Justin Wilson

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing isn't the marquee pitcher Cubs fans were hoping their team would sign on the morning of Jan. 17, but he is one of the heroes they need.

Duensing is back in the Cubs' bullpen for the next two years at a discount of $7 million. It's a raise for him — he made $2 million in 2017 — but he left a lot of money on the table, joining players like Ben Zobrist who signed for less.

The veteran lefty was somebody the Cubs' "Geek Squad" and scouting department targeted last winter and made a priority to sign a year ago.

That worked out awfully well, as the 34-year-old Duensing put up the best season of his life with a 2.74 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and struck out a career-high 8.8 batters per nine innings.

Even Duensing himself was surprised by the strikeout totals:

"A lot of swings and misses — I don't know what that's about, to be honest," Duensing said back in August when he joined the Cubs Talk Podcast. "I really don't know what's going on there. Just things are working really well right now and hopefully they continue."

Duensing's success didn't quite continue on a linear path from there, as he followed up a stellar August (1.93 ERA) with a 4.82 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in September while striking out only six batters in 9.1 innings.

That poor last month was part of the reason why Duensing fell out of Joe Maddon's circle of trust entering the postseason, and while the veteran southpaw put up a 1.69 ERA and allowed just five baserunners in 5.1 innings, he didn't pitch often in high-leverage situations in October.

As for where Duensing fits in the Cubs bullpen in 2018 and 2019, he provides another reliable arm and helps work toward the front office's goal of getting more strike-throwers in a bullpen that struggled in that department in 2017.

Duensing walked just 18 batters in 62.1 innings and was not a part of the overall problem that saw the Cubs' bullpen post one of the worst BB/9 rates in Major League Baseball.

Of Duensing's 68 appearances in 2017, 15 of them went for more than three outs. While he wasn't a true long-relief option like Mike Montgomery, the former Minnesota Twin does have a background as a starter and can help eat up innings if a Cubs starter is knocked out early or the other bullpen arms need a rest.

He also provides another left-handed option for the 'pen with Justin Wilson a major question mark after his struggles in Chicago and Montgomery currently slotted in as a starter and expected to serve in a swingman capacity for parts of 2018. Reliable left-handed relievers are in short supply in the majors, and the Cubs are investing as much capital as they can in their bullpen.

Duensing probably isn't a guy that would fill in at closer at all if Brandon Morrow is injured or ineffective — Duensing has just two career saves — but he's another glue guy to a bullpen that looks like this:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Justin Grimm
Brian Duensing

Another arm — whether that's Montgomery or somebody else — should slot in there by the end of spring training as the Cubs are expected to roll with eight arms in their bullpen for much of the season.

The big question with Duensing is how he'll be used in October, assuming the Cubs make it there again. Maddon's bullpen usage in the postseason has been oft-questioned, but he clearly saw something in Duensing that made him lose trust on the game's biggest stage.

Does that happen again in 2018?

Cubs avoid arbitration with five players, including a record payday for Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

Cubs avoid arbitration with five players, including a record payday for Kris Bryant

The Cubs have avoided going to arbitration with a group of key players Friday.

In the hours before the Cubs Convention, the organization reached agreement with Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks, Justin Wilson and Tommy La Stella.

Bryant received a record figure for the first year of arbitration, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer:

Here are the reported figures for all five players:

Bryant - $10.85 million
Wilson - $4.25 million
Hendricks - $4.175 million
Russell - $3.2 million
La Stella - $950K

MLB Trade Rumors predicted the salary figures for the five players at $8.9 million (Bryant), $4.9 million (Hendricks), $4.3 million (Wilson), $2.3 million (Russell) and $1 million (La Stella).

Bryant receives a huge, well-deserved pay raise for the former MVP and NL Rookie of the Year that has turned into one of the faces of baseball. Russell is aiming to put a rough 2017 season behind him and take another step forward in his development in 2018.

