Tagged: Kyuji Fujikawa

Cubs Bullpen Can Be Fixed…Without Looking Outside The Organization

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):

Hector Rondon
Brian Schlitter
Carlos Villanueva
Arodys Vizcaino
James Russell
Blake Parker
Pedro Strop

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.

 

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Dale Sveum’s Ever Changing Bullpen

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

    Photo: Ronald Modra, Getty Images

    Photo: Ronald Modra, Getty Images

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.

 

 

The Cubs Will Be Sellers…But Won’t Empty the Store

I think we’re all sure that there is going to be a sell off at the deadline this season again.  The extent of that sell off is yet to be determined, but in comparison to last year, it will likely be pretty minor.  The reason for that is simple…there is less there for the Cubs to sell.  That’s not to say this team is less talented than last year’s team.  Actually, the opposite is true by a wide margin.  Looking at “the plan,” though, and what the Cubs have on their roster, who is likely to go is pretty limited.

STARTING PITCHING:

NOT GOING ANYWHERE:

Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood

The only player in this group who has any chance of being dealt is Travis Wood.  Jeff Samardzija is a stud who is under team control through 2016.  That type of pitcher is someone you don’t let go of if you’re lacking impact pitching talent in the first place.  Travis Wood has an outside shot of being traded because of his hot start to the season, with nine quality starts in his first ten outings.  He, too, is under team control for a long time.  He won’t hit free agency until 2017.  He is exactly the type of young, cost controlled asset the regime has said to want to keep around.  Dealing him at the deadline would be a huge shock to me, and I don’t see it happening without some type of high end prospect coming back in return.  And because Travis Wood is still only a good 4-5th starter, I can’t see a team willing to cough up that much for him.  Edwin Jackson’s not going anywhere.  He was signed to be a piece for when the Cubs compete.  And he will get ample opportunity to figure out what troubles him.

MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:

Matt Garza

He’s only been back for a week, so I think it is entirely too early to tell whether or not he is fully back from his arm/ lat injuries.  And it is too early to tell what kind of value he has.  I know that the Cubs are looking to get back impact prospects for Garza, and if they get the right package of them, he’ll be packing his bags and headed to another city.  It is just too early to tell if any team is going to be willing to ship the Cubs the right package of prospects for a pure rental player, who is due to become a free agent at season’s end.  It would figure to be just as likely that Garza stays in Chicago all season and the Cubs slap a qualifying offer on him.  If that happens, it would be entirely possible that Garza would return to the Cubs after watching Kyle Lohse wait until just before the season to be signed.  There is an outside shot that the Cubs extend him for a contract similar to the one they offered Anibal Sanchez.  He is worth that kind of money when healthy, and if he shows that he is, he’d be worth the investment.

DON’T GET COMFORTABLE:

Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva

Both of these guys are attractive pieces at the deadline.  Neither makes all that much money.  Both can come out of the pen.  Both can give you a good start every five days.  That makes them the two best candidates to be out the door this July.  Feldman was asked about being flipped at his introductory conference call, so none of this should come as news to him.  Villanueva, however, signed a two year deal, so he would likely net a bit more than

Photo: Rob Carr, Getty Images

Photo: Rob Carr, Getty Images

Feldman in a trade, simply for the extra year of inexpensive control.

BULLPEN:

NOT GOING ANYWHERE:

Hector Rondon, Shawn Camp, Kyuji Fujikawa, Carlos Marmol

I know you’re all upset that Marmol is on this list.  I am, too.  He’s not worth a day old hotdog, though.  At the deadline he’ll be due about $5M, and his numbers aren’t going to make that a good investment for a team looking for a quality reliever.  The only way he comes off this list is if he has a turn around like last year and the Cubs eat most (…or all) of his remaining contract.  And he won’t bring back very much in return.  The most likely scenario with him is finishing the season and walking away in free agency.  Shawn Camp is much more likely to be released than traded.  Kyuji Fujikawa has been injured too early to have any chance at being dealt, and Hector Rondon is a Rule 5 player who the front office likes.  That makes all of them mostly untradeable.

MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:

James Russell, Kevin Gregg

James Russell has proven to be a valuable commodity in the bullpen the last couple of years, which increases his value immensely, but since he is under team control through 2016, it stands to reason that the team would like to keep a controllable asset like him.  There are good teams looking for left handed relievers who can get guys out on both sides of the plate, though.  And if one of them offers up a good package for James Russell, it would not be outside of the realm of possibility that he gets shipped off for multiple pieces.  Kevin Gregg is having a bit of a resurgence with the Cubs, which makes him attractive.  He’s a cheap piece who could fit into a bullpen and occasionally close for a team looking for that type of player.  He probably wouldn’t net a whole lot, but considering the Cubs were just throwing a line in the water to see what he had, any return would be a nice profit on their low risk investment.

INFIELDERS:

NOT GOING ANYWHERE:

Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Wellington Castillo

Rizzo and Castro both signed long term extensions.  Those are obvious.  Castillo is a talented young catcher who is going to get every opportunity to win this spot long term.

MAY  BE GOING SOMEWHERE:

Darwin Barney, Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom, Dioner Navarro

The most attractive piece in this group is obviously Darwin Barney.  His glove makes him an attractive trade piece for someone looking for a really good utility infielder.  Remember, he came up as a short stop and played some third base when he was initially called up.  If his bat keeps coming along, he could be a really good long term starter at second base for a contending team with a shortage in that spot.  He’s 27, so the Cubs may not see him as a long term piece of the core group of players.  He is under team control until 2017, though.  And if he continues to make progress with the bat, he is every bit the kind of player you want at 2B on a contending Cubs team.  Luis Valbuena and Cody Ransom both offer the same kind of value for a team that Jeff Baker added last year.  They are both utility players who can swing the bat some.  They may not bring a lot in return, but that probably wouldn’t stop the front office from sending them away for some intriguing young players.

OUTFIELD:

MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:

Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Scott Hairston, Ryan Sweeney

The safest bet for any of the outfielders to go anywhere is David DeJesus.  A veteran, left handed hitter who can take pitches and work counts  while offering solid defense at all three outfield positions is always in demand.  If the price is right, DDJ is out the door.  It’s just not clear what his value is.  It can’t be too much higher than it was last year, and he wasn’t traded then.  I sense that he would have been traded last year if there was a market for him, which gives me some reason to think he’s not the slam dunk to be traded that some are calling him.  Soriano is going to be shopped aggressively, and if the Cubs find a team willing to package some good pieces together and Soriano is willing to waive his no trade rights, he likely goes at the deadline.  There is too much uncertainty with Soriano, though.  He’s picky.  And he has that right.  If the Cubs get a call about the other three players, I am sure they will listen, and if they can get a prospect of two that they like, there is almost no chance they refuse.

None of this is to say that the Cubs will stand pat at the deadline.  It just isn’t clear who will or will not be going anywhere.  There are not the sure things this season, like Ryan Dempster last season.  There are attractive pieces on this team for others to look at, but none of them are necessarily special.  Matt Garza would net the most in return, theoretically, but if Jed and Theo don’t get a package they like, it is hard to believe they will trade him for the sake of trading him.  That actually applies to pretty much everybody on the roster short of Feldman.  He is a true rental, even for the Cubs, so if they can squeeze a prospect out for him, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to do so.  They may be a little more choosey with Villanueva only because they have him next season, too, and if they plan on being in the hunt next year, he’s a nice piece to have.  Or, if we’re looking at another cold assessment that leads to selling, he has value then, too.

Expect some movement from the Cubs.  Just don’t expect them to send away everything not nailed down like last year.  This is year two.  It’s time to start hanging on to some of the talent.

Rizzo and Castro Struggle, Dale’s Cubs Future, and Blaming the Fans?

In today’s loss to Pittsburgh, Starlin Castro had two hits and Anthony Rizzo wore the collar again.  That’s not really too different from the last week or so, where neither has been setting the world on fire.  In Starlin’s case, he’s been less productive all season than he has in his first three.  Anthony Rizzo has been as streaky as it gets.  He ended a 40 PA streak without a strike out with a flurry of them coming in the last four ballgames.  Ultimately, both have the weight of the world on their shoulders.  Starlin Castro is not as protected as he was when he was called up three years ago.  Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are not in the line up to protect him anymore, and it has shown since the beginning of 2012.  Anthony Rizzo never got the luxury of  being in the line up with Ramirez or Lee, and has been the man since last June when he was called up.  At least Alfonso Soriano was swinging the bat when he got the call.  Early on, that hasn’t been the case at all, and Rizzo has also done some uncharacteristic swinging and missing, in an obvious effort to carry the offense.

