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Hèctor Neris gives the Chicago Cubs bullpen a needed veteran presence: ‘Guys are gravitating toward him’

MESA, Ariz. — Chicago Cubs reliever Hèctor Neris made his way across the agility field Friday morning with prospect Ben Brown by his side.

They had just finished throwing their first camp bullpens, situated on mounds next to each other, before chatting during their trek back into the team’s complex. Neris, known during his career as “Happy Hèctor” for his jovial spirit and always wearing a smile, already has been a welcomed addition to a pitching staff that needed to find a veteran for the bullpen.

“Guys are gravitating toward him right away,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said.

Neris, 34, did it all during his eight big-league seasons in Philadelphia, experience that provides valuable perspective to the Cubs bullpen. By the time Neris left the Phillies after 2021 to join the Houston Astros, the right-hander set a franchise record for most strikeouts by a reliever, finishing with 520 in 405 appearances. That track record of success and durability combined with two years pitching deep into the postseason with the Astros, including a World Series title in 2022, made Neris an offseason priority signing for the Cubs.

“There’s so many things that young pitchers can learn from him for about a lot of different things,” Hottovy said. “Bringing that in and putting that stable piece right in the middle of the guys that we had that come up last year and had some success, that want to go do it again and not only again but they want to make a career out of doing it, he’s going to be the perfect guy to talk to.”

Neris boasts a machinelike durability, logging at least 70 appearances in five seasons. He thrived in a variety of roles in the late innings, featuring 89 career saves.

“We are huge fans of Hèctor,” reliever Julian Merryweather told the Tribune. “As a veteran presence he’s going to bring the bullpen, he’s seen everything you can as a reliever. We’re all going to be learning a lot from him and picking his brain.

“It’s all happening at the perfect time to where he’s joining us after we’ve kind of all went through a full year together. Now we have a little bit of experience from that so with him being able to do it for multiple years, that’s kind of the stuff that we’re really excited to see how he handles his business and his routines.”

While 2023 provided valuable experience in career-best years for Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay, the bullpen sometimes missed the expertise of a true veteran reliever. Hottovy said that veteran leadership becomes particularly valuable when things aren’t going well or guys start hitting a wall in August, then having that resource to lean on.

“I’m not the master, you try to help, about my experience, about what I think, about what I see,” Neris said. “Before, earlier in my career, I had a lot of guys who helped me and do what I love to do. These guys, I saw last year the talent they have and if I can help this talent, this bullpen, this team, then I’m available.

“Now in my experience my mind is more clear about any situation. I have more control of my emotions at any moment.”

Neris developed a reputation in Philadelphia for always wanting the ball. When he’s pitched on no days of rest during his career, something he has done 127 times, Neris has been impressively effective, holding opposing hitters a .207 average, .288 on-base percentage and .642 OPS.

Neris credits his durability to how he prepares on a daily basis in-season.

“Don’t try to do anything crazy,” Neris said. “Don’t try to be a hero. This is me. To feel how I feel, I like to continue in the game, I like to have the ball. I have to help the team. Every day I can, I do it.”

Manager Craig Counsell does not anticipate locking relievers into specific roles, preferring the flexibility of utilizing his bullpen as the game situation warrants. As he continues to learn his staff over the next five weeks, that outlook could shift slightly. But the expectation is versatile options in the late innings.

It’s an approach Neris embraces.

“Everybody is important because you don’t know what inning is important for the game,” Neris said. “As soon you are in the bullpen, you are available to help the team in any situation. It doesn’t matter, you don’t have to wait until the ninth inning. I know the ninth inning is a more important inning for the game because you can break everything you do in the game in this inning, but it depends on the situation in the game.

“Everybody can be closer because if you are on the team, because if you have talent to compete, you can control any inning.”