The Cubs bullpen, along with the rest of the team, faltered down the stretch in 2018. Key injuries to Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop weakened the back end, and disappointing performances from Carl Edwards Jr., Brian Duensing, and Brandon Kintzler further eroded the unit and continue to raise questions heading into the coming season.
In keeping with the theme of the winter, the Cubs did not spend big on the bullpen this winter. Instead, they went with a volume approach by signing a bunch of one-year and minor-league deals for veteran relievers.
The hope is that some of the spaghetti will stick to the wall and a few valuable pieces will present themselves. Perhaps some of the Cubs’ young prospects could also emerge to take a ‘pen position. So three weeks into the spring, who is emerging as a viable option and who isn’t?
Strop, Edwards, and Steve Cishek are locks, but Strop injured his hamstring Tuesday and may miss opening day. There’s a spot waiting for him Morrow once he returns, which could be by early May. The same goes for Mike Montgomery if he can recover from a minor shoulder injury.
These injury issues may open up four or five spots for a very large pool of potential relievers. Lefty Xavier Cedeño has yet to pitch with an injury of his own, while Brad Brach suffered from mono and has only been pitching in the high 80’s while making two appearances. Brach restructured his deal but it’s still guaranteed money and should lock him into a spot.
How about Duensing and Kintzler who are well paid, but weren’t effective last season? Duensing has allowed a couple home runs and has looked more or less average in his appearances. Kintzler has been bad, posting an ERA over 7.0, but that’s in just 3.2 innings of work. The Cubs don’t want to eat money when they’re already full, but it’s hard to see either lasting if the competition is stiff.
Allen Webster has been very good with a 1.29 ERA in seven games. Dakota Mekkes has also looked quite effective in his appearances and has excelled at every level of the minors, and I think both will make an appearance at some point this season.
Tony Barnette and George Kontos, vets brought in on one-year deals, have gotten shelled. Junichi Tazawa, while not getting much run, hasn’t given anything up in his two innings.
The most intriguing relievers this spring are Tyler Chatwood and Dillon Maples, pitchers with tons of stuff and serious control issues. They had walked a combined three batters heading into Tuesday evening, but Chatwood doubled that total in the 2nd inning of his start. Still, the signs of improvement are there.
The Cubs face some tough choices the next few weeks. One thing you can be certain of: Whatever form the bullpen takes to begin the season, it won’t stay that way for long.