After a solid 2022 campaign, RHP Michael Fulmer still found himself without a spot entering the month of February. That’s reportedly changed, as the Cubs are poised to bring in the former Tigers reliever to the North Side. It’s an interesting fit, as the Cubs add a veteran reliever to what very well could be a young Chicago bullpen in 2023.
A Look at Fulmer
New Cubs reliever Michael Fulmer spent the first four seasons of his career as a starter, but returned as a reliever in 2020 after UCL reconstruction. Between Detroit and Minnesota, Fulmer pitched to a 3.39 ERA last season, and the right-hander struck out 61 over 63.2 innings.
Just from the numbers, one eye-popping stat from 2022 was how much Fulmer made use of his slider. Last season, the 29-year-old used the slider a whopping 63.4%, much higher than the 40% rate from 2021. Fulmer made just of his fastball and sinker about 28% of the time last season, but the velocity numbers can make some sense of why the righty might have opted to go more with his hard slider. The average velocity for his heater sat at around 94 MPH last season, about one MPH less than a year earlier.
It stands to reason that this pitch mix will change come 2023, as this marked an extreme departure from career norms as a reliever. That is something that should help his walk & strikeout numbers, as the righty did record a below-average BB% (10.1%) in 2022. While Fulmer did a good job of leaving the slider away and out of hitters’ hot zones, Fulmer also threw a lot of non-competitive pitchers with it — a fair explanation for a below-average Chase% (27.3%) from last season.
What it Means
The Cubs owned an adequate bullpen for most of 2022, before the Trade Deadline. Last summer, Chicago continued its retool, as David Robertson, Scott Effross, Chris Martin, and Mychal Givens were all traded out in the summer.
All of those pitchers did contribute in a meaningful way while with the Cubs, but there were rough patches for some of the other arms in the pen. LHP Daniel Norris struggled in Chicago, as the current free agent posted a rough 6.90 ERA last season. Then there’s RHP Rowan Wick, who did get outs for the Cubs, but also appeared vulnerable at times.
The projected 2023 bullpen for the Cubs looks different than it did at the end of 2022, thanks to a flurry of moves made by the front office over the past few weeks. Here’s a projection for what this group could look like come late March:
- LHP Brandon Hughes
- RHP Adbert Alzolay
- RHP Brad Boxberger
- RHP Jeremiah Estrada
- RHP Michael Fulmer
- RHP Keegan Thompson
- RHP Rowan Wick
This alignment could very well change depending on how rotation battles go in Spring Training. The Cubs bullpen should also get a boost at some point this season, if flamethrowing RHP Codi Heuer can come back after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March of last year.
This Cubs bullpen is set to be young one, as Adbert Alzolay, Brandon Hughes, and Jeremiah Estrada all figure to be key building blocks for this group. Estrada dominated the Minors in 2022, striking out 78 over 48.1 innings in the Minors before accruing 5.2 innings with the Cubs late last season. Hughes, meanwhile, was one of the team’s more reliable relievers in ’22, thanks to a very good slider that’s hard to pick up from Hughes’ delivery and low arm slot.
As for Alzolay, the right-hander saw just six appearances in the Majors in 2022 after tossing 125.2 innings in 2021. Alzolay missed most of the year on the IL, but looked very sharp out of the pen in September. The 27-year-old struck out 19 over 13.1 innings, working primarily off his fastball and slider. Primarily a starter, it’s fair to expect Alzolay to work out of the pen given the Cubs’ depth in the rotation.