Brian Duensing

Cubs designate Brian Duensing for assignment, sign reliever Tim Collins

Cubs designate Brian Duensing for assignment, sign reliever Tim Collins

The Cubs Opening Day roster is not finalized, but it appears the bullpen will be without lefty Brian Duensing.

Sunday, the Cubs announced that they signed left-handed reliever Tim Collins. To make room for him on the 40-man roster, the team designated Duensing, 36, for assignment.

The Cubs could retain Duensing, though he has to pass through waivers first. However, it's unlikely any team claims him; Duensing will make $3.5 million in 2019 and has struggled in spring training following a disappointing 2018 season.

In eight Cactus League appearances, Duensing has allowed eight runs on nine hits in seven innings, surrendering two home runs. It's worth noting that he allowed no runs and just two hits in his first four appearances (four innings), though he has allowed six runs in his last two appearances, managing to record a single out on each occasion.

Duensing had a successful debut season with the Cubs in 2017, posting a 2.74 ERA in 68 games (62 1/3 innings). The Cubs re-signed him to a two-year contract ahead of the 2018 season, though his ERA ballooned to 7.65 in 48 games (37 2/3 innings). NBC Sports Chicago's Cam Ellis analyzed Duensing's 2018 struggles here.

Collins signed a minor league deal with the Twins in February, though they released him on Friday. The 29-year-old has pitched in parts of five MLB seasons with the Royals (2011-14) and Nationals (2018). After four-straight seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA, Collins did not pitch in 2015 and 2016 after undergoing multiple Tommy John surgeries. He finished the 2018 season with a 4.37 ERA in 38 games.

Collins presents the Cubs with left-handed bullpen depth. That "position" is one of the team's bigger question marks right now, as Mike Montgomery is the only lefty certain to make the Cubs Opening Day roster. 

With Duensing designated for assignment, the Cubs could elect to put one of Allen Webster, Kyle Ryan or Randy Rosario on the Opening Day roster. Ryan and Rosario are lefties, for what it's worth.

Here is what the bullpen could look like when the team breaks camp:

Pedro Strop (if hamstring strain is healed)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Tyler Chatwood

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A dark horse candidate for the Cubs bullpen

A dark horse candidate for the Cubs bullpen

A cursory glance at the Cubs bullpen depth chart is all it takes to question if they have a reliable left-handed reliever.

Mike Montgomery is the first guy that jumps out, but he fills the role as the long relief option in the Cubs bullpen and is one injury away from re-joining the starting rotation. He also wasn't very good as a reliever last year, posting a 5.13 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 5.5 K/9 in 26.1 innings out of the bullpen.

Brian Duensing is also projected to make the Cubs' Opening Day roster since he's under contract for $3.5 million, but he also sported an unsightly 7.65 ERA and 1.885 WHIP last year in 37.2 innings. 

There's Randy Rosario, the 24-year-old affable lefty who went 4-0 with a 3.66 ERA in 44 big-league outings last year, but he also had a 1.48 WHIP and walked nearly as many guys as he struck out in 46.2 innings.

Beyond that, there's a group of southpaws the Cubs picked up on the scrap heap like Danny Hultzen, Ian Clarkin, Jerry Vasto, Conor Lillis-White...and Kyle Ryan.

The latter name is an interesting one, both for his low-key solid 2018 season and because the Cubs inked him to a big-league contract back in November, giving him a spot on the 40-man roster.

A host of talented, established big-league relievers were forced to sign minor-league deals with teams this winter, but the Cubs thought enough of Ryan to bring him back on a Major League deal.

Ryan turned heads in 2018, his debut season in the Cubs organization. He worked as a swingman, starting 8 games and appearing 14 times in relief for Triple-A Iowa. All told, he posted a 2.86 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and struck out 61 batters in 66 innings. 

Even more impressive was the low walk total (18 in 66 innings) after control issues ran Ryan out of the Detroit Tigers organization after the 2017 season. For much of the year, his command was even better than his final line indicated thanks to a 5-walk performance in his final outing of the season.

"He had a quiet good year last year," said Jason McLeod, Cubs senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting. "Our guys loved him [in Iowa]. They kept talking about him with the September call-ups and obviously we didn't bring him up. As we were looking at the team going into this offseason, we just felt like he was a guy that could help us this year.

