Chicago Cubs: Bullpen battles to watch out for in spring training

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs’ bullpen is still very much in flux. Spring training is here, and now is the time it could start to become more clear.

The day we’ve been waiting for all winter is here: Chicago Cubs pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Mesa today. It’s been a long offseason of hearing about the Cubs’ budget and how no free agents are signing, but once the games get going, there will be plenty to talk about.

For the Cubs, one area to watch for in spring training is the bullpen. The group was thin at the end of last season, and while much of the roster is set, a few bullpen spots are still up for grabs.

The Cubs made several under-the-radar reliever acquisitions in the offseason who could end up being hit or miss. Spring training will be a proving ground for them to claim one of about eight spots in the big league bullpen.

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Shoo-ins for Chicago

A few bullpen spots already seem solidified going into spring training. Pedro Strop is an easy pick since he’ll likely be in the closer’s role with Brandon Morrow out for Opening Day with an injury. Carl Edwards Jr. figures to claim a spot as well as Steve Cishek and recent acquisition Brad Brach.

Assuming Yu Darvish is ready to join the rotation for Opening Day, Mike Montgomery will also claim an important role as a lefty in the bullpen. After those five, things get a bit more interesting.

Banking on bounce backs

At this time last year, Brian Duensing seemed an obvious choice for the big-league bullpen. He had an excellent 2017 season, pitching to a 2.74 ERA in 62 1/3 innings of work, and the Cubs needed more lefties in their bullpen. But after a tumultuous 2018, Duensing’s status is much more in question. In the end, the Cubs’ need for another lefty could outweigh the doubt surrounding Duensing. But in spring training, keep an eye on Randy Rosario, who was an effective option on the left side in 2018. It’s not out of the question that he could claim the spot over Duensing.

Brandon Kintzler is another more veteran name who is still potentially in question. He came to the Cubs from the Washington Nationals as a deadline acquisition in 2018 and had a terrible second half, with a 7.00 ERA in just 18 innings of work. In the end, Kintzler’s past success and veteran status will likely earn him a spot, but don’t count out the possibility he could be left out in favor of a younger option.

Under-the-radar options

Assuming Kintzler and Duensing both make the big league bullpen, that leaves one spot to be filled by a lesser-known name. Right-hander Tony Barnette could be in consideration to take that spot.

Barnette is an interesting case. He spent four seasons in the minor leagues at the beginning of his career and then played six seasons in Japan, then signed with the Texas Rangers in December 2015. He only pitched 26 1/3 innings at the big league level in 2018, but he had success in those innings, posting a 2.39 ERA. His spring training performance could be important in determining whether he’ll earn a spot in the big league bullpen.

Lefty Kyle Ryan is another option on the 40-man roster for the final spot. He spent all of 2018 in the minor leagues, but he has major league experience with the Detroit Tigers and could be useful if the Cubs need another left-handed reliever.

Right-hander Alec Mills was up and down between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago last season and also figures to be a guy who could be in consideration.

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The bullpen is likely the most interesting facet of the Cubs to watch in spring training. Keep an eye out for many of the young relievers on the rise. Even if they don’t make the active roster out of spring training, there’s a good chance they’ll make their way to Chicago in the bullpen shuffles throughout the season.