Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Kyle Ryan's versatility key in uncertain bullpen

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Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is reliever Kyle Ryan.

2019 recap

Ryan started the year in Triple-A, but after a solid spring training (and multiple early meltdowns by the Cubs bullpen) he was promoted to the show on April 6. Initially an unknown name to Cubs Nation, the 28-year-old lefty emerged as a core reliever by season’s end.

In a career-high 73 appearances, Ryan sported a 3.54 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 3.85 FIP. He's a groundball pitcher (58.2 percent rate in 2019) but struck out opponents at a respectable 22.3 percent rate. Although his walk rate was high (11.2 percent), he only surrendered multiple free passes in two outings (two, both times).

Ryan didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2018. A year prior, he walked seven batters in 5 2/3 innings with the Tigers and posted a 4.96 ERA in Triple-A. So, how did he make such a sharp turnaround? In a recent interview with Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, Ryan said a “life-changing” trip to the Cubs’ pitch lab fixed his arm angle, which was five inches too high in 2017.

Expectations for this season’s role

The Cubs will use Ryan in a variety of spots this season. His ability to pitch more than an inning will prove valuable, as a new MLB rule requires pitchers to face a minimum of three batters. He’ll help bridge games to closer Craig Kimbrel, whether appearing in the fifth or eighth inning.

2020 outlook

Ryan is one of four relievers — along with Kimbrel, Rowan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress — with a spot on the Opening Day roster locked down. As the top lefty in the bullpen, a chunk of his outings will come against tough left-handed hitters in potentially game-changing moments.

The Cubs need Ryan to replicate the success he found against left-handed hitters last season (2.13 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 2.39 FIP, 8.7 BB%). Improvement against righties will allow David Ross to lean on him no matter who’s up to bat. 

Ryan vs. righties in 2019

First Half: 5.79 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 4.29 FIP, 8.8 BB%
Second Half: 3.18 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 5.57 FIP, 16.9 BB%
Overall: 4.54 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 4.90 FIP, 12.7 BB%

If Ryan keeps the ball on the ground and his walk totals at a manageable rate this season, he'll be just fine.

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success
7. Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing, refreshed mental state
8. Cubs counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel
9. Javier Báez is indispensable, and the best is yet to come
10. New pitch key to Rowan Wick staving off regression
11. New MLB rule gives Victor Caratini chance for bigger role
12. Daniel Descalso can only improve from last season
13. Ian Happ poised to claim starting center field job
14. Jeremy Jeffress can bounce back in Chicago
15. Lineup adjustment could be key to Jason Heyward's success
16. Anthony Rizzo remains an all-around rock for Chicago

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