How Cubs' bullpen is shaping up ahead of Spring Training

January 29th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian's Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- The back end of the Cubs’ bullpen began to fray in the final weeks of last season. The trusted group that helped pull Chicago back into the playoff mix in the middle of the summer started to buckle as the innings piled up. It was one reason why the Cubs wound up just outside the postseason field.

In a conversation at the start of January, Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy felt the relief corps would benefit from the addition of at least one starting pitcher (allowing a few depth pieces to become potential bullpen options) and a couple more relief arms.

“Solidifying the bullpen is a priority for me,” Hottovy said. “I don't think that means necessarily a top-end, back-end guy. But just some solid, usable pieces in the middle that can pitch valuable innings and maybe push some of the workload away from some of the guys we had to rely on so much last year.”

In the past few weeks, the Cubs have checked some boxes on that front.

With the signing of lefty starter Shōta Imanaga, Chicago can use the spring to better determine a starting or relieving path for a few other pitchers. The Cubs also reached a one-year deal on Saturday with late-inning free-agent Hector Neris (per a source), and they made an earlier trade with the Dodgers that brought Yency Almonte into the fold.

Here is a look at the Cubs’ current bullpen picture:

Late innings

The addition of Neris leaves some flexibility for the final few frames. He has closing experience, but the Cubs already have Adbert Alzolay, who grabbed the closer’s job and ran with it last summer. Cubs manager Craig Counsell will have the ability to pick between either option, depending on matchups and availability.

In Neris, the Cubs are getting one of baseball’s most durable relievers over the past few years. Through the 2021-23 seasons (excluding the playoffs), the righty ranked third in appearances (215) and fifth in innings (208) among MLB relievers. He had a 1.71 ERA in 71 games -- his third year in a row hitting the 70-appearance threshold -- last year for the Astros.

That makes Neris a great resource for a Cubs bullpen that dealt with career-high workloads for multiple arms in 2023. That includes righty Julian Merryweather, who stepped up as a valuable setup man last year (3.38 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 72 innings) and enters '24 as another late-inning option.

Specialized arms

While Mark Leiter Jr. grew into a trusted setup man and occasional closer in 2023, the righty is best used in lefty-heavy lineup pockets. Armed with an elite splitter, Leiter held lefty batters to a .568 OPS in '23, compared to an .875 mark by right-handed hitters.

Almonte offered the reverse last year. He did much better against righties (.643 OPS) than lefties (.841 OPS). Neither Leiter nor Almonte have Minor League options, so expect them to be in the Opening Day bullpen as things stand.


Right now, the rotation projects to include Kyle Hendricks, Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon and Imanaga. Barring another addition this offseason, the top candidates for the fifth spot include Javier Assad, Drew Smyly, Hayden Wesneski and Jordan Wicks.

All four of those pitchers will be stretched out as starters in Spring Training, while understanding that the bullpen is another route to the roster. Assad, Smyly and Wesneski each spent time in the Cubs’ bullpen last year and had solid showings. If Wicks is not in the rotation, the rookie might be better served staying on a starter’s routine with Triple-A Iowa to open the season.

The rest of the depth

As the bullpen went through its issues over the final month last season, Trade Deadline pickup Jose Cuas handled some important innings. The sidearmer finished with a 3.99 ERA in a career-high 72 innings overall. Cuas still has a Minor League option, which helps with Chicago’s roster maneuverability.

Left-hander Luke Little and righty Daniel Palencia were farm-system success stories last summer, dominating the Minor Leagues en route to jobs in the Major League 'pen. Expect them to come into Spring Training with a chance to crack Counsell’s Opening Day relief corps.

The Cubs will have a list of non-roster invitees for this spring and there is always the possibility of making more additions before and throughout camp. Looking purely at the 40-man roster as it currently stands, Chicago has experienced arms with options (Keegan Thompson and Michael Rucker), plus a few more homegrown depth pieces (Bailey Horn and Porter Hodge).