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Inbox: What will the Cubs' bullpen look like?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian answers questions from fans
@MLBastian
March 9, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- During the broadcast of the Cubs' game against the Reds on Wednesday last week, Marquee Sports Network posted the following statistic: CUBS HISTORY - MINIMUM 300 IP Lowest ERA Among Relievers Bruce Sutter (1976-80): 2.39 Lee Smith (1980-87): 2.82 Pedro Strop (2013-19): 2.90 Strop posted a picture

MESA, Ariz. -- During the broadcast of the Cubs' game against the Reds on Wednesday last week, Marquee Sports Network posted the following statistic:

CUBS HISTORY - MINIMUM 300 IP
Lowest ERA Among Relievers

Bruce Sutter (1976-80): 2.39
Lee Smith (1980-87): 2.82
Pedro Strop (2013-19): 2.90

Strop posted a picture of that list on his Instagram account (@pstroop) with the only caption being two flame emojis and two praising hands. The veteran reliever is unquestionably one of the greatest relievers in Cubs history, but he now suits up for the Reds. Chicago parted ways with a handful of established arms and rebuilt its bullpen via more cost-effective means.

"They did try to sign me back," Strop said last week. "I don't feel bad, like, 'Oh, why don't they want me no more?' Because I know they did. And I'm really happy. It made me feel good when I saw that, even when I didn't have my best year, they tried to bring me back.

"So, that was a good feeling. Now, time to turn the page."

With that page indeed turned, here's a bullpen-focused Inbox on an off-day for the Cubs.

The good news is that every pitcher's ERA resets when Opening Day arrives, right? It's smart not to overreact to Spring Training statistics, especially when the box score does not show -- as you alluded in your question -- what each pitcher is working on in each outing.

Two outings in, Craig Kimbrel has given up three runs on four hits in 1 2/3 innings. He's surrendered a pair of home runs, while balancing four strikeouts with zero walks. That's not great, true, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

For Kimbrel right now, his main focus early in camp is building arm strength through his build-up program. He has sat in the 94-96 mph range with his fastball, which is considered an encouraging sign this early in the spring. His curveball has looked sharp, and Kimbrel has even mixed in his rarely used changeup on occasion.

The Cubs are putting a lot of trust in the fact that Kimbrel has had a routine offseason and is now progressing through his typical spring schedule. So, even without two clean innings out of the chute, it's far too early to really say which version of Kimbrel is about to close games for the Cubs in the upcoming season.

As for Rowan Wick, well, it's been ugly in the preseason so far. Through four outings, the righty's given up nine runs on 10 hits (two homers) in 3 2/3 innings. Wick, however, is working on his cutter right now, trying to get more depth on the pitch so it acts more like a slider. With what he did last year (2.43 ERA in 31 games), Wick still is in the driver's seat for an Opening Day bullpen job.

Even if the Cubs had a Plan B for the ninth-inning job, the team would not come out and say it right now. Kimbrel was signed to close, so close he will. Manager David Ross has made it crystal clear that Kimbrel is locked into that role. Expect the veteran closer to have a lot of rope at the outset of the season.

Could bullpen roles evolve throughout the season? Sure, but there are no current plans to name Wick or anyone else the backup closer.

Those types of things are always a factor in a team's decision-making, especially as clubs try to keep as much depth as possible at the front end of a season. That said, the Cubs are not going to make any decisions with those elements being the primary impetus.

There are three pitchers without Minor League options: Alec Mills, Casey Sadler and Duane Underwood Jr. Expect Mills to be on the pitching staff one way (fifth starter) or the other (bullpen job). As for Sadler and Underwood, the Cubs might wind up picking one of the two, and there are still two-plus weeks to monitor their performance and progress.

Right-hander Trevor Megill is Chicago's Rule 5 Draft pick, meaning he'd have to stay on the 26-man roster all season or be offered back to the Padres. The Cubs have liked what they've seen in the 6-foot-8 Megill (one of the team's latest knuckle-curve converts) and would like to try to find a way to keep him in the fold.

Related to the previous question, Dillon Maples still has a Minor League option. The start of his spring was delayed slightly, but the hard-throwing righty and his elite-spin breaking ball have looked solid enough in his early outings. But with a group of more veteran arms in the fold and some of the other factors at play, I could see Maples starting the season at Triple-A. If that winds up being the case, he'd be one of the first call-up options when the bullpen inevitably needs an arm.

Who do you think get the eight Opening Day bullpen spots? Kyle Ryan, Jeremy Jeffress, Kimbrel, Wick and Mills seem like locks. So, who do you think get the last three spots?

-- Nick P., New Lenox, Ill.

I agree with your five virtual locks, especially since Ross said Sunday that Tyler Chatwood is "in the lead" for the fifth rotation job. That puts Mills on a path to a bullpen role.

Ross and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein have also raved about Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler. They each have a Minor League option, but they also have big league experience and they have shown signs of improvement this spring. Winkler, in particular, has shown a jump in velocity with his fastball.

The other guy that Epstein mentioned recently was Sadler, whom the Cubs acquired in an under-the-radar trade with the Dodgers over the winter. He also boasts MLB experience and has shown off an improved breaking pitch this spring. This could be a case where being out of Minor League options works in a player's favor.

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.