"He's a guy that could really pitch, pitch off his fastball. He's shown he can get right-handed hitters out, so I don't think he's a LOOGY or a lefty specialist in any way. He just took the ball and kept getting outs last year and getting some swings and misses.

"If he shows Joe [Maddon] and Tommy [Hottovy] and the staff what he's capable of doing, I wouldn't be surprised if he's up here this year."

Successful big-league relievers pop up all over the place nowadays and the Cubs could certainly use some good fortune in that regard amid an offseason devoid of financial flexibility.

Ryan, 27, does have some big-league success to his name — going 4-2 with a 3.07 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 56 games as a reliever for the Tigers in 2016. 

He fits the bill as a new-age reliever capable of pitching multiple innings an outing and his versatility as a long man/starter can come in handy for the Cubs.

Couple that with a potential need for a reliable lefty in Chicago and Ryan is an underrated bullpen candidate to keep an eye on this spring.

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Cubs still don't have any answers with Tyler Chatwood


Cubs still don't have any answers with Tyler Chatwood

The Cubs bullpen got another wave of reinforcements Monday in Milwaukee, activating Tyler Chatwood and Brian Duensing off the disabled list.

But while the two pitchers arrived at Miller Park at the same time and both have had disappointing 2018 campaigns, they're in completely different places at the moment.

Duensing looked and sounded refreshed, saying he felt good after another bout with left shoulder discomfort and liked the results of his last few outings in the minors as his velocity has started to tick back up.

But Chatwood, on the other hand, is a different story. 

Well, not exactly. It's the same story — command is still the issue.

The 28-year-old right-hander hit the disabled list last month with a hip injury and then went to Triple-A Iowa for a rehab start on Aug. 27, where he gave up 2 runs in 4.1 innings and walked 5 batters.

Things got even worse in the second rehab outing Sunday when Chatwood was tagged for 5 earned runs in only 2.1 innings, again walking 5 batters.

He's now walked 30 batters in his last 24.1 innings between the pair of rehab starts and the big leagues.

So what now? 

"We just look for spots to get him out there," Joe Maddon said. "Not gonna bump him in the rotation or anything. It's just keep working and attempt to get him out there and keep trying to unlock this thing.

"The arm's doing great, the stuff is still great. Obviously it's a command issue. Physically, he's fine. We just gotta get him out there throwing strikes again. I don't have any answers right now."

There really aren't many answers to glean from anywhere on the Chatwood situation at this point. He believed he had found some things mechanically earlier in the season, but was "fighting it" in games and falling back into bad habits.

Those adjustments never translated to resuts on the mound, even with a mini-break when he and his wife had their first child. Or when he was bumped out of the rotation and into the bullpen. Or now on the recent DL stint.

To give you an idea of where Chatwood is at with his struggles: He has only pitched 7.2 innings in the big leagues since July 26 and yet he still has walked 16 more hitters (93-77) than the next closest pitcher in baseball — White Sox rookie Lucas Giolito, who has notched 49.1 more innings than Chatwood.

This isn't a situation where the Cubs just cut ties with Chatwood after the year and call it a wash. 

He signed a three-year, $38 million contract over the winter and the Cubs had high hopes for him rebounding away from a hitter's environment in Coors Field and becoming a big part of the rotation in Chicago for the next few years.

It obviously hasn't worked that way, but this is still only Year 1 of the deal and Chatwood doesn't have a history of terrible control issues.

"I'd like to believe an offseason of just chilling out and trying to become probably less mechanical and more external — just seeing the target, throwing the baseball to it," Maddon said. "Some things we're still learning about him. As long as he's well — which he will be and he is — command.

"I don't even know how else to say it. He doesn't know where the ball is going right now, obviously, on a consistent basis. We gotta get him back to that and if we can, the stuff is high end."

Maddon couldn't project what the Cubs might do with Chatwood next spring, citing how hard it is to evaluate all that right now in the middle of a pennant race.

Both Chatwood and Duensing were expected to be a big part of the Cubs' pitching staff prior to the 2018 season, but it hasn't played out that way.

Who knows if Duensing will be able to recover enough to be a part of the Cubs' postseason roster, though the bullpen could use another reliable left-handed option and he fit that bill all last season and as recently as May this year.

But with Chatwood, the conversation is strictly on 2019.