Bullpens have grown more and more important over the last decade or so. Some of the best teams during that stretch have featured a mix of overpowering arms in the back end of the pen, ready to slam the door from as early as the sixth or seventh inning on.
The Chicago Cubs certainly do not have such a group heading into 2021. Regardless, it seems likely this is the set of arms they’ll roll with, hoping some of their reclamation projects pan out in a big way – similar to how they put the bullpen together last season.
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In 2020, Chicago relievers ranked sixth in the National League with a 4.38 ERA. Closer Craig Kimbrel didn’t really get it together until the waning weeks of the campaign, Rowan Wick missed much of the year with injury and it was guys like Jeremy Jeffress who stepped up in the wake of those issues.
Now, the Cubs are hoping Kimbrel can get off to a strong start – perhaps turning himself into a highly valuable trade asset come mid-summer. Wick should be back at 100 percent and the supporting cast is looking for a chance to make their mark in a bullpen that’s ripe with opportunities, ready for the taking.
From the left side, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are your two options. Ryan put together a breakout showing two years ago, only to trend sharply in the opposite direction last year, working through injuries and a dramatic loss of velocity. Wieck appeared just once and was a total non-factor.
We got the briefest of glimpses of top prospect Brailyn Marquez at season’s end, but it seems highly likely he opens the year in the minors – where teams are hoping for some sort of return to normalcy after missing the 2020 season altogether.
Kimbrel has the closer’s job in hand heading into camp and Wick will likely return to the eight-inning role. Other pieces in the machine include Jason Adam, Duane Underwood Jr (who seems likely to be the swing man given his experience starting), Dan Winkler, Jonathan Holder and Rule 5 pick Gray Fenter.
Like last offseason, a mix of minor league signings will get a look, as well. The Cubs will hope to find a few gems there – and, again, be able to piece together a bullpen capable of, at the very least, keeping them in ballgames.
While there are solid, proven relievers available on the free agent market, don’t expect Chicago to be players there. There are simply too many other issues with this roster (outfield depth, second base, the starting rotation) – to be dedicating what few resources seem to be available toward the bullpen.