For a period after his first big-league season ended, left-hander Brandon Hughes reviewed a bunch of his outings.
Hughes’ role in the Chicago Cubs bullpen transitioned from unexpected call-up in May to high-leverage opportunities by August. So he took time to look back on a season that began at Double-A Tennessee and ended with eight saves, a 3.12 ERA and 132 ERA+ over 57 appearances for the Cubs. And with that experience, he’s better equipped for 2023.
“It all happened so quickly,” Hughes told the Tribune. “It’s hard to even think about all the moments so it was definitely fun to reflect on that season.
“I know that I can get anybody out and that in itself is huge. Confidence is key in anything and knowing that I have that in my back pocket now that I have the ability to get pretty much anybody out at the big-league level is a good thing to have.”
Hughes, 27, is slated to fill another important role in the Cubs bullpen, potentially as their only lefty reliever. That could change if the Cubs bring in a free agent. Team President Jed Hoyer said Thursday that he wouldn’t be shocked if they signed someone, noting the reliever availability on the market. For now, Hughes projects to be manager David Ross’ lone lefty option in the pen.
Hughes acknowledged that it feels good knowing how much confidence the team has in him.
“I’ve definitely worked for it,” Hughes said. “And they know every single time that they call down and say ‘Hughesy’ that they know the exact pitcher and competitor they’re getting on the mound.”
The converted outfielder is coming off the most innings pitched in his career. He tallied 57⅔ innings in four months with the Cubs. The organization took that into account when building their offseason plan and spring training usage for Hughes, who has not yet appeared in a Cactus League game. That is by design, instead letting him get his work in through bullpens and live batting practice.
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy compared Hughes’ spring workload approach to how teams handle veteran relievers, such as Craig Kimbrel, who won’t pitch in games until later in spring because of their future regular-season usage.
“Knowing what we want him to be able to do we wanted to make sure his was a very methodical ramp-up,” Hottovy told the Tribune. “It doesn’t mean they’re not working and throwing live BPs, but maybe instead of a live BP and two days off we’re giving him that extra day. ... There’s a time where you feel you can slow play it and help guys get to a good position so that when they go into games, it’s not like they’re trying to figure everything out.”
Given Hughes’ relative inexperience as pitcher, the Cubs want to have time to work with him on other stuff, including mechanics, without the game environment. Hughes is working to better sync up his body based on how he feels slow moving down the mound. He is expected to appear in his first Cactus League game Sunday.
The Cubs also have been deliberate with Keegan Thompson’s buildup for the season. He retired all three batters he faced, striking out one, in his spring debut Saturday against the Los Angeles Angels. Just as the Cubs did with Hughes, they reset Thompson’s offseason programming.
Thompson had spent the previous offseason building up as a starter, but the Cubs wanted to prepare him for a hybrid role out of the bullpen, either going one inning or provide multi-inning relief if needed. The Cubs built his offseason program so he can pitch, have two days off and then be used again. Last year, Thompson would pitch on average of three days rest. So the Cubs wanted him to train in the offseason for a bullpen role and then make sure he recovered well after live BPs before getting him in a game.
Ross isn’t sure yet how the Cubs will use Thompson out of the bullpen. They might continue to have him go multiple innings each outing — he pitched at least two innings in each of his 12 relief appearances in 2022 — or one-inning stints, depending on how well he can bounce back.
“The thing that stands out to me about Keegan is pitchability, any situation he seems ready for because of his starter background and the multiple innings is a value to be able to reset at times,” Ross said. “If he can continue to build upon the stuff he’s given us in the past, he’ll be very valuable for us.”