Cubs 2020 roster outlook: New pitch key to Rowan Wick staving off regression


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

2019 recap

Acquiring Wick from the Padres last offseason seemed like a minor move for the Cubs. Although the 27-year-old has had a successful minor league career, he struggled in a short 2018 big league stint with San Diego. In 8 1/3 innings, he allowed six earned runs on 13 hits — posting a 6.48 ERA and 1.68 WHIP.

With their tight budget the past two winters, the Cubs have looked for find hidden value in low-cost pitchers with upside. Based on his arm angle and how he grips a baseball, the Cubs felt adding a knuckle curveball to Wick’s arsenal — which features an upper-90s fastball — would unlock something.

Wick worked with the Cubs’ pitch lab last season and emerged as a reliable late-inning reliever. In 31 outings, he posted a 2.43 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, boasting impressive strikeout and groundball rates (25 and 54.1 percent).

Consider something unlocked:

Expectations for this season’s role

Did I mention the Cubs have operated with a tight budget the past two offseasons? Bullpen cogs Pedro Strop (Reds), Brandon Kintzler (Marlins) and Steve Cishek (White Sox) departed as free agents this winter, leaving a big vacancy at the back end of the bullpen.

Wick rode the shuttle between Triple-A Iowa and the Cubs three times last season before sticking in the big leagues from July 22 on. He became one of Joe Maddon’s go-to guys in high-leverage spots and will assume a setup job this season.

2020 outlook

With last season under his belt, Wick has a good baseline for how to attack hitters and do so successfully. He also understands opponents will be more familiar with how he pitches, the more they face him.

With this in mind, Wick is “experimenting with a slider/cutter thing,” as he recently told The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma. He noted his third pitch was more of a cutter last season and he’s looking to slow it down and get more depth on it, which will make it more of a slider.

Wick relied heavily on his four-seam fastball (thrown 66.3 percent of the time) and curveball (27.8) in 2019. Those are still his go-to pitches. As the league adjusts to him, however, it will be important to feature a third option to keep hitters off balance.

Wick’s spring numbers aren’t pretty (3 2/3 innings, 10 hits, nine earned runs), but he’s using each outing to get a better feel for that cutter/slider. This is why spring training exists; it’s better for Wick to work out any issues now than in a key late-game moment in August.

It behooves me to point out two areas of concern with Wick. His walk rate was high last season (11.4 percent), and he avoided major trouble by allowing zero home runs. Now, he allowed no more than two free passes in an outing and did so just three times, both positive signs.

Wick’s high strikeout rate will help him work out of jams — self-inflicted or not — but he’s unlikely to allow zero home runs again. In this sense, his ERA may increase a little, and it may be due for some regression anyhow. When and how many batters he walks is a major key for his success.

With the Cubs bullpen set to feature several new faces, they need their top arms to step up. Wick did just that last season, and the question now is what's in store for Year 2. 

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

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