult to repeat and regression to the mean should occur to some extent. Better offense, defense and base running can help mitigate it some as well. Entering the 8th/9th with more 2-3 run leads as oppposed to 1-2 run leads can make a huge difference.

    The Cubs do need someone to emerge though, and if they don't get it, 2020 could become just as troublesome as 2019.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I like the depth too. I have a hunch the bullpen will be OK this year and not cost too much.

  • Descalso looks like he is in mid season form. Last night 0 for 3 with 3 K's. He already also has 1 hit this spring.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    had no chance against good fastballs last night. A little Linda Ronstadt -- "blue bayou". LOL!!!!

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Yeah, I mentioned it the other day, Descalso's bat and foot speed are just gone. There was a chance 2019 was caused in part due to his nagging injury, and I was willing to give him a shot in ST to show he still had something, but he doesn't. He's 32. It happens. The end comes for every ball player.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    So are you guessing the Cubs just release him?

  • In reply to John57:

    I can't see how they avoid it if he continues playing like this. Possible something changes as we are still three weeks out from Opening Day, but his chances are dwindling by the day. Kipnis does everything Descalso does at this point, but better.

    I guess it is possible Descalso accepts an assignment to Iowa. I can't see another team rushing to give him a 40-man spot, even at league minimum should the Cubs release him. He might want a fresh start somewhere else though even if it means taking a MiLB deal.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Need that 40 man spot for the potential 26th man. He's gotta go!

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thanks. If he is done playing maybe he can be an instructor or coach.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    What tells you he’s probably at the end of his rope is he couldn’t even cheat a bit early and catch up with fastballs. It was not a good look for him. I cannot see his career continuing.

  • Mills with 3 strong innings last night. Tepera and Sadler with a good inning of relief as well.

    If you don't have elite talent in the pen, it is good to have depth/options, which the Cubs have. As well, this depth can bide some time for the possibility of a young arm joining the team in the latter half of the season.

  • Way off topic: I just realized, that If the season gets cut short by the coronavirus, Theo will look like a genius for not spending.

  • Two questions—
    1. How does the three batter minimum impact the thinking? Will this change help or hurt the cubs relative to the rest of the league?
    2. Do you think Ross will pitch his starters longer, decreasing the volume of innings the relievers need to soak up?

  • In reply to Gunga:

    I don't think the Cubs will be affected much by the 3-batter minimum much, if at all.

    Their two lefties, Ryan and Wieck, already were used for full innings, or in the case of Ryan, occasional multi-inning outings. Wieck misses enough bats against RHB, and while Ryan gets hit a little more by RHB, they don't lift the ball well so he limits the damage.

    The righties they have typically have a secondary that plays well against lefties.

    As for the length of starting pitcher outings, a lot will depend on Lester and Q. I think Ross will give Darvish and Hendricks more slack than Maddon did, but it is very likely that Lester and Q remain 5-6 inning guys. Chatwood is always dependent on his control. If he's efficient in a start, I imagine they'll be willing to stretch him. Mills falls into the twice through camp as well.

    I don't think the 3-batter minimum is what will cause a team to push starters deeper into games though, it will be the 13-man roster limit for pitchers (as well as the return of the 15-day IL and recall limits for pitchers). Teams can't stash guys on IL or call up a 14th guy to get them through a few days anymore, so they'll need to monitor bullpen loads a bit more closely. I think it will translate into more 1+ inning outings by relievers rather than longer outings by starters, but each team will likely handle it a little differently while the league adjusts to the new rules.

  • Mlb released top 30 prospects today for nl central. Read the synopsis on Marquez. The write up has him topping off at 102 mph and sitting in upper nineties!!! Michael, have you seen this kid? If so , please share any info. Please let this kid stay healthy and continue to prosper. Farm should start producing some mlb ready players now.

  • In reply to Oldno7:

    Marquez does indeed sit 95-98 and touch 102 as a starting pitcher. His slider and changeup are still works in progress.

    I will have a full write up on Marquez in the near future, with plenty of video.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Awesome! Thanks!

  • I’m just going off the box score, but is jake stinnett still a viable candidate out of the bullpen? I think it’s been four maybe five years since he was drafted. I remember he had an injury early on or maybe in college. But is he past the point of no return? Just FYI too I have never seen him pitch but curious to where he is in Cubs equation going forward. Any info/insight is appreciated. Thanks!

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