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.
The Cubs have placed Shawn Camp on the 15 Day DL with a strained toe (or bruises and lacerations from getting smacked around all season) and recalled Rafael Dolis from Iowa (or where ever he was hiding waiting to be called back to the big league team). What I can’t understand is why, if Camp was injured this weekend, because he reportedly got treatment on Sunday for this toe, did Michael Bowden have to leave and why was Camp the guy to get the call in a two run game with the bases loaded last night. Patrick Mooney just said that Dale plead ignorance to the injury, but it was something Camp dealt with in Toronto and has been bothering him for a month (A F’N MONTH!!!!!). If we’re keeping score, that is two relievers not coming clean with injuries and it costing the Cubs, because Kyuji Fujikawa did the same thing before he went on the DL.
Dale was also asked about the closed door meeting that lasted all of about three minutes. Gordon Wittenmyer just tweeted that the meeting was to “define roles” and that Carlos Villanueva is “too valuable to be considered a long man.” If that was indeed the only substance of the meeting, it would explain the brevity. It would also be met with a hearty, “DUH!” because Villanueva has been very good for the most part in the early going, and why wouldn’t you use him in a spot where the ball has been dropped repeatedly. I’m sure some other things were said, most not able to be typed on my PG blog.
Today’s game marked the first quarter of what has been a very down and up and down again 2012 season. Therefore, I find now to be a perfect time for the obligatory blog entry with premature grades and analysis of 41/162 games.
- Bryan LaHair has proven to be a worthy and able first baseman during the first quarter of the season. He’s hit for power, average, taken his walks, and done a respectable job manning first base in the field. While he is not the gold glove that Derek Lee or Carlos Pena had proven to be in their tenures with the Cubs, he is making the plays he is supposed to make. His bat is the important thing, though, and with talk of an Anthony Rizzo call
up potentially coming in the next few weeks, his bat could force a shuffle of the outfield. He could force the energetic Tony Campana to the bench to make room for David DeJesus in center, while he moves to right field. The takeaway is that he is swinging a strong enough bat to force another player out of the line up if and when Rizzo arrives, and that is a major positive for the Cubs’ offense.
- Tony Campana has been a spark since joining the roster and getting regular playing time. I know I took a cheap shot at Nyjer Morgan in an earlier post, but after watching Campana a little more, I don’t think he is a Morgan type as much as he is a Juan Pierre type of player. His range and versatility in the outfield is excellent, and he has found his swing this season, keeping the ball on the ground and slapping hits all over the park more than he did last season. With his speed, those are the things he needs to do to be a successful player in the majors. In the games in which he’s played, he has been mightily successful.
- The starting pitching has been fantastic, for the most part. With Chris Volstad being sent to Iowa, the one real weakness has been removed. Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and Paul Maholm have all been very good with only a few rough outings among them. Samardzija, Dempster, and Maholm were all asked to pitch in the Wrigley bam box this weekend, and all did a respectable job. There were no cheap home runs off of Maholm today, but he limited the damage to solo home runs and kept the team in the game. Ryan Dempster gave up back to back home runs that were completely wind aided. Both of those are harmless fly balls on a normal day. I can’t fault a guy for giving up a fly ball that the wind carries just into the basket. Especially one that has been as dominant as Dempster this season. Unfortunately, none of the three were rewarded with wins. Actually, the starters only have 10 wins to this point. They deserve more. They have been excellent.
- The defense gets an honorable mention in the good because it has been. Starlin Castro’s eight errors are kind of misleading. Overall, his defense, notably his throwing, have been much better. The work in spring has very much benefited Starlin in the early going, and it seems as though he is moving in the right direction. The same can be said about Darwin Barney, who is a converted short stop. Alfonso Soriano, for as much as we ride him has also been much, much better. He makes all of the plays he is supposed to make and has been better in his paths to the ball how he plays the ball of the wall. Lately, he has been hampered with a leg injury that has made his defense suffer a little bit, but he is probably an average defender in left thus far, and that is a vast improvement over the last few seasons. Ian Stewart and David DeJesus have been as advertised with their gloves. They have been excellent at their respective positions.
- Joe Mather. The man is another Reed Johnson type that is always ready and can play anywhere he’s needed. That’s a valuable commodity in baseball, and he has provided steady and consistent play whenever Dale Sveum has called on him. He is turning into a very nice addition to the bench and is earning himself more playing time.
