Cubs to spend ST piecing together 'pen puzzle

January 23rd, 2020

CHICAGO -- The competition for jobs in the Cubs' bullpen this spring will be as wide open as it gets. Even closer Craig Kimbrel comes with question marks after last season, but his spot is just about the only defined role within the relief corps as it is currently constituted.

Lefty Kyle Ryan and righty Rowan Wick will go to camp as the favorites to reprise the setup roles they each seized last summer, and those two provide a snapshot of how Chicago is trying to piece together its 2020 'pen. The Cubs have been collecting an assortment of high-upside or low-risk projects this offseason, hoping to unearth a formidable crop of relievers.

"Any time there's a success story, it helps the buy-in," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "But I think we're getting more players that are just accustomed to hearing phrases, seeing pitch data, using Rapsodo. So the learning curve's a lot quicker."

Ryan came to the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, worked with the Triple-A team that summer on correcting an issue with his release point and developed into a reliable Major League option by the '19 campaign. Wick, an unheralded trade pickup from the Padres last winter, fine-tuned his curveball under the Cubs' watch and was setting up and closing games for Chicago by season's end.

This offseason, the Cubs saw such veteran arms as Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Pedro Strop hit free agency. Chicago then passed up the top end of the free-agent market, focusing instead on gathering a growing list of cost-effective options. Although much of that approach has been payroll-driven, it has, in turn, potentially improved the depth chart.

"One thing in this organization that we have had a lack of," Hottovy said, "is young interesting arms that have plus stuff and maybe just haven't done it yet. Now, I feel I look around this room, and we have 10 of those guys, and guys with really interesting pitch characteristics, interesting pitch mix."

Here is a look at the options added to the fold this offseason.

Reclamation projects

One thing the Cubs have tried to do in building up their bullpen possibilities is target relievers who are not too far removed from a solid showing. Atop this list is former closer Brandon Morrow, who agreed to re-sign with Chicago on a Minor League deal after losing a year and a half to injuries.

"Look, his willingness and his desire to still be here is awesome," Hottovy said. "I mean, it just shows you the type of person he is. Obviously, the last year didn't go the way he wanted it to go, and he's got something to prove. Personally, I'm excited to get to work with him again and have him in camp."

Morrow will be in camp on as a non-roster invitee, as will lefty Tyler Olson, who dealt with a non-baseball-related health issue late last season. It was not that long ago that Olson used his multiple arm angles to become a key part of Terry Francona's bullpen in Cleveland.

The Cubs also signed righties Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler to split one-year MLB contracts this offseason, adding them to the 40-man roster.

Tepera was shelved by a right elbow problem last year and turned in a 4.98 ERA for Toronto, but had a 3.60 ERA in 141 games in the previous two seasons combined. Winkler also struggled to the tune of a 4.98 ERA with the Braves before finishing '19 at Triple-A for the Giants. One year earlier, he had 3.43 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings for Atlanta.

Statcast darlings

A quick glance at the Cubs' Statcast numbers following their bullpen additions this offseason reveals something interesting. Chicago knows it does not have a finished product, but there is an intriguing chunk of clay ready for molding in terms of pitch design or usage.

Casey Sadley (acquired via trade from the Dodgers on Jan. 17) ranked 21st in average curveball spin rate (2,911 rpm) among pitchers with at least 50 results in '19. Olson and Travis Lakins (acquired via trade from the Red Sox on Tuesday) also ranked in the top 20 percent on that list.

Righty Jason Adam (Minor League contract) ranked 15th in average four-seam spin rate (2,580 rpm) last season, with Winkler (2,542 rpm) not far behind. In-house, the Cubs already have two Statcast stars in Tyler Chatwood (who will be in the rotation or bullpen) and Dillon Maples.

Hottovy said that the front office has kept him involved in the process of identifying arms to pursue.

"I want all of them," Hottovy said with a laugh. "I'm like, 'Yeah. Yes, yes, yes, yes.' It's just exciting, because again, yeah, we've had some success with some guys we acquired. It's just cool, because you watch them pitch and you see, maybe, them just not using a pitch quite the way we would like them to use it, or maybe not having the breaking ball break quite the way we want it to.

"And it's like, 'Oh man, it'd be awesome to get this guy in the lab and do this,' or, 'Oh, it'd be great for this guy to try to actually pitch in a little more.' Things like that. It's always exciting when that happens and you have those conversations. And I want them all. I'll take as many of them as I can."

Big, physical arms

During Cubs Convention last weekend, Hottovy talked with right-hander Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster this offseason. Rea -- more likely a rotation-depth piece than a reliever -- stands at 6-foot-5.

"I said to Colin Rea, 'You're short,'" Hottovy quipped. "He was standing next to two 6-foot-9 guys. What we're trying to do is go in the right direction."

Yes, part of the Cubs' approach has been to reel in some big, physical relief options.

Wick is not one of Chicago's Redwood Relievers, but he is built like a linebacker. Last summer, the Cubs traded for lefty Brad Wieck (listed at 6-foot-9), had him develop a knuckle-curve and watched him excel down the stretch in the big leagues.

This offseason, the Cubs have added two other physical relievers: left-hander CD Pelham (listed at 6-foot-6) and righty Trevor Megill (6-foot-8). Pelham, who was claimed off waivers, boasts a strong fastball, but dealt with command issues last year in Texas' system. Megill (taken in the Rule 5 Draft) has averaged 12.4 strikeouts per nine over his Minor League career with San Diego.

"What intrigues me the most about this group," Hottovy said, "is the fact that everybody wants to see a name. You know, Rowan Wick wasn't really a name coming into last year. Kyle Ryan had a cool story. These guys pitched themselves into that situation."