What recent deals tell us about Cubs' bullpen in '23

December 16th, 2022

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.

As the Winter Meetings neared a close last week, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer’s eyes widened when he was asked for his take on how the relief market was shaping up this offseason. It’s no secret that among the club’s areas of need is bullpen help.

“It’s been an aggressive market so far,” Hoyer said, “To say the least.”

The focus for the North Siders in that part of the roster will likely be similar to past offseasons, when the Cubs looked to shorter-term value signings to add some experienced arms to the relief corps. That was already on display on Thursday, when the Cubs reached an agreement with righty Brad Boxberger on a one-year deal worth $2.8 million guaranteed.

Another path to upgrading the bullpen could come through lengthening the rotation depth chart. The Cubs already brought in Jameson Taillon via a four-year, $68 million deal and remain on the hunt for more help to expand the pool of starting options. In turn, that could move in-house starting pieces into the conversation for multi-inning relief roles.

Specifically, right-handers Adbert Alzolay, Keegan Thompson and Adrian Sampson could find themselves in the bullpen come Opening Day.

“In a perfect world,” Hoyer explained, “as we add starters, we're pushing someone really good that could potentially be a multi-inning weapon or whatever. I loved those games last year, when Keegan goes six, seven, eight and you can turn it over for one inning. That's a great way to go.

“And especially now within the world of pitcher limits and things, it's really hard, when you have a bullpen of four or five one-inning guys, it's hard not to overuse those guys. It's hard not to get banged up during the course of the summer.”

Alzolay, who will turn 28 in March, was on target for a rotation job last spring before a shoulder injury cost him most of 2022. He returned late in the season and posted a 3.38 ERA with 19 strikeouts and two walks in 13 1/3 innings (six games). Sampson, 31, has spun a 3.03 ERA in 31 games (24 starts and seven relief outings) over the last two years combined.

Thompson -- also 28 in March -- logged a 1.47 ERA in 12 relief appearances (36 2/3 innings) last season. The righty was one of four pitchers to have at least eight outings with three or more relief innings logged. He also made 17 starts, mostly from May to August, turning in a 4.83 ERA in that role.

In late September, as Thompson began considering the offseason, he said he planned to focus on his lower-half strength ahead of 2023. He also said that he learned his multifaceted role will require more regular maintenance when it comes to his weekly workout and throwing regimen, and that he will prepare with one job in mind for the start of Spring Training.

“I hope I'm a starter next year,” Thompson said at the end of the season. “I think everyone in the starting rotation would rather be a starter than in the bullpen. But I don't know what the role is going to be, so I'm just going to prepare for being a starter, and hopefully, that's what it is.”