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
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.
For those of us who treat this as more than a hobby, the coverage of the off-season has been significantly more extensive. Since this is only a hobby for me (because of my other actual obligations…all to varying degrees less interesting and fun than following baseball), there have been few and far between since the end of the season. With some time, though, now is a perfect time to talk about the thing that has dominated the Cubs’ off-season…PITCHING!
Today, Edwin Jackson was introduced at Wrigley Field. With the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa, resigning Shawn Camp, and having Arodys Vizcaino coming off of surgery and being ready for 2013, it seems as though the Cubs will have a surplus of pitching talent to get them through this season. That is something they did not have last season, especially after losing Matt Garza, who is progressing nicely though his rehab from a stress injury last July, and trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm at the deadline. At the end of the season, LHP Travis Wood was the ace, after the team sat Jeff Samardzija in early September. That wasn’t an ideal situation, and it was a key reason why the Cubs lost 101 games.
The flip side to the off-season is the stunning lack of movement in the rest of the division. The Brewers have not done much with their staff, adding journeyman lefty and former Cub, Tom Gorzelanny, who I like as a solid reliever and spot starter, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking he is anything more than pitching depth for a team who had all kinds of trouble in the bullpen last season, and ended up losing Francisco Rodriguez this off-season. They also added Burke Badenhop, who has had an up and down (as in between the majors and the minors) career with the Marlins and Rays. No world beaters. They seem to be enamored with Mike Fiers, who was very good after debuting with the club last season. My own analysis of him is that he reminds me a lot of Randy Wells.
I wish I could say something bad about the Cardinals and their pitching. I really do. They haven’t done much (anything?..I haven’t seen any moves at all from them in the pitching department this off-season), but they seem to grow pitchers as well as anyone in the game. With Chris Carpenter coming back, I’m sure they’ll be fine. It makes me physically ill. Seriously.
The Reds still have a lot of arms. They still, in my estimation, have the best bullpen in the majors, even though they’re moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation. They, too, have a nice strong staff that, in my opinion, keeps them the favorite to repeat as the division champions in 2013. Again, it makes me sick…but not as sick as the Cardinals make me. Nothing makes me that sick.
The Pirates confuse me. I genuinely thought they were trying to compete…and then they went and traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. They also resigned Jason Grilli, who the Cubs were in on. Without being too familiar with who the Pirates have coming up, they’re current rotation and bullpen screams average, and their back end looks shaky with the loss of Hanrahan. I can only muse that this season they don’t want to disappoint their fans by playing well for the first four months before imploding with the uncanny appearance of controlled demolition for a third year in a row.
The Astros are gone…for those that forgot. They’re off the the AL West to play for 110 losses at the hands of the Angels, Rangers, and A’s. Good Luck, ‘Stros…you’re going to need it. Desperately.
What it all means…
I can’t for the life of me see how the Cubs win this division next season. I just can’t. They do figure to be considerably better than their 101 losses last season. They could make a strong push at third with the Pirates and Brewers regressing. All of this is interesting in early January, but the off-season is by no means over, so something could cook up between now and the time pitchers and catchers report next month. The Cubs have a much improved corps of pitchers. That group would have been made much more potent had they actually signed Anibal Sanchez. Theo Epstein and Tom Ricketts went to visit him personally, and the deal was reported, but like others for the Cubs, was prematurely reported and ended up not to be. GM Jed Hoyer, today, revealed that he went to visit Edwin Jackson, who actually did sign. At 29, he is on the side of 30 that the Cubs are looking for in players to add and build with, and having pitched in the division with the Cardinals in 2011, there is familiarity with the NL Central, and he pitched well while with St. Louis. Teaming him up with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, there is a solid top three, and there is a good group of Baker, Feldman, Wood, and Villanueva competing for two spots at the back end of the rotation.
The Cubs have to know they can’t lose like they did last season and expect fans to turn out. The fans stopped coming last season because it was nearly pointless to go watch them give up runs in bunches. This season figures to be different. Even if they trade some of their pitching (GARZA!), they’ll have some fall back pieces to lean on so they don’t fall off the side of the Earth. The off-season has gone to plan to this point. It remains to be seen if the offense will be potent enough to push this team to .500. The Cubs are not a finished product by any stretch, but this off-season is the next step to contention.