Dale Sveum has shown up as the scapegoat for this season.  It isn’t a surprise that Dale is the one being chased with torches and pitchforks.  After all, he is the one who is hanging sliders late in games.  And it is Sveum who is swinging at pitches a foot off the plate with runners in scoring position.  It would be unimaginable to forget all of the errors in the field he’s committed, as well.  Actually, I’m being told that he hasn’t done any of those things thus far.  While he (and every other manager/ head coach in professional sports) has done some things that may not seem to be the right move, or clearly haven’t been the right move, it is absurd to blame him for the failures of the bullpen this season.  He could not have known, before the season, that Carlos Marmol was going to be as bad as he was out of the gates after as good as he was in the second half of last season.  He could not have known Kyuji Fujikawa would have a forearm injury and not tell anyone about it.  The same applies to the Shawn Camp fiasco that happened earlier this week.  While it is fair to question some of the moves Dale has made in some situations, to pick him apart and blame him for the failures of the team would be a disservice, especially since he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the development that he has overseen.  The Cubs were the worst defensive team in baseball in 2011.  They are much better now (spare me the errors, crap.  Those are 100% subjective.  Peripherals say the Cubs are much better than they were in 2011).  They are much better base runners.  They make some silly plays on the bases now, but they are errors or aggression, and not errors of not knowing what’s going on.  All of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija have grown in the time Sveum has been around.  Darwin Barney won a Gold Freaking Glove.  Matt Garza stayed with a 61 win team after being shut down in July because of the atmosphere of the clubhouse when a lot of players go home to rehab.  That speaks volumes to Dale Sveum’s ability to manage a clubhouse and a ball club.  He should get the credit he deserves if he is going to get the unfair criticisms of being the reason a team with a talent deficiency is 10 under .500.

All of that leads me to this…when do the fans start looking in the mirror and blaming themselves?  The obvious answer is never.  Because nobody wants to think they’re the reason for anything.  We as a fan base, collectively, have a lot more effect on things than we might think.  Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are two very rich players who fans are always talking about being the future of the team and the cornerstones of a team that lead the Cubs fans to the promised land.  That’s a heavy burden on two kids.  Because they are kids.  23 years old is young if they were starting in Iowa.  They are both starting every day at Wrigley Field.  While I am not tremendously older than either of those two, I do know that I have undergone a major transformation in the years since I was 23.  That’s just out of college for most people.  These two are being counted on to win a World Series where one hasn’t been won in 105 years!  Are they feeling the pressure of expectations levied on them by media and fans?  I can’t answer for sure, but I would venture to guess the obvious answer is yes.  It shows in their performance.  They are both trying to make things happen when nothing is there to be made…and it is hurting them and the team.  Matt Garza has already addressed the negativity around the team this season from the fans.  Since he’s still new to the whole Cubs atmosphere, he must not realize the negativity has been going on for a long time.  Dale Sveum isn’t the first “moron,” “idiot,” “over-thinker,” or “washed up player” to come through here and be run out of town by the fans.  It happened to Mike Quade, Dusty Baker, and Don Baylor…all in the last 12 years.  It probably would have happened to Lou Piniella, too, but he got the hell out of town before he could be chased down Sheffield Avenue by an angry mob.  All of the things that I love about being a Cubs fan…the passion, the loyalty, the undying desire to see the Cubs win it all…have to make being on a team that doesn’t win it all an unmitigated hell.  We’re the people who booed Carlos Marmol before the home opener this season.  We’re the people who booed Alfonso Soriano unmercifully for not running out a line drive that was caught at third base on national television.  We’re the people who, inexplicable, found some cause to boo Aramis Ramirez when he made his first visit to Wrigley last season as a member of the Brewers.

And for what?  Because every year has to be THE YEAR?  I’ve said it before, other bloggers have said it before, and the front office and manager have said it before if you listened closely to what they’ve said…this is not the year.  This is another completely developmental year.  Theo, and I paraphrase, said it’s either playoffs or protected pick.  And if you hooked him up to a polygraph, he’d probably tell you playoffs were never really an option.  He’s smart.  He knows who is on the line up card Dale fills out everyday.  It’s not a playoff team.

