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Cubs bullpen makeup is still under construction but getting clearer

Ryan Herrera Avatar
April 23, 2022

As David Ross’ pregame press conference on Tuesday was coming to an end, a reporter chimed in with one last question for the Cubs’ skipper before he left to prepare for that night’s game against the Rays.

“You got a closer yet?”

Ross pondered the question for a second, but then responded with a question of his own: “No. Do I need one?”

“No, I was just curious.”

“The Rays don’t have one. Why do we need one?”

The quick conversation was in jest and it earned some laughs from the rest of the reporters in the room, but that’s because it’s a question Ross hasn’t been keen on answering this season. Ross wasn’t ready to anoint anyone as the closer back in spring training, and even when the season got underway, he still remained firm that there were no specifically set roles at that end of the bullpen.

“I think it’s ideal if you have somebody that you can work from the closer all the way back,” Ross said on April 9. “But if the guys are getting outs and we set them up in the right pockets, it doesn’t matter. The goal is to get outs.”

That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t take one if there was someone who had an undeniable resume. Remember, Craig Kimbrel had the closer job locked down until he was shipped to the South Side at the trade deadline last year. Right now, Ross has a few options he can roll with in that situation, but he isn’t giving anyone an official title of “closer” for Chicago.

We’ve known that this is a transitional season where the Cubs would see what they have in many of the guys on the roster, and as far as Ross’ bullpen usage has gone, that’s been par for the course. Just about everyone has been used in high-leverage situations at some point through the team’s first 14 games.

In fact, according to Baseball Reference, all but one pitcher currently in the bullpen has pitched in at least one high-leverage situation for Chicago this season. The only one who hasn’t? Sean Newcomb, who was just acquired from the Braves at the end of the Cubs’ loss to the Rays on Wednesday. However, the player who was dealt for Newcomb, Jesse Chavez, did get high-leverage innings in a Cubs uniform.

In the first two games of this series against Pittsburgh, Ross has used seven different relievers. On Thursday, that included a mix of younger, less experienced pitchers (Ethan Roberts and Scott Effross) and veterans arms (Chris Martin, Rowan Wick, Mychal Givens and David Robertson), while on Friday, he only needed Keegan Thompson to get through the final four frames.

“I think managing the bullpen is constantly evolving and changing,” Ross said Thursday. “There’s guys you trust, some guys still that you develop.”

Yes, things down in the ‘pen have constantly evolved as Ross has put those 10 arms to use. As we enter Week 3 of the regular season, though, we’ve gotten to see how those jobs are starting shake out.

As mentioned above, there is no closer on this team for the time being. However, Ross has three options who he can give the ball to in those save situations: Robertson, Givens and Wick (Martin could also be in the mix for some late-inning work, but so far, Ross has used him only between the fifth and seventh innings).

Robertson has already gotten four of the Cubs’ save opportunities, and he’s locked down the ninth each time to preserve four Chicago victories. The 37-year-old also has plenty of experience as a closer over his 14-year career: he’s earned 141 saves in 178 opportunities, and over a three-year stretch from 2014-16, he had 30-plus saves in 40-plus opportunities in each season. So far in 2022, he’s pitched six scoreless frames, striking out more batters (six) than he’s allowed walks and hits combined (four).

Givens is in somewhat the same boat. He cashed in on his lone save opportunity on April 14, allowing a hit but still striking out two in Colorado. In his eight-year career, Givens hasn’t gotten the consistent save opportunities that Robertson has, but he’s been put in that situation 54 different times (including 10 alone after getting traded to the Reds at the deadline last season), so he has that experience of being on the mound in the highest-leverage situations.

In his five big league seasons, Wick has had just 14 total save opportunities. However, he did convert five saves in eight chances over the last two months of 2021 after he was activated off the injured list, and so far this season, the only blemish on his game log is the single run he allowed on Opening Day.

Regardless of the fact that there isn’t a set closer, those three appear to have risen to the top of Ross’ late-inning options list. All three have pitched the bulk of their career innings from the seventh on, which follows how Ross has deployed them so far this season (none have pitched from the first through the sixth).

Despite Ross not naming any of the three the Cubs’ closer, those are the names you can expect to see when Chicago has a lead in the late innings.

