What will the Cubs’ bullpen look like in 2022?
That answer could be one indicator pointing to whether they can compete next season — and one area on the roster they already have pieces in place.
Cubs president Jed Hoyer talked two weeks ago at the GM Meetings about the team's significant need for pitching, including the bullpen. The only thing that has happened since then is a flurry of pitchers have signed with other teams.
That doesn't mean that a Cubs great need is a desperate need, especially in the bullpen.
“We all saw what a really good bullpen can do last year,” Hoyer said.
Indeed. The bullpen was the Cubs’ biggest strength in the first half of 2021, helping them keep pace in the NL Central race despite frequent short outings from the rotation.
A common sight was Justin Steele or Keegan Thompson bridging games to Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel, and that late-inning trio then slamming the door on opponents.
“When we were at our best it was because Kimbrel, Chafin and Tepera, and Keegan and Steele, all those guys were throwing so well,” Hoyer said. “We can't forget that.
“That really stabilizes things when you're not giving up leads late.”
The Cubs have a lot of work left beyond the addition of Wade Miley to upgrade their rotation. But if they at least modestly address the rotation, their biggest offseason need, are they that far from competing?
As 2021 showed, a formidable bullpen can shorten games and help piece together innings — and wins.
And although the Cubs traded Kimbrel, Chafin and Tepera at the deadline, they may already have a blueprint to replicate that trio next season.
Rowan Wick rejoined the Cubs in August after missing nearly a year with a lingering oblique injury. He’s had success as a high-leverage reliever.
The Cubs view Codi Heuer as a long-term back-end bullpen arm. They acquired him from the White Sox for Kimbrel for that reason.
Steele and Thompson will be key pitchers on the 2022 staff. They’re candidates to start but both could be multi-inning relief weapons again — as could Adbert Alzolay, another rotation candidate. All three have shown an ability to handle a lineup at least one time through.
If healthy, Brailyn Márquez will join the bullpen at some point next season as what Hoyer called a “pitching weapon” after missing all of 2021. Manny Rodríguez showed flashes as a potential late-inning reliever with his high-octane fastball.
None of those guys have been the guy in a bullpen yet in the big leagues, and while there’s room for someone to emerge, Hoyer said the Cubs will be on the lookout for late-inning relief help this winter.
He discussed the importance of having a mix of young and experienced bullpen arms, pointing to Andrew Chafin’s impact both on the mound and as a mentor during his Cubs tenure.
“A guy like that is still a really good pitcher, but also has been around enough to be able to help guys learn how to get ready and learn how to deal with failure and learn how to navigate the tough pocket of a lineup,” Hoyer said. “Something like that is really valuable.”
Could Chafin be that guy again in 2022? He’s a free agent after turning down his 2022 option with Oakland but may look for a deal worth more than the Cubs want to pay.
The relief market is thin this offseason but includes veterans who perhaps could fit the Cubs, strengthening the back end in addition to bringing experience to help the younger guys.
Three-time All-Star Brad Hand struggled after a deadline trade from the Nationals to Blue Jays. Toronto designated him for assignment, and he finished strong after landing with the Mets.
Brandon Kintzler had a down 2021 with the Phillies but is only a season removed from posting a 2.22 ERA as Miami’s closer in the shortened season. He was rock solid for the Cubs in 2019.
Whether the Cubs add someone like that, they have promising arms in the bullpen and the group collectively has potential to be a team strength again.