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  • Let's Play Keep or Cut Bait With the Cubs Bullpen

    Matt Trueblood

    There's radical uncertainty ahead for the Cubs bullpen this winter. Their relief corps will see a ton of turnover during the coming offseason, and it will require considerable investment. Let's figure out where those changes and investments might be.

    Image courtesy of © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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    Right off the bat, we can identify a few absolute locks for the 2024 Chicago Cubs bullpen. Adbert Alzolay comes with some lingering health questions, but to whatever extent he can stay available, he'll enter next season as one of the team's high-leverage arms. MLB Trade Rumors projects a $2.5-million arbitration award for Alzolay, but the team won't bat an eye at that cost.

    Equally certain to come back is Julian Merryweather, who will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, too. The MLB Trade Rumors estimate for Merryweather is just $1.3 million, and although he occasionally issued too many walks, he'd be a bargain at twice that price. What the Cubs need is more strikeout stuff throughout their pitching staff, and Merryweather might be the best strikeout artist they have.

    You can count on Jose Cuas, Daniel Palencia, and Luke Little to be prominent parts of the bullpen mix going into the season, too. Each is still dirt-cheap, by baseball standards, and none of them is eligible for arbitration yet. They all have minor-league options remaining, and none is guaranteed to spend all of next season in the big-league bullpen, but they're all good enough to stay on the 40-man roster even during a winter of tumult. Their upside is terrific.

    After that, though, some tough decisions loom. Michael Fulmer won't be back, after he underwent elbow surgery that will sideline him all season. Brad Boxberger's mutual option will not be picked up. Mark Leiter, Jr. is a much less obvious case. As late as early September, it was a sure thing that the Cubs would want him back, even as he reaches arbitration eligibility. Alas, he collapsed over the final month. His splitter abandoned him, and without that pitch, he's useless. His projected salary of $1.6 million is perfectly affordable, but because it's impossible to count on him in any real way after the way his season ended, even that modest payout might not be palatable to a team facing a roster crunch and the need to economize around the edges as they make bigger expenditures elsewhere.

    There's a cluster of relievers not due to make any real money, but whose places on the roster are tenuous until further notice. Keegan Thompson's disasterpiece of a 2023 puts his future with the club in grave doubt, but he belongs in the category of hurlers with whom the team will be slow to cut ties. So do Jeremiah Estrada and Brandon Hughes. These are the types of arms who often end up turning into gems eventually, the way Merryweather did last season with Chicago. The challenge is to try to be the team with whom it happens, rather than let them make a circuit ride of the waiver wire before unlocking their talent.

    Nick Burdi, Tyler Duffey and Michael Rucker are low-upside fringe relievers. They're unlikely to stick on the 40-man roster beyond the end of November, but if one does so, they'll have a decent chance to win a low-leverage role in the big-league pen come spring. Ethan Roberts and Codi Heuer have an even narrower path through the winter, because their injured status doesn't protect them from the 40-man crunch during the winter.

    That exhausts the pure relievers on the current 40-man roster, and the only slots affirmatively claimed are those of Alzolay, Merryweather, Cuas, Palencia, and Little. The two guys who still need our attention are Hayden Wesneski and Drew Smyly. As much as fans might have loved the idea of Wesneski as a starter even seven months ago, it feels increasingly like he belongs in the bullpen. In fact, late in the campaign, he seemed to take nicely to the short relief role into which he was pushed because of the team's mounting injury trouble. I like Wesneski a lot as a power arm in a pure, one-inning slot, hitting 98 or 99 miles per hour with his fastball and facing few left-handed batters.

    Smyly, of course, will act as depth for the starting rotation. He's likely to be needed in that role at least occasionally, although very unlikely to be used that way as much next year as in 2023. He was even more of a revelation than Wesneski when he converted to short relief in September. His curveball plays up magnificently in short bursts, thanks in part to the extra few ticks he finds on his fastball. Smyly is going to cost the team $10 million next year, which is a steep price for a swingman. That makes him a trade candidate, but if the team keeps him, they'll have a reliable lefty in relief--even if Hughes isn't able to bounce back from his lost 2023.

    This list neglects a few more complicated cases: Javier Assad, Ben Brown, and Caleb Kilian. Assad has made such a strong case for himself as a starter that it feels cruel to throw him in with this crowd. Brown has all the explosive upside of, say, Wesneski a year ago, but we now know how mixed a benediction that is. Kilian must be out of chances to emerge as a starter by now, but could he (like Wesneski) turn into a beast by moving to short relief and tightening up his repertoire?

