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There’s no reason for the Cubs to make things complicated this spring. While they’ll build Keegan Thompson up as much as they can throughout camp, they should make it clear early on that Thompson is looking at a year in which most of his time will likely be spent coming out of the bullpen.
That’s not any sort of knock on Thompson. Yes, he probably still wants to be a starter. Considering he started the game in 38 of his 41 appearances at Auburn and 34 of his 40 appearances in the minors, it’s reasonable to assume he sees himself as a starter. But since he made his debut in 2021, 38 of his 61 big league appearances have come out of the bullpen.
In the past, the long relief role may have been met with more resistance. Even manager David Ross admitted last year that, when he was still coming up as a player, long reliever didn’t necessarily hold much value in the bullpen. In recent years, though, reliever who can pitch multiple innings in an outing have become more and more important.
“I think it kind of started back in maybe 2015, 2016 when the Indians were kind of doing that in the postseason, and they were using their bullpen after, like, the fourth or fifth inning,” Thompson said during a recent sit-down interview with CHGO. “Now, it’s kind of bled over into the regular season, and coaches and managers and players, they’re kind of shifting towards that a little bit in the regular season, too.
“You don’t see very often anymore where starters are going 7, 8, 9 innings anymore. It’s kind of starters go four to five to six, and if you go six innings, that’s a good start, and kind of let the bullpen take over from there. So, I think the bullpen, yeah, there’s been a shift in the effectiveness of the bullpen player.”
You’ll hear Thompson say something along the lines of “I’ll do whatever they tell me to do” whenever he’s asked about his preference. He proved all last season that those aren’t just words.
Despite not quite knowing his role, when he was put in the ‘pen to start the season, he went out and became the first pitcher since at least 1901 to start the season with seven consecutive relief appearances covering at least 2 2/3 innings and allowing one or fewer earned runs. When injuries forced the Cubs to move Thompson into the rotation, he took over and made 17 starts in the next three months. And when low back tightness cost him a month toward the end of the year, he went back to bullpen upon his return to make sure he got a few more innings in.
Through his first full season in the majors, getting extended experience in both roles showed him the differences between the two — and what he enjoys about them.
“I think they both have their advantages,” Thompson said. “It’s cool to start and go out there and have the crowd from the very beginning and listen to your walkout song the whole time.”
“It’s also something different when you come out of the bullpen in the middle of an inning, there’s guys on base and getting out of the inning, and the guy that was in before, not letting his inherited runners score. It’s really fun and cool to go out there and do that.”
So, we know he’s willing to take on whichever role the coaching staff puts him in. He said at the Cubs Convention that Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy hadn’t yet expressed to him what his role in 2023 will be, but he was expecting to be mostly a multi-inning reliever.
And in all honesty, that’s the right role for him. There are roughly 10 different pitchers on the Cubs’ 40-man roster who could start for this club. Even though that includes Thompson, changing his role too often doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. It just makes sense to let him continue to prove he can thrive out of the bullpen.
In 12 relief appearances last season, Thompson posted a 1.47 ERA, a 30 percent strikeout rate, a 10 percent walk rate and a .480 OPS. He was really impressive in that role, and with other arms on the team that can be capable starters, it feels like a simple solution to let Thompson start the season out of the bullpen.
So yes, Thompson may still some day want to be a starter. And if things start to go south for the Cubs health-wise this season, he may end up doing that.
But Thompson has been so good as a multi-inning relief weapon that the Cubs should keep him in that role — and they shouldn’t let that be a question for long once spring training starts.
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