I’m not saying to applaud mediocrity.  I’m not saying to ignore mistakes and to not boo a lack of effort.  I’m saying that we aren’t helping.  The players that are running out there everyday feel the weight of a fan base pushing down on their shoulders.  And there are only a few who are out there everyday.  Castro.  Rizzo.  Barney.  Those are the ones who will have the best chance of being a part of the team that does win it all.  Crushing them now is just counterproductive.

Cubs to Designate Bowden

We all knew someone was going to the bullpen to make room for the returning Matt Garza (Turns out that was Carlos Villanueva).  The question not asked as often was, “who leaves the ‘pen?”

We found out today, in what is somewhat of a stunner, that the answer is apparently Michael Bowden.  For my money, I was betting the answer was going to be Shawn Camp.  After all, Camp and the 13 earned he’s given up in 16.0 innings of work, and the .378 OBP allowed don’t exactly bring back shades of the lightning he caught in a bottle last season.  And when one of Camp’s balls gets put into play, it often times lands harmlessly.  A .370 BABIP

Photo: Al Behrman, AP

Photo: Al Behrman, AP

against is not good by any measure (and that doesn’t count the three that have landed harmlessly in the bleachers).

Bowden hasn’t been a world beater by any means, but his numbers are better.  He’s at a .308 OBP allowed, a .269 BABIP allowed, and more respectable 3.78 ERA in 16..2 innings.  He hasn’t allowed a home run or committed any balks, both of which Camp has done.    In comparison, Bowden’s ERA+ is 52 points higher than Camp (107-55).  Save a rough outing in a 14th inning in Cincinnati, Bowden’s been nothing short of good.  He went 1.2, and gave up the three runs to blow the game in his second inning of work.  Otherwise, he’s not given up more than one run in any other appearance, and has shown the ability to be effective for more than one inning of work.  Camp, on the other hand has given up multiple runs in an outing five times thus far, in 19 appearances.

From my perspective, whatever assessment was done to make this decision wasn’t as cold as the decision will be to sell off in July.  It would almost appear that Dale Sveum’s undying devotion for the guy he called on in just short of half of the miserable 2012 season is getting extra credit for being good last year.  Really, there’s no justification beyond that for keeping an older reliever who’s been less effective.  By a lot.  Actually, Michael Bowden has been the most consistent reliever not named James Russell that’s been in the pen all season.  Marmol, Fujikawa, and Camp were all supposed to be more reliable and more depended on than Bowden, and none has been through the first quarter of the season.

At this point, we should hope that the Cubs are able to keep Bowden by passing through waivers and accepting an outright assignment to Iowa.  I can’t be sure that happens, though.  There are enough teams looking for young, inexpensive, effective relief pitching that I wouldn’t put the odds above 50/50 that Bowden makes it through waivers and accepts an outright to AAA.

2013 Positional Preview: The Bullpen

The final player installment of the positional previews is the group who will see the most change throughout this season.  In reality, that’s the case for just about every team, every season.

This season figures to be extra interesting for the Cubs in the bullpen.  The addition of Kyuji Fujikawa from Japan as a potential (and likely) closer when Carlos Marmol departs the organization, either via trade or the expiration of his contract after the season lends some stability to the the back end, and the addition of Carlos Villanueva gives the Cubs the long reliever they’ve been without since Tom Gorzelanny packed his bags.  Indeed, this will be the group with the most turnover of any on the team.

Closer: Carlos Marmol

For now.  In spite of being only 30 and coming off of an impressive rebound in the second half of last season, Marmol is the most talked about trade piece this side of Alfonso Soriano.  The fact that he did have a strong second half, is 30, and is in the last year of a deal with Cubs would be willing to pay almost all of make him a valuable piece for any contending team (*cough cough* Tigers) that needs a proven back end.  I am of the opinion that Brian Wilson makes more sense for the Tigers than Marmol because he will be inexpensive and won’t cost prospects, but it seems as though Detroit is looking at all available options, including Marmol.  That said, however long he’s around, he should be fine.  Sure, he’s an adventure.  He’ll put some on and he’ll make it interesting.  But he slammed the door quite a bit last year.  Another year of Chris Bosio would probably do him some good, but I don’t see Marmol being back under any circumstances next season if he finishes this season in Chicago.  I see him becoming “controllable assets” before too long.  This spot is definitely one that is not set…

Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa

This is the guy who will likely be the closer if/ when Marmol is sent out.  The 32 year old “rookie” from Japan is coming over on a two year deal and was an excellent closer before coming over the states.  The thing that worries me about “KJ” is that Japanese closers haven’t exactly been common…or good.  In Japan, though, Fujikawa was uncommonly good.  His ERA broke 2.00 only one time, a 2.01 ERA in 2010, and his 202 career saves lend him some credibility to finish games.  He’s entering a new level of competition, and he very well could struggle like many of the Japanese pitchers before him.  If he can be the exception to what has been the norm, however, everything should be fine for the short term.

Middle Relief: Shawn Camp, James Russell, Hector Rondon , Jaye Chapman, Michael Bowden (and a host of others throughout the season)

The two major pieces to this puzzle are Camp and Russell.  Both of those guys were fixtures just about every day last season.  And they were each pretty good.  Russell appeared in 77 games with a strong 3.25 ERA.  After being used in a variety of situations in 2011 and struggling before settling into the bullpen, 2012 was spent entirely in the bullpen, and Russell showed that he is an effective lefty, and can pitch effectively to both left and right handed hitters.  He’s shown his value and as everyday asset much like Shawn Camp, who might be the oldest guy in the organization.  At 37, Camp was another everyday fixture in the bullpen and led the league with 80 appearances.  He was surprisingly effective in a set-up role with Russell, but struggled when he became the closer in Marmol’s absence.  For a guy who signed a minor league deal during camp last season, Shawn Camp turned into one of the most valuable players on the roster.  This season, he will probably not get the same use, and may improve the effectiveness of his aging arm.  The last player of note is Rule 5 selection, Hector Rondon, who needs to be on the active roster for 90 days.  The difference between Lendy Castillo from last season and Rondon is that Rondon has pitched at AAA, which is something Castillo had never done.  Rondon has had arm issues, and if he’s past them, he could turn into a pleasant surprise, and may not spend months and months on the DL with Rule-5itis.

Long Relief: Carlos Villanueva

Even though, Villanueva will start the season in the rotation, this is going to be his role going forward.  He’s well suited for it, too.  Coming over from Toronto, he was looking for a chance to start, but it will probably not come

Photo: Boys of Spring Blog (boysofspring.com)

Photo: Boys of Spring Blog (boysofspring.com)

to fruition for him without some injury and trade subtractions from the rotation.  And that’s alright.  His numbers won’t blow anyone away, but he can make a start in a pinch and go 5-6 innings, or come in early in a game and save the bullpen from being spent.  This is an often overlooked role and an unglamorous position for just about any pitcher to be in.  He doesn’t get his name on the scroll on ESPN as the probable starter, nor does he get his name on it for the save.  But this is a vital role because it allows the other players in the ‘pen to stay in their roles.  As far as long relief pitching goes, there aren’t many who are better than Villanueva, even if he does look himself in the mirror and call himself a starting pitcher.

Other Names to Watch: Arodys Vizcaino, Trey McNutt, Robert Whitenack, Barret Loux, Hisanori Takahashi, Nick Struck

Vizcaino is probably the most well-known of these players, coming over from the Braves at the deadline last season.  He could find his way into the bullpen to pick up some major league innings this season to get experience, especially if the Cubs fall out of it.  McNutt seems to be throwing as well as he has in a few years, but now seems destined to have a bullpen role, and may make his way to Chicago this season.  Loux is who ultimately came for Geovany Soto after Jacob Brigham was found to have had arm issues, and is in camp as a non-roster player.  He seems to be a better prospect than Brigham, and is closer to the majors, so it seems like the Cubs won in the end on that deal.  Takahashi and Struck are both in camp as non-roster players, as well, and could wind up in the bullpen at some point this season as well.  As I mentioned at the outset, this is where there is the most flux during a season.  This season should be no different.

