Cubs’ bullpen starting to take shape with two weeks to go before Opening Day

There are still a few spots up for grabs in David Ross’ bullpen, and with multiple candidates to fill those roles, the final two weeks of spring training will be key.

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John Antonoff/Chicago Sun-Times

The Cubs’ bullpen is beginning to take shape, and with the regular season two weeks away, the final spots are becoming clearer. The bullpen had a slow start during the shortened 60-game season but finished as one of the best in baseball with a 2.32 ERA over its last 27 games.

The bullpen has had little turnover, and with some of the additions late in the offseason, the Cubs think they have a group that can achieve similar success in 2021.

“I don’t want to underestimate the pitching corps,” manager David Ross said. “I think we’ve got some sneaky good pitchers that may not be on the radar. But there’s definitely a willingness to be great from that group.

“I’m seeing more depth than I thought we had from some of the pickups in the offseason to these guys’ performance. Even sending some of these guys down. There’s a lot of talent here on the pitching side.”

From the right side, things are pretty much set. Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Workman, Jason Adam and Dan Winkler can be penciled in. Ryan Tepera, who signed a major-league deal last month, also is likely to get a spot.

The swingman role is where things get interesting. Non-roster invitee Shelby Miller, 30, has had a strong camp with a 1.29 ERA in seven innings with eight strikeouts and two walks. The right-hander might have pitched himself into a role to begin the year.

Whoever loses the fifth-starter competition between Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay also would have a swingman role. If Alzolay has a remaining minor-league option, he could start the season at the team’s alternate site.

“I think it’s going to take a lot of different arms to pitch big innings for us with the limited innings they were able to throw last year,” Ross said. “Bullpen depth is always an important piece of any championship-caliber team. And if you want to get to where you want to go through 162, you’re going to need multiple arms down there in the bullpen.”

One of the decisions the Cubs have to make in the last two weeks of camp will be if they’ll carry one lefty in the bullpen to start the season or two. Last season, the Cubs had only one southpaw in the pen before they acquired Andrew Chafin at the trade deadline.

Chafin is a lock to be in the bullpen, but Brad Wieck and Rex Brothers could be vying for an additional spot. The team optioned left-hander Kyle Ryan to Class AAA Iowa on Friday.

Wieck has been getting back into game action after suffering a hamstring injury early in camp. Brothers has had a strong camp, pitching five scoreless innings with five strikeouts. 

“There’s more than just one lefty in the mix, for sure,” Ross said. “I think there are guys that are putting themselves on the radar, for sure.

“There’s always going to be value from left-handers. You need a mix. We didn’t use a lot of those guys last year just for certain reasons. Guys were not completely healthy and then picking up Chafin right there at the back end of the season. It’s nice to have multiple left-handers down there. But just having guys that can get guys out in general is really the main thing.”

What might ultimately determine the Cubs’ bullpen to start the season could be roster crunch on the bench. The Cubs might lean toward a five-man bench, which would mean they would only carry 12 pitchers. If that’s the case, shifting toward versatility and pitchers who can throw multiple innings might be a deciding factor in who makes the roster.

“We want to get all these guys extended to get them multiple innings,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “But we see them all as late-inning leverage relievers, too. So it’s kind of balancing that through spring, giving them opportunities to get up and down multiple times but also pitching in leverage situations now that we can’t roll innings and we have to do all these things.”

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