Chicago Cubs can’t gamble when it comes to next year’s bullpen

(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs have done little to address a bullpen that, as it currently stands, looks to be a major weakness for a team that hopes to be competitive.

Naturally, the Cubs would welcome Nicholas Castellanos back into the fold, especially if he is going to perform like he did when Chicago acquired him at the deadline (when he slashed .321/.356/.646 with 16 homers). But money is still a major issue there.

Say what you will about the “no money” narrative, but at least the Cubs have been pretty consistent with it throughout the course of this offseason.

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But while Castellanos is probably going to cost at least $17 million per year in AAV, the Cubs are letting potential commodities escape them in a crucial area: the bullpen.

The front office orchestrated a nice deal to bring back Brandon Morrow on a minor-league contract, which should be a low-risk, high-reward kind of move. They also signed former Atlanta Braves right-hander Dan Winkler, who had a poor 2019 has upside as a strikeout guy.

Even still, these moves are not even close to enough. Morrow has the talent to be a back-end guy, but until he proves himself fully healthy, there is only room for cautious optimism. The same can be said for Winkler, who will be 30 years old in February but has logged just over 100 innings in the majors.

The Cubs need more. Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek, two of the more effective bullpen arms in 2019, are both free agents. Right now, Chicago will lean heavily on guys like Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck to improve upon their strong September showings.

All the while, there are some solid veterans that are already off the market. The Minnesota Twins signed Sergio Romo for just one year at $5 million, while the Houston Astros re-signed sidewinder Joe Smith to a two-year, $8 million deal. Those both sound like pretty affordable deals for a Cubs team struggling to compete in the free agent market due to payroll issues.

How are Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer planning to address the bullpen needs on such a limited budget? Might they re-sign Kintzler? What about spending a little extra to sign Will Harris – one of the more reliable (and underrated) relievers in the last few years – to a two-year deal, especially if they were already interested in Blake Treinen?

Perhaps Chicago is comfortable with waiting out the rest of the market. Teams seem more intent on filling positional and rotational needs at this juncture, so it is possible that Epstein and Hoyer are looking to maximize trade value before pivoting towards other areas.

But even that is a very dangerous game. There are not a whole lot of quality bullpen arms on the market, and the Cubs probably cannot afford to get into a bidding war for someone like Dellin Betances.

The 2020 squad cannot afford to give steady high-leverage innings to youngsters like Duane Underwood Jr. and Adbert Alzolay. They also cannot bank on Morrow’s health or a bounce-back season from Craig Kimbrel. There needs to be some kind of safety net.

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In other words, Epstein and Hoyer would do well to narrow their focus toward signing (or acquiring) another relief arm or two. Otherwise, they risk feeling the same kind of frustrations Cubs fans felt throughout the 2019 campaign.