2013 NL Central Preview

Ah, yes…we have reached the time of the year where bats start cracking and gloves start popping.  Spring Training is upon us.  While pitchers and catchers are on the cusp of having to report, there are a number of position players who have already descended on Arizona.  It would not have been surprising to see players wait until the last possible day before reporting after last season’s 61 wins.  Many will do that, anyway.  It is good to see that there are players in camp and working, already.  It is evidence of the players having some optimism for this season.

Optimism is admirable, considering the Cubs will not contend this season, either.  Don’t get me wrong, here…they’re going to be much better than they were last season.  I predicted last season’s version of the Cubs would finish with a record of 77-85.  My prediction appeared to have some validity until the trade deadline.  While it was anticipated the team would sell at the deadline, the degree to which they did, coupled with the losses of Matt Garza to injury and Jeff Samardzija to an innings limit pushed the Cubs to the wrong side of 100 losses for the first time since 1966.  This season, even if they do end up trading some players (Matt Garza the most likely), they have some depth to keep the losses from piling up as quickly and as plentifully as they did in 2012.

A great many prognosticators are saying the Cubs are a lock for last place this year with the Astros leaving for the American League.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS!”  This season, it appears the Pirates walk the plank, right into the cellar…

Consider this the official prediction of the division in 2013, in both  final standing and record for each of the now five NL Central ball clubs.

1. Cincinnati Reds (94-68)

With the top of the division, it’s the status quo.  The Reds are still the most complete team in the division and have, arguably, the best bullpen in baseball.  I say that knowing full well that Dusty Baker plans on slowly sucking the life out of Aroldis Chapman’s arm.  For now, though, they are the best team, and with a healthy Joey Votto, there isn’t a good reason why they wouldn’t win the division this season.  A team without major holes is a team that seems destined to win a division.  That best explains the Reds, and the only thing I can see changing this is a rash of injuries.  Even that seems unlikely to cause the Reds to falter, as the team without Joey Votto for a sizable piece of 2012 still won the division by a wide margin.

Projected Line-Up
1. Shin-Soo Choo, CF
2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Jay Bruce, RF
5. Ryan Ludwick, LF
6. Todd Frazier, 3B
7. Zack Cozart, SS
8. Ryan Hanigan, C

Projected Rotation:
1. Johnny Cueto
2. Mat Latos
3. Bronson Arroyo
4. Aroldis Chapman
5. Homer Bailey

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Sean Marshall
Closer: Jonathon Broxton

2. St. Louis Cardinals (89-73)

As sick as it makes me, the Cardinals are chalk for a winning season and competing for a Wild Card…especially since there are two of them, now.  Even with the loss of Chris Carpenter, there is a wealth of depth on this team and in this organization.  They seem to heal wounds better than any team in baseball.  That, in large part, comes from the best farm system in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law.  Without any major changes to the way this team is constructed from last season and Adam Wainwright being a full season past Tommy John Surgery, there is no good reason why they would fail to meet their usual standards of being a complete pain in the neck.  Even after losing Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa, and Chris Carpenter, they’re still pretty darn good.  Which blows.  Hard.

Projected Line-Up
1. John Jay, CF
2. Rafael Furcal, SS
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Matt Holliday, LF
5. David Freese, 3B
6. Yadier Molina, C
7. Allen Craig, 1B
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Marc Rzepczynski
Closer: Jason Motte

3. Chicago Cubs (80-82)

Unlike the top two teams, everyone else has some question marks, starting with our beloved Cubs.  The outfield looks to be a strength of the organization…but not at the big league level.  Nate Schierholtz was looking for a one year deal to be an everyday player for a reason.  He is very talented, but that hasn’t translated well at the major league level, yet.  David DeJesus is a good on base player and can grind out an at-bat, but is not a prototypical lead off hitter.  He actually projects nicely into the 7th spot in a contending line up.  Third base looks like it will be held by Ian Stewart, if he’s healthy and shows some of the pop he had in Colorado.  He had flashes of it last year, but his wrist just didn’t let it happen like it needed to.  If he doesn’t get the job done, the hot corner will be ice cold for the Cubs again this season.  Luis Valbuena is a nice player, but doesn’t have the punch a corner infielder should have, and Josh Vitters appears to need more minor league time.  There is some question as to whether Wellington Castillo can be the everyday catcher.  Dioner Navarro is a nice addition to help, but Wellington is the most talented and will need to play to his level.  While the offense has some question marks, the rotation has been solidified by the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, and Edwin Jackson.  Even if the Cubs do end up trading Matt Garza or have injuries, it will not leave the devastation that trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm and losing Garza to injury did last season.  With seven legitimate options to start, not including Arodys Vizcaino,  the Cubs figure to be in much better shape in the rotation.  The bullpen looks better, too.  Shawn Camp was retained, James Russell is another year in, the team signed Kyuji Fujikawa, and Carlos Marmol seemed to figure it out in the second half last season.  If Marmol gets dealt, which is a real possibility, Fujikawa is an option to step into the closer’s role that was so uncertain for the first half of last season.  Villanueva gives the Cubs a flexible option in the bullpen and as a spot starter, if needed.  Long story short, a much improved pitching staff is going to be a catalyst to a much improved Cubs team in 2013.

