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.
Being led by Manager Buddy Bailey, Hitting Coach Mariano Duncan, and Pitching Coach Jeff Fassero, the Double A Tennessee Smokies are the forgotten soldiers in the Cubs’ farm system. Many of the prime prospects in the Cubs’ organization are either in Single A Peoria or
Daytona or Triple A Iowa, which leaves the Smokies out of a lot of the conversation about the future of the Chicago Cubs.
The headliner of the Smokies is 2009’s 32nd round steal Trey McNutt, who is ranked 6th in the Cubs system overall. A big 22 year old right-hander, McNutt features a powerful fastball that lives in the mid 90s, and a sharp breaking curve ball. At the moment, he is the most promising starter in the organization, even though his 2011 was marred by injury issues. His inaugural professional season of 2010 showed off how much potential he has, splitting time between Peoria and Daytona, where he was dominant with a combined 1.97 ERA in 100.2 innings. This season, McNutt is rounding back into form, with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP in 49.1 innings. While he still has some work to do at the minor league level, he could find his way to the Confines before the end of the season, especially if the expected trade of Ryan Dempster and the potential trade of Matt Garza come to fruition.
Infielder Junior Lake is another of the promising prospects that is in Tennessee this season, and he too is finding his way in 2012. After a tough mid-season transition to Double A in 2011, Lake is having a strong season this year with a .294 average and .349 OBP. Lake is still rough around the edges, but has raw talent in a multitude of dimensions. He has a good arm in the field, but like his friend, major league SS Starlin Castro, still commits too many errors. He also has above average speed, but below average base-running instincts. If he gets a better read on pitchers, he could turn into a strong base stealing threat, although he will never steal 40 bases in a season. His plate discipline is a bit behind, but like Castro, is a natural hitter with some pop. The Cubs think enough of Junior Lake to add him to the 40 Man Roster, which is an indication that a big league debut could happen this season.
Other players that are sporting the Smokies uniform this season are RHP Casey Weathers, who came with Ian Stewart from the Rockies over the winter. He’s been a little erratic, walking 16 in 14 innings pitched, but has some of the same raw talent that Lake and McNutt have to make him a potential reliable reliever. Brian Schlitter is another name the Cubs’ fans may know. He debuted with the Cubs in 2010 before making the waiver rounds in 2011, ultimately coming back to the Cubs. He initiallyt came to the Cubs from the Phillies for Scott Eyre in 2008, made his trip around waiver lane and is now refining himself in Double A. Lastly, James Adduci is a 27 year old minor league veteran that was a trade replacement from the Marlins in 2006 when the pitcher acquired for Todd Wellemeyer was found to have a pre-existing hand injury. Adduci is the kind of minor leaguer that every team has, spending a lot of time in the minors, but Adduci has seem to find his stride this season and could find an invite to the show if the big league squad suffers from injuries or sees turnover in the trade market.
Traditionally, Double A is where the most intriguing prospects are found. With Triple A being a major league overflow of sorts, Double A is where prospects go to really learn the major league game. The Tennessee Smokies are a highlight of just how bare the Cubs system has been in recent years, because there is not a ton of major league quality talent in the pool. Years of trading quality prospects for veteran bandages have left the Smokies as a middle child of sorts, with the best talent sitting in Iowa or the Single A level. With Theo Epstein & Co. looking to build the franchise from the ground up, the Smokies could be infused with talent very soon, as an important stop on the road to Wrigley.