Wilson is in his third year of arbitration and figures to be a huge part of the 2018 Cubs bullpen. The 30-year-old southpaw had a 5.09 ERA and 2.09 WHIP in 23 games in Chicago after coming over at the trade deadline last season. But he was stellar in the first four months of 2017 with the Detroit Tigers, saving 13 games with a 2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 12.3 K/9.

Hendricks just turned 28 this week and emerged as the organization's choice to pitch Game 1 of the postseason last year against the Dodgers in the NLDS. He's in the first year of arbitration and has a career 2.94 ERA, 1.098 WHIP and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting in 2016.

La Stella isn't a starter on the Cubs but he's been a valuable bench bat the last three years, slashing .276/.363/.429 in 395 plate appearances while seeing the majority of his time at second and third base.

As of Friday afternoon, the Cubs still have to reach an agreement with only one other player: Justin Grimm. Arbitration hearings are set up for next month, though the two sides could reach an agreement before then.

Theo Epstein's front office has never gone to arbitration with any player.

MLBTR predicts Grimm will get $2.4 million.

Predicting what the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen will look like

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AP

Predicting what the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen will look like

We're still five weeks away from Cubs pitchers and catchers reporting to Arizona, but it's never too early for 2018 season predictions.

What else is there to do for baseball fans right now? The "hot" stove season has been boring as hell.

On the latest NBC Sports Chicago Hot Stove Facebook Live (complete video below), we broke down what the Cubs' bullpen may look like when they break camp and head to Miami for an Opening Day tilt with the Marlins:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Justin Grimm
TBD

A lot to unpack here, but let's start with the closer spot. 

Theo Epstein's front office would love for their team's relievers to have defined roles because they understand the bullpen is made up of a bunch of humans and humans typically prefer to know when they're going to be used and prepare in accordance with that.

Joe Maddon, however, is notorious for running with a "closer by committee" where he plays the matchups.

The Cubs don't have a surefire ninth-inning option like they have the last year-and-a-half with Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis, so it will be interesting to see how the debate between front office and coaching staff turns out.

But Morrow is the guy signed to be the closer (as of right now), though there is some concern about his ability to stay healthy — he's averaged only 18 appearances a season since 2013. 

The Cubs believe Edwards is a closer in waiting while Wilson was one of the top stoppers in the game for the first four months of the 2017 season while in Detroit. 

Strop could also close if needed, but represents one of the top setup men in baseball, even though he draws some hate from meatball Cubs fans. He's been remarkably consistent, posting a 2.72 ERA in five seasons with the Cubs and never finishing a campaign with an ERA over 2.91. 

Cishek also brings closing experience, but can slot in in pretty much any role in the bullpen.

Montgomery is slated as a starter right now given the Cubs don't have a surefire fifth guy in the rotation and even if they sign a guy, Montgomery will absolutely get some starts at some point. But he's also the long man in the bullpen and will fill a swingman role.

From there, things are a bit iffy. The Cubs figure to carry eight guys in the bullpen because they have so many versatile position players that they need fewer bench bats than the average team. 

Justin Grimm used to be a mainstay in the Cubs bullpen, but he struggled to the tune of a 5.53 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. From 2014-16, however, Grimm posted a 3.36 ERA and 10.6 K/9 in 203 games in a Cubs uniform. Assuming he can rekindle that form, Grimm may once again be counted on as one of Maddon's middle innings closers.

The final spot in the bullpen may well go to Dillon Maples if the young flamethrower shows up and has a great camp. 

Eddie Butler could also be in the mix if the Cubs want another longman to join Montgomery in the 'pen. But with 2.5 months until Opening Day, the Cubs could also acquire another reliever — via trade, free agency or claiming a guy off the scrap heap/waiver wire.

Hot Stove - Predicting the Cubs Bullpen/Sox Prospects Up in 2018

What will the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen look like? Which White Sox prospects will be up in 2018? Hot Stove is BACK and we want to hear your thoughts!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, January 10, 2018