One of the biggest challenges the Chicago Cubs face this offseason is building a reliable bullpen for 2020. Who will stay, and who will go?
The lack of depth in the Chicago Cubs bullpen was a big reason the team failed to meet expectations in 2019. Add to that the fact that several pitchers who have been a key part of the bullpen are due to hit free agency this winter, and the Cubs’ front office has a tall task ahead of them in building a bullpen that is capable of locking down games next year.
One certainty is that Craig Kimbrel will be the closer, the Cubs locked him up for two more seasons. Despite a disastrous 2019 half-season with the team, he does have a proven track record of success and the team will have to hope that he can return to All-Star form next year.
Beyond that, the rest of the bullpen is a question mark. Let’s examine what it may look like in 2020.
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Chicago Cubs: Free agency looming
At least five key members of the bullpen could be free agents. Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek are unrestricted free agents. Both have had solid seasons and would be nice to have back. However, given that both will likely cost somewhere in the $7 million to $8 million range annually for two or three years, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs being able (or willing given age) to bring both back.
Hopefully, they can afford at least one. (Of course, they could also snag a different free agent reliever from another team for a similar price.)
Pedro Strop is also a free agent. He’s been a rock in the bullpen for several years, but he suffered by far his worst season with the team in 2019. However, he’s quietly recovered to have a good September. Right now, it looks like a toss-up whether he’ll be back.
The Cubs have options on David Phelps and Derek Holland. Because he’s made 40 appearances this year, Phelps would cost $5 million, while Holland would cost $7 million. The guess here is that they will pick up the Phelps option, as he’s been solid if not spectacular. Holland hasn’t been a total disaster with the Cubs, but given his up-and-down career, they would be wise to decline that option.
(The Cubs also have a $12 million option on Brandon Morrow. Since he didn’t even pitch in 2019, we’ll obviously assume Chicago declines that option).
Chicago Cubs: Key holdovers from 2019
The Cubs do have at least three more key pieces returning. Tyler Chatwood is under control through next year, and though he didn’t work out as a starter in 2018, he had a nice bounce back year mostly out of the bullpen while making five spot starts. Kyle Ryan was a pleasant surprise from the left side, as was Rowan Wick from the right side, and there’s no reason to believe both won’t be back as well.
Chicago Cubs: Internal options
Let’s say the Cubs bring back Kimbrel, Phelps, Chatwood, Ryan, Wick, and one or two more pitchers between Kintzler/Cishek/Strop/another free agent. That would mean the team would have to find at least two or three solid options internally.
Alec Mills has been great in a small sample size, though he may have earned an audition for the fifth starter’s spot in 2020. Brad Wieck has also mostly impressed in his second-half audition. James Norwood and Duane Underwood, Jr. both have earned a look, while Dillon Maples, Adbert Alzolay and Danny Hultzen are among those who also figure to get a chance. Hopefully, the Cubs can find at least two more solid arms out of this group in Spring Training.
So as we can see, there are a lot of big decisions coming up on the bullpen. It will be difficult to put together a bullpen even as good as the one from 2019, but the front office has shown in the past that they can find some good deals. Hopefully, they can do it again this winter.