Predictions for Cubs’ Opening Day Bullpen

We are just about a week away from the start of the regular season in Texas and the makeup of the Cubs roster has largely been determined. Team leadership still has some decisions to make, however, and today we’re looking specifically at the bullpen.

Barring injury, the top four spots in the Cubs’ relief corps appear to be set. Adbert Alzolay was very effective in the closer role and Julian Merryweather emerged as a great setup option in 2023. Héctor Neris was a key part of the Astros’ relief corps and figures to be the same after coming over as a free agent. Mark Leiter Jr. used his splitter to neutralize left-handed hitters for most of the season and has a spot as long as that pitch doesn’t disappear again.

That leaves four open spots in what is likely to be an eight-man unit, assuming the Cubs plan to carry 13 pitchers. I’ll make a quick case for each of the options, then predict what the final group will be on March 28. This is being done under the assumption that starter Jameson Taillon will start the season on the injured list and will be replaced in the rotation by Drew Smyly, who would otherwise be in the bullpen.

Javier Assad: He did a good job as a starter and a reliever in 2023, posting a 3.05 ERA in 109.1 innings. The righty is more of a pitch-to-contact guy who uses his cutter to create ground balls, and his ability to serve as a swingman between the rotation and the bullpen is valuable. However, there are issues that could develop into bigger problems at some point.

Assad’s 4.29 FIP is a full run higher than his ERA and his .269 BABIP indicates that he might have gotten lucky with hard-hit balls finding gloves more often than expected. Also, a low strikeout rate and 41 walks could be trouble if he isn’t able to strand 83.3% of his baserunners like he did in 2023.

Jose CuasThe Cubs acquired the side-arming right-hander from the Royals at the deadline last year and he overcame a shaky start to become one of the only reliable relief options left when injuries mounted in September. Cuas throws his sinker 60% of the time and generates most of his outs on the ground.

The chief concern with Cuas is his control, which appears to completely abandon him at times. He walked 35 batters and hit seven more in 65.1 innings pitched last year. When his complicated mechanics get out of whack, it’s almost better to pull him from the game rather than risk an implosion when his command disappears.

Ben Brown: The hard-throwing Brown came to Chicago in the David Robertson trade with the Phillies in 2022. He was a starter with Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa for most of 2023 and struggled a bit at the higher level with a 5.33 ERA. That said, his 130 strikeouts in 92.2 innings between both stops are evidence of his nasty stuff.

Becoming a reliever would boost his velocity even higher and, combined with his ability to miss bats, could make him very effective. As is often the case with young strikeout pitchers, though, Brown walked 51 batters in just 72.2 Triple-A frames. Those free passes and the fact that he still has options will probably keep him in the minors to begin the season.

Carl Edwards Jr.: Most people remember how things ended the last time Edwards was in a Cubs uniform, as he was traded to the Padres in 2019 after a horrible beginning to the season. The next couple of years were rough for him until he caught on with rebuilding Nationals in 2022 and had two solid years.

Edwards was a much different pitcher in Washington than he was in Chicago, striking out fewer hitters and also cutting down on the walks by pitching to contact. There’s a fair bit of risk between his injury history, decreased velocity, and the unpredictability of having more balls in play.

Luke Little: The towering southpaw appears to be the only viable left-handed option with Smyly temporarily in the rotation. Richard Lovelady and Brad Wieck haven’t done much of anything so far in camp, so I’m going to focus on Little. He made it all the way to the MLB level by September after beginning the season in high-A, and he’s generated a lot of buzz this spring with several strong outings.

Little can hit up to 97 mph with his fastball and has a nasty slider as well. With Leiter as the Cubs’ primary weapon against left-handed batters last season , it would help to have an actual lefty option. As such, I think Little has a good chance to make the roster, at least until Taillon comes back from his injury.

Yency Almonte: A hard-throwing righty who came over as part of the Michael Busch trade with the Dodgers, Almonte has been inconsistent over parts of six MLB seasons. He had a very good year in Los Angeles in 2022 with a 1.02 ERA in 35.1 innings, then followed it up with a 5.07 ERA in over 49 innings in 2023.

Almonte sits around 96 mph with the fastball and has a career strikeout rate of 21.9%, slightly below league average. Walks seem to be a big issue in the seasons where he struggles the most, especially when a 13.4% walk rate led to a 7.55 ERA with Colorado in 2021. All this makes him an even bigger wild card than the usual reliever.

Hayden Wesneski: The funky-throwing righty did a terrific job starting for the Cubs late in 2022, but that success did not carry over into 2023 when he struggled to a 4.63 ERA in 89 major league innings. A big problem was that left-hander hitters crushed him to the tune of a ridiculous .617 slugging percentage and 12 home runs in just 141 at-bats.

Wesneski has an unbelievable breaking ball that plays up in a relief role, and he is capable of pitching multiple innings. It still seems likely with his remaining minor-league options he will begin in Iowa until he can come up with a solution to his issues with lefty hitters.

Prediction: As you may have gathered from the commentary above, here are my picks for the Opening Day bullpen.

  1. Alzolay
  2. Neris
  3. Merryweather
  4. Leiter Jr.
  5. Assad
  6. Cuas
  7. Little
  8. Edwards

I think the Cubs value Assad’s versatility and prefer him to Wesneski in the long relief role. Cuas gets a spot because of his durability and unique delivery. Little has the best stuff of any left-handed reliever in the system, so he is worth a look with Smyly presumably in the rotation for the time being. It’s a very close race for the final spot, but I think Edwards gets the nod because his control is better than Almonte’s.

One thing we can say for certain is that this group is going to change, probably early and often. All of these players and several more currently in the organization — and probably some who aren’t with the Cubs yet — will likely be pitching in the majors at some point this season.

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