How Cubs' Opening Day bullpen could stack up

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Cubs manager David Ross has maintained this spring that the club will break camp and open the season with Craig Kimbrel in the closer role.But behind the veteran right-hander, the club has a few decisions to make in the bullpen.With about a week until Opening Day, the Cubs have about a dozen relief options for the initial bullpen. Not only do they still need to figure out which relievers will encompass the group, but how many.The Cubs originally planned to carry 14 pitchers on their Opening Day roster, meaning nine relievers and five starters. However, in a recent conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer, team president Jed Hoyer left open the possibility the club carries 13 arms to begin the season.With a few days of spring training left, here’s a breakdown of the relief picture and who’s in position to make the initial bullpen.

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What controversy? Not only has Ross reiterated Kimbrel is his closer throughout spring training, but Kimbrel has righted the ship of late after a rough first few outings.

After allowing nine earned runs in his first three appearances this spring (2 2/3 innings), Kimbrel has delivered three consecutive scoreless outings. He’s allowed a lone hit with no walks and three strikeouts in those three innings.

Ross recently noted Kimbrel has looked “free and easy” lately. And results aside, his fastball hit 98 mph this past Saturday, a good sign as we near the regular season.

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With Rowan Wick (intercostal injury) likely sidelined to open the season, Workman appears to be a top setup option in Ross’ bullpen. He’s coming off a down 2020 with Boston and Philadelphia but was brilliant in 2019.

The right-hander saved 16 games for the Red Sox that season, turning in a 1.88 ERA in 73 outings, both career-highs. 

Even if Kimbrel fares well this season, Workman returning to his 2019 form would offer another reliable late-inning arm, if not backup closer.

MORE: How a Workman rebound could fill Cubs’ biggest bullpen needs 

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Adam has elite spin rate and plus fastball velocity, making him another intriguing late-inning option. He put together a fine September last season, posting a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings, striking out 12 (six walks).

“I would say Jason proved himself last year," Ross said last week. "and put a lot of work in this offseason to be a guy that is highly considered to have a spot in the bullpen, for sure."

In six innings this spring, Adam has struck out eight (two walks), allowing two runs.

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Tepera was a late addition, signing a one-year deal in early March. He’s only made a few spring appearances, but despite joining the club late, it would be a surprise if he didn’t make the opening roster.

Tepera was often reliable in 2020, finishing with a 3.92 ERA in 21 appearances — second behind Jeremy Jeffress. He pitched in a number of roles, from middle relief to high-leverage spots. That type of versatility is valuable.

Plus, who’s to forget the fact he received an MVP vote last season?

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Chafin is the lone lefty who’s a lock to make the opening bullpen (more on that later). A veteran of seven seasons, the Cubs acquired him at the 2020 trade deadline, re-signing him in February. 

Chafin’s allowed four runs in seven innings this spring, but three came in a single appearance. He's turned in five scoreless outings. Walks have been an issue for him in the past, and while it’s only spring training, he hasn’t handed out a free pass to date.

The southpaw, who has a fastball that hits the mid-90s, also has posted good strikeout rates throughout his career. 

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Winkler enters his second season on the North Side after a solid 2020 pitching in middle relief. His 2.95 ERA was second to Jeffress among relievers and he cut down his walks as the season went on.

Winkler walked nine batters in his first 10 1/3 innings last season. Over his final eight frames, he walked just two. 

Whether the Cubs carry one or two lefties, part of their pitching formula this season will be right-handers who can get lefty hitters out.

Winkler has held left-handed bats to a .217/.332/.395 slash line in six seasons (2-for-20 with seven walks in 2020).

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Perhaps no Cub has impressed more this spring than Miller. The former All-Star in camp as a non-roster invitee has allowed a lone earned run in nine innings, making one start across six appearances.

Miller’s career was set back by injuries after an All-Star season with Atlanta in 2015. But he said this spring he’s 100-percent healthy and the results reflect that. 

He’s also expressed his willingness to pitch in any role, whether starting or relieving. The Cubs will open the season with a five-man rotation but will need many arms to cover the innings increase from 2020.

Miller could slot in as a swingman who can make some starts. If the Cubs decide the best move is to keep him stretched out and ready to start, he could begin the season at the alternate site.

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The final spot in the bullpen may be one of the toughest decisions the Cubs have to make in the next week.

Ross recently said “if” the Cubs carry more than one lefty on the opening roster, Rex Brothers and Brad Wieck are both in the mix. 

Brothers, a non-roster invitee, may have the leg up as best performing lefty this spring. Wieck missed the first few weeks of camp due to a hamstring setback and could start the season at the alt-site to get more work in.

Dillon Maples has tantalizing potential, featuring a nasty slider and upper-90s fastball, but has struggled with command throughout his career. 

The Cubs might decide it’s time to make that tough decision on the right-hander, who’s out of minor-league options, and place him on waivers.

"Good stuff is great, but outs are what matter and zeros," Ross said last week, adding Maples has a "real shot" to make the team.

Pedro Strop is in camp on a minor-league deal and has looked good, touching 95 mph with his fastball. The Cubs would love to find a place for him in the initial bullpen. He also could start the season at the alt-site.

Adbert Alzolay hasn’t pitched in a Cactus League game since March 13 and has struggled this spring. An arbitrator recently determined he has a fourth minor-league option remaining, as reported by NBC Sports Chicago, so he may start the season at the alt-site.

Trevor Megill has largely looked good this spring as a non-roster invitee. He figures to open the season at the alt-site but will factor into the bullpen at some point.

The same goes for Kyle Ryan, who was delayed by COVID-19 protocols this spring and recently sent to minor league camp to build up his arm.

There’s always the possibility the Cubs carry a ninth reliever depending on how other moves shake out.

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