Projected Line-Up
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Ian Stewart, 3B
6. Wellington Castillo, C
7. Nate Schierholtz, RF
8. Darwin Barney, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Matt Garza
2. Jeff Samardzija
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Travis Wood
5. Scott Feldman

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
Closer: Carlos Marmol

4. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)

Looking at the Brewers, they will score runs.  A lot of runs.  I did not include Corey Hart in the projected line-up because he is going to be sidelined for the beginning of the season.  When he comes back, and likely occupies first base, it is going to be full steam ahead at Miller Park.  If they can get some stability out of their starting pitching, if their bullpen improves to be average (or settles for better than worst in the NL), if Corey Hart comes back healthy sooner rather than later, if Aramis Ramirez doesn’t go on a six week slump out of the starting block, and if Ryan Braun emerges clear of PED links again, this team has the potential to have a record just the opposite of what I predicted, and could peak into the playoff window.  There is a lot of if with this team, though.  Generally, some of the ifs work out, but not all of them.  The pitching is suspect.  Mike Fiers was outstanding last season, but with a year to adjust to a guy most teams had never seen and with a season’s worth of tape on him, hitters may be able to get a better read on his less than overwhelming stuff.  I love the kid as a 4th or 5th starter…not as a 2.  The bullpen could be better, but they added nothing to instill confidence in it to anyone but the homeriest of homers up here in Wisconsin.  Too many questions, too many uncertainties, no way to give them the benefit of all of the doubts at their chances of being competitive.

Projected Line-Up
1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Rickie Weeks, 2B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Matt Gamel, 1B
6. Jonathon Lucroy, C
7. Carlos Gomez, CF
8. Jean Segura, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. Yovani Gallardo
2. Mike Fiers
3. Chris Narveson
4. Marco Estrada
5. Tom Gorzelanny

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mike Gonzalez
Closer: John Axford

5. Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)

I’ll admit, my projected line-up here seems amiss.  I look at the parts they have, and they don’t seem to fit together that well.  I like a number of their offensive players individually, and I think they will score some runs, led by Andrew McCutchen, who is an absolute stud of the highest order.  Like the Brewers, I have major concerns about their pitching staff.  A.J. Burnett is getting older.  Wandy Rodriguez is a good pitcher, but he doesn’t match up well with other number two pitchers in good rotations.  He’s a good middle of the rotation guy.  James McDonald faded down the stretch last season, and will need to figure it out again.  The bullpen, once a strength, loses much of its force by losing its strongest asset in Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox.  That move alone makes the bullpen average, at best.  With Jason Grilli becoming the closer, it appears to have sent the bullpen just over its head.  Everybody in it is elevated one spot, which to me, seems to be one spot too big for each player.  If Hanrahan were still a Pirate, I could make a good case for the team’s bullpen being the strength of the team.  Without him, it just doesn’t look the same, which is to say it does not look right.  Like the Brewers, too many ifs and concerns to see them being anything more than a team winning in the mid 70s.  For Pirates fans after the last couple of seasons, that may not be desirable, but they’re still much better than the Pirates of the last 20 years have been on average.

Projected Line-Up
1. Neil Walker, 2B
2. Starling Marte, LF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones, 1B
5. Travis Snider, RF
6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
7. Russell Martin, C
8. Clint Barmes, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. A.J. Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. James McDonald
4. Jeff Locke
5. Jeff Karstens

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mark Melancon
Closer: Jason Grilli