Predicting the Cubs Opening Day 2024 Roster: Bullpen
Alzolay is a big part of the Cubs bullpen (Matt Marton - USA Today Sports)

Predicting the Cubs Opening Day 2024 Roster: Bullpen

by - Senior Writer -

Perhaps the one area on this Cubs team with the most question marks heading into Spring is the bullpen again. That shouldn't come as a surprise as the Cubs bullpen has been a question entering each of the past three seasons, and for the most part, they have performed exceptionally well.

That results in some critical contributors latching on with other teams, as Jed Hoyer has been known for doing one-year deals on most of his relievers. Unlike the previous seasons that saw the Cubs undergo a seismic makeover in their bullpen, they will enter the 2024 season with virtually the same bullpen they had last season, with only a few minor changes.

That can be good or bad when you look at how the team looked in the final month of September, but you also have the key pieces that led to the overall success of the pen returning again. Not to mention, you have Craig Counsell as the manager this season, who has been known for being a mastermind in the bullpen, and the Cubs could be in a position to have one of the better pens in the National League.

The Cubs are expected to carry eight relievers once camp breaks, six if not seven of those spots are already accounted for, whether free agent pickups or returning players. That leaves one open spot and roughly five, if not more, pitchers competing for that spot, as that will be one of the position battles to watch throughout the Spring.

Long Relief/Swing (3) Drew Smyly, Hayden Wesneski, and Javier Assad:

Unlike most teams, the Cubs bullpen is filled with versatility, as you could argue the Cubs will have eight starters once the season starts. Three of them could wind up in the bullpen as Drew Smyly, Hayden Wesneski, and Javier Assad will most likely be the long relievers once the season due to their ability to throw multiple innings, but you could also see them in a swing role, or spot stat situation.

Smyly is the biggest wild card of them all, as he has not only heard his name come up in trade talks but also could land back in the rotation should the Cubs decide to send Jordan Wicks down to AAA. Smyly struggled as a starter last season but bounced back once he moved to the bullpen, as he is the Cubs' lone lefty in the pen.

Wesneski and Assad are also wild cards regarding their roles in the pen, as both made at least 10 starts last season. Assad was one of the better rookies in the National League last year, but he was much better as a starter than a reliever.

Wesneski's numbers could have been better in both situations, but the left-handed hitters did him in, as he needs to learn how to get lefties out. Look for Counsell to play around with them a ton this season.

Middle/Late-Inning arms (4): Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr, Hector Neris, and Adbert Alzolay:

Although their roles may be undefined, apart from Alzolay being the closer, the back end of the Cubs pen is set in stone, as everyone from that area of the pen will be back this season. Alzolay emerged as one of the league's better closers until the season's final month and will now be looking to improve on that.

Merryweather and Leiter Jr both went on to have career years as set-up men last season, with Leiter Jr becoming the Cubs go-to lefty, although he is a righty.

The biggest question with them is whether or not they can duplicate their performances from last season this season, as they will be counted on heavily.

The biggest change to the back of the pen is the addition of Neris, who is coming off a career year with the Astros last season.

Signed to a one-year, nine-million-dollar deal, Neris is expected to be the team's set-up man this season and could also handle some save chances when Alzolay needs time off. This was one of the more overlooked signings by anyone this spring, and the Cubs are fortunate to have him.

Final Roster Spot:

With seven spots accounted for, that leaves one more spot on the Cubs roster, which will come down to overall spring performances. If we look at last season, Daniel Palencia and Jose Cuas could be options, but both have Minor League options and may start the year in AAA.

Recently acquired Carl Edwards Jr may get some run in Spring to lock down that spot, but even then, expect little from him. There are two favorites for the final bullpen piece, which will come down to how they perform in the Spring. Luke Little immediately comes to mind, as the big lefty was lights out in his nine MLB appearances last season.

Adding Little would be crucial to the Cubs' success as he would give them two lefties to count on, three if you count Leiter Jr. The other name to watch is Keegan Thompson, coming off a horrendous season. After being one of the best relievers in the game in 2022, Thompson completely lost it last year and went on to have, by far, his worst season as a pro. He has a lot to prove this season, and Counsell will give him a long look this spring.

Brad Weick is another potential left-handed option if he proves he is again healthy.

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