- Only the Toronto Blue Jays have walked more batters than the Chicago Cubs. So, while the .239 batting average against Cubs’ pitching is good for 8th in baseball, the walks have been a huge problem and need to come down. Many of those walks have come late in games by the bullpen. Carlos Marmol is tied for the team lead with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija with 16. It is to be expected that the starters would walk more batters because they throw a significant number more innings, and for the most part, the starters have been solid in the BB category. The problems are with the pen. Marmol has 16 in 11.1 innings pitched. Rafael Dolis has 11 in 24 innings, Kerry Wood had 11 in his 8.1 innings before retirement this weekend, and James Russell has 10 in 17.1 innings. That’s 48 walks out of the late inning relief pitching, in 61.1 innings. Way too many…and a very big reason why the Cubs have 6 saves and 8 blown saves through 41 games.
- The rash of injuries to the catchers has been devastating and mind blowing. At current, Geovany Soto, Steve Clevenger, and Wellington Castillo are all banged up. That leaves the Cubs with the newly reacquired Koyie Hill and rookie Blake Lalli to serve is the back stops for a young bullpen. Hill is a veteran that has experience with the Cubs and is a reliable defensive catcher. He was an excellent addition with the onslaught of injuries to the catchers. Before the injuries, the catchers were fine. Geo got off to a slow start, but his bat was coming around as he was hitting some balls hard. Clevenger was said to have a “slump proof swing” by Manager and former Hitting Coach Dale Sveum. The catchers were not winning the team any games, but not costing them too many, either. Soto had two of his four errors in one inning, neither of which were his fault because Rodrigo Lopez should have fielded both balls, and Clevenger and Castillo each have a passed ball. Other than that, 2 errors for Soto in his other 27 games and doing a good job with the new and young pitchers. The catching has been about average, and lands in the bad category because all of that average catching is injured and has given way to reacquired veterans and rookie call ups.
- More about the walks, this time for the hitters. 105 in 41 games is good for 26th in baseball. The lack of patience at the plate has led to some quick innings, which don’t allow the team to see the weakest part of the bullpen…the middle relief. Any pitcher that is in middle relief is not the cream of the bullpen because if they were, they’d be starting, setting up, or closing. Unfortunately, the Cubs have only see starters, set up guys, and closers because there is almost no need to pull the starter for pitch count. Dale’s edict to take the first pitch, unless you can hit it a country mile has not brought about the patient approach the team needs. There have been some ugly swings and misses at pitches there is no chance at hitting. Bryan LaHair, David DeJesus, Ian Stewart, and Geovany Soto are the only guys in double figures. Guys like Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano, and Darwin Barney (who has 9 BB this season) should be in double figures. They get enough at bats that they should be seeing more free passes. They’re there for the taking…and the offense would benefit from a few gift base runners.
- I’ve spoken on the schedule before, so this will be brief. The games against good and surging teams have been a constant in the early going. Fortunately, the Houstons, Pittsburghs, and San Diegos are all right in front of the Cubs right now. This is a golden opportunity to win some games against some teams that the Cubs are better than. There is room for a better mark than 15-26 at the quarter pole, but many of those teams are, frankly, better than we are. I am not stunned that the record is 11 under right now because I would have looked at the schedule and thought it about right for this team against that schedule. The surge that we saw before the current 6 game skid is promising. I expect that to happen again this season, and to happen with a little more consistency as the season continues. That’s it for the ugly, though…tough schedule that led to some very up and down results.
The Cubs have finished signing every player on their 40 man roster with 0-3 years of service time, according to ESPN.com’s Doug Padilla. The list of players is as follows:
Right-handed pitchers: Alberto Cabrera, Lendy Castillo, Casey Coleman, Rafael Dolis, Marcos Mateo, Samardzija and Casey Weathers.
Left-handed pitchers: Jeff Beliveau, John Gaub, Scott Maine, Russell and T. Wood.
Catchers: Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger.
Infielders: Barney, Adrian Cardenas, Castro, Bryan LaHair, Junior Lake, Anthony Rizzo and Josh Vitters.
Outfielders: Tony Campana, Dave Sappelt and Matt Szczur.
Dale Sveum seems to think that the Cubs can compete for a World Series Championship. I would tend to agree with him. As I predicted earlier in the season preview, I did not anticipate that it would be this season. Then again, who knows? The 2010 San Diego Padres made it really interesting down the stretch of the regular season, only to be beaten out by the eventual champion, San Francisco Giants. Both of those teams did it with pitching, and substandard offensive outputs. The Cubs are in a similar situation with a core of young offensive players and pitchers that are preparing for the season. One thing is certain, however; if the Cubs are going to play when the leaves are falling, here is the projected pitching staff that is going to do it:
1. RHP Matt Garza – Matt was the victim of some terrible luck last season, losing seven leads (one more than I earlier stated in the 2012 preview, but realized was an error with the aid of cubs.com). This season, he will most likely take the ball on Opening Day, and try to pick up where he left off after an excellent second half of the season.
