Cubs Pitching Preview: Bullpen A Question Mark

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(670 The Score) When the Cubs gather for spring training in just more than a week, they will do so with some questions surrounding their pitching.

Perhaps the most significant concern is at the back end of the bullpen, as the Cubs didn't have stability at the closer position in 2019. After sitting out for several months as a free agent, Craig Kimbrel signed with the Cubs in June and then struggled upon arriving on the big league scene, posting a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP in 23 appearances. As a team, the Cubs blew 28 save chances in 2019.

That makes the 31-year-old Kimbrel a key piece for the Cubs in 2020. The team's hope is that with a full spring training, Kimbrel can rediscover his strong form from the past that previously had him on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Even if Kimbrel pitches well, there are other late-inning concerns. The Cubs lost high-leverage relievers in Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek in free agency this winter. To fill the holes, the Cubs will rely on those who had breakout seasons in 2019 to take on bigger roles and have also stockpiled bullpen options in the form of low-profile names on small contracts. 

Rowan Wick will be counted in high-leverage situations after posting a 2.43 ERA in 31 appearances in 2019. Brad Wieck has also opened some eyes and will be expected to provide help from the left side along with Kyle Ryan, who was one of the most consistent Cubs relievers last season. 

The Cubs recently added Jeremy Jeffress, who has closing experience, on a one-year deal. He'll be counted on to be a setup man and could fill in for Kimbrel in the ninth inning when Kimbrel needs a day off. Jeffress was an All-Star in 2018 before struggling in an injury-plagued 2019 season.

The other relievers will be picked from the group of Adbert Alzolay, Duane Underwood Jr., Dillon Maples, Alec Mills, James Norwood, Manny Rodriguez, Ryan Tepera, Dan Winkler and perhaps others. Like every other teams, the Cubs will have to prioritize relievers who can handle batters from both sides of the plate, as the new three-batter minimum rule will be implemented in 2020.

Starting pitching has been the Cubs' strength for years and while the rotation stumbled late and showed signs of aging in 2019, it will be counted on again to shine. This time, it will be right-hander Yu Darvish and right-hander Kyle Hendricks leading the rotation. If the Cubs are to reach the playoffs after a disappointing 84-win campaign in 2019, Darvish and Hendricks will have to be go-to guys in the rotation.

Darvish was sensational in the second half of 2019, posting a 2.76 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 81 2/3 innings across his final 13 starts. Hendricks had a 3.46 ERA in 2019 as he was steady again, if not as sharp as he was in his strong 2016 and 2018 seasons. 

For the Cubs rotation to live up to its billing, it needs bounce-back years from left-hander Jon Lester (4.46 ERA in 2019) and left-hander Jose Quintana (4.68 ERA).

Lester is in the final guaranteed season of his contract before a mutual option or buyout comes into play for 2021. Quintana is in the final season of his deal too. 

The battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation will bring some intrigue to spring training. Right-hander Tyler Chatwood will get the first shot to earn it. After a disastrous 2018, he had a bounce-back 2019 while mostly pitching out of the bullpen (a 3.76 ERA in 38 appearances, including five starts). 

Alzolay, who turns 25 in March, is the Cubs' most promising youngster who could factor into the rotation early, but he still needs to build arm strength and would need to prove he can make 30 or so start. Alec Mills was solid in four emergency starts in 2019 and could be a sleeper in the rotation mix if others don't impress. 

Left-hander Brailyn Marquez, 21, is the Cubs' top pitching prospect and impressed at high Class-A to end 2019. He needs more time in the minor leagues but could advance through the system quickly.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine​.