Cubs News: 2023 Season Report Cards: Relievers
David Banks - USA Today Sports

Cubs News: 2023 Season Report Cards: Relievers


by - Senior Writer -

We have reached the end of our season report card series as we focus on the other part of the Cubs pitching staff, the bullpen. For the most part, the bullpen was a work in progress all season long as injuries and underachieving performances saw this team blow tons of close leads early in the season and then once again late in the year.

That can't happen again if the Cubs want to make the playoffs next season, and it will be crucial for Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins to invest heavily in the bullpen this offseason without signing reclamation projects. Unlike the previous positions where each player received an individual grade, the bullpen will be broken down into grades, with every player who received that grade landing inside.

Season Grade F (Brad Boxberger and Jeremiah Estrada): When you look at the worst of the worst in terms of the Cubs pen, Boxberger and Estrada come to mind, as neither of them looked great this season. Boxberger was signed as a free agent and was expected to be a late-inning guy, only to have an injury sideline him for five months.

Even before the injury, he didn't pitch well, and some point to the injury as the main reason. Estrada was an even bigger disappointment, especially considering how he threw in the minors. Known for his explosive fastball, Estrada seemed uncomfortable this season and thus lasted less than three weeks before getting sent back down for good.

Season Grade D (Nick Burdi, Anthony Kay, Keegan Thompson, and Brandon Hughes): While some of the names on this list saw limited action at best, two names stand out a ton, and both hurt the Cubs dearly in 2023. Those names would be Thompson and Hughes, as their nightmare of a 2023 season has finally ended.

After putting together an incredible season of relief in 2022, Thompson entered the 2023 campaign eyeing a chance to become a starter, but was still focussing on being the multi-role guy out of the pen that could fill different roles. At times, you still saw the stuff he could possess, but a sudden loss of command this season had him searching for answers all season before landing in Iowa. He must now take the offseason to refocus and return strong next season.

On the other hand, Hughes broke out as a rookie in 2022 and was supposed to be the one lefty Cubs could count on in 2023. Instead, he dealt with a nagging knee injury not once but twice that saw him limited to fewer than 20 games this season. Like Thompson, look for Hughes to use this offseason as a reset to come back better next year.

Season Grade C (Daniel Palencia, Shane Greene, Tyler Duffey, Jose Cuas): Like the previous grade, guys like Greene and Duffey didn't see much time, but still pitched OK when called upon. This grade is all about Palencia and Cuas, as both were called on a ton this season.

Acquired in a trade with Oakland a few seasons ago, Palencia was moved from a starter to a relief role in May of this season before ultimately reaching the majors by summer. Known for his triple-digit heater, Palencia has all the tools to become an excellent reliever, but his command issues are something he is still figuring out, as that is what cost him a ton this season.

Like Palencia, Cuas was acquired via a trade as the Cubs dealt Nelson Velazquez to KC in exchange for Cuas. From the moment he arrived in Chicago, David Ross trusted him a ton and put him in high-leverage roles with other guys on the mend. For the most part, he pitched well, but he was also very wild at times, which led to some stressful innings. It will be interesting to see the Cubs plans for him next season, especially with Codi Heuer on the mend and other guys potentially coming up.

Season Grade B (Michael Fulmer and Luke Little): Considering how bad of a start Fulmer got off to this season, seeing him land in this area has to be considered a win. With most fans wanting him run out of town after a month, Fulmer became one of the best relievers for the next three months before an elbow injury sidelined him for most of the second half.

That injury has turned into a season-ending injury for 2024, as Fulmer underwent a UCL repair and will now miss another campaign.

Little was very close to earning an A grade, but given his limited innings, I decided to keep him here. This is the one pitcher many fans are excited about for next season, as he has all the tools to be a real X-Factor out of the pen. Considering his body type and the way he throws, he could become the Cubs version of Josh Hader, which every team needs.

Season Grade A (Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr, and Adbert Alzolay): Without question, the heart and soul of the Cubs pen was the back end as their three-headed monster was lights out most of the season. Sure, there were struggles at times, which every reliever will go through, but the 85% of the time, they didn't struggle; David Ross had three guys he could go to and rode them until they physically couldn't pitch anymore.

You started to see the effects of that toward the end of August as injuries to Fulmer and Alzolay forced other guys into different roles, leading to rough outings down the stretch. Merryweather got off to a rough start before becoming one of the best relievers for four months, only to fade a bit down the stretch. The Cubs need to figure out a way to keep him around, as he was nasty when on.

Leiter Jr. was initially a non-roster invite to Spring, but pitched so well he earned his way onto the team. Once that happened, he became the Cubs lefty out of the pen despite being a right-hander, as his reverse splits worked in the Cubs favor. Like Merryweather, Leiter was as good as they come for three straight months, only to run out of gas in the season's final month.

While every reliever is essential in their own right, Alzolay was arguably the most important pitcher on this team and someone who broke out at the right time. After going a month without a closer and trying to figure things out, Alzolay not only stepped in, but made sure he wouldn't give the job back as he secured 22 of his 25 save chances, including 18 straight at one point. He is the favorite to land the closer job next season and could become one of the better ninth-inning guys in baseball.

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