Michael Bowden, Alex Burnett, Shawn Camp, Rafael Dolis, Kyuji Fujikawa, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier, Kameron Loe, Carlos Marmol, Blake Parker, Zach Putnam, Brooks Raley, Henry Rodriguez, Hector Rondon, James Russell, Eduardo Sanchez, Pedro Strop, Hisanori Takahashi, and Carlos Villanueva.
That is the list of everybody who’s appeared in a game for the Cubs out of the bullpen thus far. And that pen has been much maligned. For a lot of reasons. The 24 blown saves advance that perception, even though many of those “saves” were blown in the 7th and 8th innings, and not the 9th. In all actuality, the 9th inning hasn’t gone all that bad for the Cubs. When the Cubs get to the 9th inning with a lead, they are 45-4. For comparison sake, they are 1-58 when they enter the 9th trailing. And overall, the bullpen has been much better of late. Since the additions of Strop, Guerrier, and Parker, the pen has been solid, and it has not regressed since Guerrier was lost. With Russell, Parker, and Strop, the Cubs finally have a bridge to Kevin Gregg in the 9th, who has gotten the job done in spite of how interesting it may be.
Looking forward, the Cubs figure to have James Russell, Blake Parker, Pedro Strop, and Carlos Villanueva back in the bullpen next season. Villanueva may be in the rotation for periods, but it seems like he is best suited to be in the pen, and fill in as a spot starter. That leaves three openings for next season’s bullpen. Matt Guerrier may be invited back after rehabbing from forearm surgery. The Cubs also have some players who can fit nicely into relief roles in the system already. Brian Schlitter has been dominant at AAA Iowa this season, racking up 17 saves without blowing one. And Arodys Vizcaino should be back from his elbow issues the last couple of years. The plan is, tentatively, to send him to play in fall and/ or winter leagues, to get him back on the mound, which would serve him well in rehabbing this off-season. And he may end up as a starter at some point, but a cautious approach with him, and letting him get innings in a bullpen role would be a way to bring him back at the major league level without running up 150-175 innings in his first year back. Filling the last slot with Hector Rondon, who has a good arm and a year of experience could make the Cubs pen much better, assuming everyone stays healthy and pitches similarly to how they are now.
Projected 2014 Opening Day Bullpen (assuming no outside moves are made):
While this exercise is highly speculative, the point is simple: the Cubs have the arms to improve the bullpen within the organization. And every one of the players in my projection has been in the major leagues, including Schlitter, who appeared in seven games all the way back in 2010. They have some depth, too. If the Cubs can figure out what is wrong with Henry Rodriguez and get him to throw strikes, he’s a viable option. Matt Guerrier has already expressed interest in returning on a minor league deal, and at this point, there is no harm in that. Eduardo Sanchez was a once promising reliever with the Cardinals, and is young enough to recapture his form. Kyuji Fujikawa will return at some point next season from Tommy John Surgery. And most importantly, maybe, Carlos Marmol, who couldn’t finish games at the end of his Cubs’ career, and Shawn Camp, who got beat up a lot this season will not be returning.
The pen is already better right now than it was for most of the summer. And there is talent in the organization to improve it further next season. With any offense at all, the Cubs might actually flirt with a winning season, which would be a positive step in the rebuilding effort.
A lot of pressure is put on a manager to effectively use his pitchers. Knowing when to pull a starter, knowing which reliever to go to, knowing how long a reliever can go, knowing when to give a reliever a day off, knowing when a reliever has had too many days off and needs to get some work…all of it matters when it comes to managing a pitching staff. For Dale Sveum, it’s amazing he knows who is sitting down there sometimes. For comparison sake, here is the difference between the bullpen when the season started and today:
Cubs 2013 Opening Day Bullpen:
- Carlos Marmol, Kyuji Fujikawa, James Russell, Shawn Camp, Hisanori Takahashi, Michael Bowden, Hector Rondon
Cubs Bullpen, May 29
- Kevin Gregg, Carlos Marmol, James Russell, Carlos Villanueva, Rafael Dolis, Hector Rondon, Alex Burnett
Every bullpen goes through changes through the course of the season. That’s not news. The amount of turnover in the Cubs’ pen, though, has been crazy. Shawn Camp is on the disabled list, Michael Bowden is still in DFA limbo after last week when Matt Garza came off the disabled list, Hisanori Takahashi was outrighted to Iowa, and Kyuji Fujikawa needs Tommy John surgery. Alex Burnett was claimed off of waivers and made his debut in a scoreless ninth today. Kevin Gregg was signed as organizational depth, or so we thought. He’s the freakin’ closer. KEVIN GREGG IS CLOSING AND BEING SET UP BY CARLOS MARMOL! It’s like 2009 all over again, and that’s not exactly what any of us wanted. In the mean time, Dolis has been up and down, and Kameron Loe was in town, got smacked around for a few weeks, and was released.
Some of the turnover is because of injuries. They happen disproportionately to pitchers, and we all knew a spot was going to be lost in the pen when Garza returned, but the ineffectiveness of the bullpen is another factor in the turnover. Blaming Dale for the ineffectiveness is unfair, too. He went to players who were reliable for him last season and they have failed him, time and time again. Both Carlos Marmol and Shawn Camp were supposed to be anchors at the back of the bullpen, and both have been removed from their roles. Camp only because of an injury he concealed for the better part of a month, according to Sveum. One of the more reliable relievers was Michael Bowden, who after being designated for assignment last Tuesday, must have action taken on him by Friday. He either needs to be waived, released, or traded. At this point, I can’t see why the Cubs wouldn’t try to sneak him through waivers and bring him right back. It won’t be difficult to find a 40 man slot for him, with Kyuji Fujikawa sacrificing his to the 60 day disabled list.
The numbers are gruesome. 10/20 in save conversions. Although, not all of those were in the 9th inning. Actually, a number of those were blown in the seventh and eighth innings, which underscores the importance of the ‘set up guy.” The Cubs have allowed 32% of inherited runners to score, which is just above the league average of 30%, according to baseball-reference.com. None of this information is a secret. It really only assigns numbers to what we’ve watched for the first two months of the season.
There is some hope, though. Carlos Villanueva has been good this season, and being a veteran reliever has been a strength of his. Kevin Gregg has been a stabilizing force since becoming the closer. James Russell continues to be the best reliever the Cubs have had since Sean Marshall went to Cincy. Carlos Marmol seems to be figuring it out and pitching much better when he doesn’t have the weight of closing the game on his shoulders. Like last season, the pen seems to be getting stronger now that there is a defined, effective guy at the end. Everything between the starter and closer then falls into place. If the starters keep pitching like they have been, and the pen extends its brief resurgence, a run of really good baseball isn’t out of the question.