“I think it plays out how (the coaches are) strategically trying to win the game, and they want to get the matchups that they feel are better for them in the late innings,” Robertson told CHGO this week. “I think that’s what it is. That’s why you might see Givens in the eighth or me in the eighth and then Givens in the ninth. I think that’s what’s going to happen. They’re just trying to put us in the best possible situation to succeed.”

“We’re a unit. It doesn’t matter who throws,” Givens said. “We’re a family back out there. It doesn’t matter. We’re all trying to win ballgames, so whatever the manager chooses, we’re behind him in every decision he makes. It don’t really have to be me or David Robertson or Wick. It’s, whoever he trusts, let’s have each other’s backs and go out there and win a game.”

Beyond that, you have a few guys in what would traditionally be known as the long-relief role: Thompson, Daniel Norris and — now that Chavez is no longer a Cub — Newcomb.

Ross debuted as a player in a different era of baseball, and in that era, the long-relief spot wasn’t seen as the most important job in the bullpen.

“When I was coming up, I think there was a long guy in the ‘pen that may have never really gotten used, unless it was, like, you’re up a lot or down a lot,” he said on Wednesday. “That was kind of a wasteful spot down there.”

As the manager of the 2022 Chicago Cubs, however, Ross has used his long relievers in a variety of ways.

Thompson, Norris and Chavez had all been used in multiple situations that called for outings of more than one inning, which has been necessary not only to bridge the gap to the back end of the bullpen but also to eat up a few more innings for starters after the the shortened spring training.

With Newcomb in the mix, he should be able to jump into a similar role, because, like Norris and Thompson, he has some experience as a starting pitcher and has the ability to provide some length for the bullpen.

Thompson has been the standout of the bunch, not allowing a single run in 13 2/3 innings over four appearances. His outing on Monday was especially impressive, with him striking out five Tampa Bay batters in 3 2/3 innings of work and masterfully moving the game along from Kyle Hendricks’ start to Robertson’s save, as was his appearance on Friday, in which he kept the Cubs within two runs with four scoreless innings of relief — giving every other bullpen arm a night off on the process — in the eventual 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh.

“Being able to bring him in is a real weapon,” Ross said Friday. “Him holding it close right there, giving us every opportunity to try to make something happen offensively is huge. When the bullpen can keep throwing up zeros when you’re down and you’re saving some back end guys, being able to bridge that gap and refresh with a quick turnaround tomorrow in a day game — an outing like that is extremely valuable.”

That brings us to the rest of the bullpen, which consists of three other young, homegrown arms in Scott Effross (drafted by the Cubs in 2015), Michael Rucker (drafted in 2016) and Ethan Roberts (drafted in 2018).

Both Effross and Rucker made their big league debuts last season, and heading into this season, Ross and Co. named them to their first Opening Day rosters. Effross appears to be more of a middle-relief option, as he’s gone over one inning just once this year and only four times in his career, while Rucker has completed two innings twice in his three appearances and could become another long-relief arm.

Roberts is the least experienced of the 10-man bullpen, having just made his big league debut on April 9, and he’s already seen some of the ups and downs most rookies go through.

He finished a full inning in each of his first two appearances, but in his third outing on April 14, he was only able to record one out. He made it through his next two outings with a solo home run on April 16 as the only blemish, but on Thursday, he experienced his lowest point in the bigs. After entering in the top of the fifth with Chicago leading by 1, Roberts gave up two hits, two walks and two earned runs and took his first loss in MLB.

Every one of the young bullpen arms will go through struggles at some point, which is why the front office went so hard after veteran relievers to help them get through those challenges.

“That’s kind of the mentorship that you need down there,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said on Tuesday. “I’ve obviously never sat in a major league bullpen, but everyone I know that has, we talk about having veterans to lead the young guys. How to warm up, how to prepare how to deal with failure. Those things. I think that’s been really helpful, and hopefully, we can continue having that mix.”

The current bullpen construction will not stay the same through the season.

The returns of Wade Miley and Alec Mills from the 10-day injured list will complicate things, and it’ll be the same thing when Adbert Alzolay and Brad Wieck eventually come off the 60-day IL. For now, though, this is the bullpen’s makeup — and everyone is trying to prove that this ‘pen can be the Cubs’ strength once again.

“We’re going to have each other’s back,” Givens said. “If someone comes in and struggles, the next person in the bullpen goes out there and helps them out. That’s what we need to worry about, and that’s the situation we’re paying attention to.”

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