2. RHP Ryan Dempster – Dempster goes into a contract year looking to rebound from a tough 2011, where he posted a 4.80 ERA, which was an improving statistic throughout the season after a disastrous April, where his ERA was north of 9.00. If the Cubs have any shot, he’s going to be a key reason why.
3. LHP Paul Maholm – The Pittsburgh castoff is the newest Cub starting pitcher, coming off a season where wins and losses did not tell the story of how well he pitched. He had an ugly 6-14 record with a strong 3.66 ERA. He is good at keeping the ball down, and doesn’t walk many, giving free passes to 50 in 162.1 innings last season. If he can keep the ball down at Wrigley, he may not replicate his complete game shut out from May 28 last season, but he will have success in his new home.
4. RHP Randy Wells – Randy needs to stay healthy. Then, Randy needs to get out of the first inning. Last season was the health. 2010 was the first inning. If he figures out his 2009 form this season, it could be a resurgent year for Wells, who figures to fall into the fourth slot in the rotation by near default.
5. RHP Chris Volstad – Chris is another new acquisition, coming from Miami for Carlos Zambrano. He is a classic innings eater, and but is more of a fly ball pitcher. This slot is very much up for grabs, with LHP Travis Wood seeking a spot in the rotation as well. My nod goes to Volstad because of his experience and durability.
Closer: RHP Carlos Marmol – Ditch the cutter. Bring the blown saves down. Relocate the release point on the slider. Problem solved.
Set Up: RHP Kerry Wood, RHP Jeff Samardzija – Samardzija is going to compete for a rotation slot, but he figures to wind up in the role where he excelled last season, especially in the second half. Kerry Wood is a veteran stabilizer in the ‘pen that could find himself closing if Marmol needs a day or falters.
Middle Relief: LHP James Russell, LHP Scott Maine, RHP Lendy Castillo – Castillo was selected in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft and will likely be on the 25 man roster all season, unless of course he is “injured” at some point. Russell and Maine both figure to make the team as lefty specialists, with Russell having the ability to set up from the left side. One thing is for sure, James Russell is not a starting pitcher, even though he was admirable in stepping in and eating innings when called on. He didn’t fair well, but he did the rest of the bullpen a needed service.
Long Relief: LHP Andy Sonnanstine – Andy’s got the ability to go long relief and spot start. It is a stretch to think the Cubs will carry three left handed relievers out of camp, but without much viable alternative for a long reliever, Sonny is probably going to be the guy by default. Look for Marcos Mateo to make the team in middle relief if Dale Sveum wants another righty in middle relief, and Maine to start in Iowa.
Other Expected Contributors
LHP Travis Wood – Spot starts/ long relief
LHP John Gaub – Could be in the bullpen out of Spring Training, but will pitch with the major league team regardless. He is a strong arm that can supplement a tired bullpen
RHP Rafael Dolis – Rafael is a young pitcher that is competing for a roster spot, but is a long shot. He should be in Chicago at some point this season, but it figures to come if there is an injury to a starting pitcher
RHP Casey Coleman – Casey could pick up some spot starts and long relief duty. He figures to be another player that will pitch in injury situations. If he can keep his composure as he showed at times last season, he may make a case to stay around a while.
RHP Justin Berg, RHP Marcos Mateo – Both Berg and Mateo seem to be at the same point in their development. Berg offers a change of pace out of the bullpen that the Cubs do not have, so I expect him to be with the 25 man roster consistently over the course of the season, and Mateo is another arm that can provide relief during long trips, when injuries require an arm, or if another of the youngsters is ineffective.
When the Cubs were competitive in the last decade, their pitching was the catalyst with timely hitting. The Cubs failed to produce either of those things last season. If there is any shot that they are competitive this season, it is going to take the gentlemen on this projection, along with others making the trip from Des Moines to supplement the staff. New Pitching Coach Chris Bosio has his work cut out for him, repairing the unmitigated disaster that was Cubs’ pitching last season. The good news is, there is more depth than there was when the team broke camp for 2011. The bad news is that regardless of who the Cubs break with, the majority of the pitchers are going to be talented, but unproven or under-performing major league pitchers.
Unfortunately, there are too many ifs in this group to expect the great things that will be needed for the Cubs to make a deep run. The pitching needs to catch lightning in a bottle to be better than middle of the road this season. The bright side is, there is not a lot of age in the group, with Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, and Ryan Dempster being the most veteran of the entire staff. Here’s to hoping that I’m way off…