    There's an avalanche of change coming to this unit. That's necessary, even in the wake of a season that seemed to further prove the organization's prowess at discovering and developing credible relievers. This piece isn't mean to answer all the looming questions. It's just meant to clarify them. Where do you come down on Cuas, Palencia, and Little? Would you tender Leiter a contract? Can Wesneski take over a high-leverage role if he completes the conversion to full-fledged reliever? Let's fire up the hot stove and start the conversation.

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    I'd go ahead and give Leiter a contract, but if he doesn't have the splitter in ST cut him loose. And if he has it for a while then loses it for a few outings, cut him loose.  We are a big market team, no need to let a less than $2M decision hurt our roster.

    Palencia, Cuas and Little all need to be given a shot, but I think ideally at least 2 of them open in Iowa, if not all 3, due to arms we trust more.

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    To me the nature of Leiter's situation makes him an obvious yes to tender a contract.  He's worth it even if he's somewhere shy of his 2023 peak, his money isn't going to prohibit other moves or make the team too shy to add a guaranteed/non-optionable contract elsewhere in the pen, and you have the whole of spring training to see if the splitter is back.  Plus you never know what injuries or other machinations might impact the shape of the pen between the offseason and opening day.  Unless they have some reason to think the odds of Leiter not having the split or losing it for the rest of the season again are very high, you bring him back.


    As for Wesneski, I'm not quite willing to give up the ghost on him starting, partially because I don't particularly believe in Assad's 2023, partially because I do think Smyly's 2023 signals that he should be a SP option of last resort, but mostly because despite the velocity uptick Wesneski was not actually good in the pen.  He was exclusively in short relief the last 4 weeks of the season, and while the 12 K in 11.2 IP will do the trick, the 8 BB and 3 HR(to say nothing of being generally hittable with 12 H) will not. Whatever his repertoire issues that plagued him in a starter's role don't seem to have an immediate fix by going in short bursts, so better to keep him as a stretched out long reliever or in the Iowa rotation to get more reps and let others like Smyly whose stuff has played up in short outings move up the bullpen pecking order.

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    Like Rex and TT said, I think you have to bring Leiter to Arizona and see if rest/lab work/adding Dempster's little glove waggle/whatever can get his splitter back to 100%.  He was such a weapon and cutting him saves you less than $1M vs. a league minimum arm.  Similarly I would really try to keep potential impact guys like Burdi and Roberts on the 40 man this winter, particularly given that they have MiLB options.  

    I expect the rotation depth to take a small hit via trade.  I am assuming whatever the big trade is this winter one of Brown/Wicks/Assad is going the other way.  I don't think that majorly impacts the above, but I would plan to keep one of the survivors from the above AND one of Wesneski/Kilian starting at Iowa until at least Memorial Day, which does put some limits on bullpen configuration.

    My bullpen going into next year would be

    CL - Adbert

    SU - Merryweather 

    SU - Veteran FA

    MR - Cuas

    MR - Whichever "stuff monster" of Palencia/Little/Estrada is going best at the moment

    MR - Leiter or one of the injury comeback guys 

    LRP - Smyly

    LRP - Assad/Thompson/Wesneski

    Ross seems to like high leverage long relievers, and I couldn't agree more, so I expect two long guys.  This also leaves quite a bullpen at Iowa.  That was a major issue this year is that Iowa just did not provide the bullpen reinforcements it was expected to back in March.  If we need to play it tight with the 40 man over the winter to keep Iowa stocked with guys like Burdi and Roberts instead of Tyler Duffey and Jonathan Holder types, it's very worth it IMO.

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    I agree with all of you for the most part. No one has mentioned Brandon Hughes. If his knee surgery worked, and he is healthy, he would slot into that 7th or 8th inning setup man against lefty's. I like Little a lot and he didn't give up a run last year for the Cubs. Put a healthy Hughes, Leiter Jr. if his slider is back, and Little in the pen and we have 3 good lefty's. A luxury we didn’t have last year. 

    Wesnasty needs to go back to Iowa and develop a pitch to get lefty's out. I look for Killian to be packaged with Sanders, Perlaza, and Vazquez in some form as part of a package for a left handed power bat. Either 1st base or Soto.


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