Spring Training Series: Up on the mound- The Bullpen

The biggest worry of the Chicago Cubs 2010 team, is what we shall turn our focus to in today’s look at the team breaking camp, and that is the bullpen. For every team in the major leagues, the bullpen is always the deciding factor with how successful a ball team can be. A team can have the best starting rotation in the major leagues, but if their bullpen is unable to successfully hold and maintain a lead, your ball club will not have a very good season. While bullpens can usually be looked upon as either hit or miss on a year by year basis, the bullpen the Cubs are going north with this year, is an even bigger question mark than most. The reason why, is that you have no idea what to expect from the three rookies that will be called upon to relieve that days starter.

Breaking camp in the bullpen, the only pitchers with a fair amount of major league service time are: Carlos Marmol, Jeff Grabow, Shawn Marshall and Jeff Samardzija. Other pitchers, Justin Berg and Esmilin Caridad have spent time with the major league club, but have not spent an entire season there. Rounding out the bullpen is another rookie, James Russell. Good or bad, you have a pretty good idea what you can expect from the four pitchers who have been around for a while. The two that have seen some action, you have a basic idea what they can do as well, though they remain untested for any real amount of time. Russell, however, has never thrown a pitch at the major league level so you have no idea what to expect out of him throughout the year. Is having a young an unknown pitcher better than having an older reliever that you know is bad? Possibly, but at least you know what you are getting from them. The three rookies the Cubs are breaking camp with are complete unknowns. However, we will take a brief look at each one, individually.

The most important pitcher in the Cubs bullpen is their closer, Marmol. He can be one of the most frustrating pitchers you have ever seen. When he is on, and is throwing strikes, there isn’t a batter around who can touch him. I know you can say that about any pitcher, but there is more reason to believe that with Marmol than with anyone else.  For starters his WHIP (Walks and Hits by innings pitched) for his career is 1.28, which is amazing. Now take into account that opponents batting average against him for his career is a sparkling .181 which is outstanding. His problem has always been the walks he allows, and the batters he hits. He walks on average close to six guys for every nine innings he pitches, which is higher than you would like to see from your closer. On the flip side, he strikes out close to 11 men for every nine innings pitched. If Marmol is able to limit the walks he gives up, he could turn into one of the game’s best closers.

 

Setting up Marmol from the left side of the plate is Grabow, who the Cubs acquired via trade last year. He pitched well enough out of the pen for the Cubs that they decided to keep him around, and signed him to a multiyear deal. His one drawback, according to several scouts, is that he is far better against right handed batters instead of the lefties which would be what you would normally expect to see out of your left handed setup man. Perhaps those numbers can be viewed as coming in against tough lefties who will get a hit off you, while then get staying in to get out some lighter hitting right handed bats. However, the stats are the stats no matter how they are achieved. With him being in the setup role, there is more emphasis on him getting tough hitters out, no matter what side of the plate they hit from. His career ERA, which is over four, does not really send encouraging vibes out to Cubbie Nation, nor does his career WHIP of 1.44. However, he was able to put up a sparkling ERA of 3.24 with a 1.24 WHIP once he arrived in Chicago. Perhaps all he needed was a change in scenery to bring out his full potential, or perhaps he will wind up reverting to what he has been for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

 

The next two pitchers I am going to put together, because they are both rookies with success in limited time in the majors. First, from the right side of the mound in the set up role, we find Caridad. He appeared in only 14 games for the Cubs last year, but when he was in, he was great. His ERA of 1.40 and WHIP of .93 are exactly what you want to see out of a pitcher in your pen, especially your setup pitcher. However, that was only 14 games. There is no telling what he will be able to do for the long haul, and how hitters will adjust to him once they get a better chance to see what he is doing. His early career numbers give you hope, but in the long run you simply have no idea what to expect out of this kid. Cross your fingers and hope that what you saw out of him last year is legit, and we could have a very dominant back end of the bullpen. Like Caridad, Berg also had great success in his limited time with the big league club. In the 11 games he pitched in, his ERA of .75 and WHIP of .92 turned a lot of heads. But, just like Caridad, you don’t know how much to trust those numbers. He looked great in his limited chances, but when hitters get their second or third looks at him, their approach is going to change, and that ERA and WHIP could go through the roof.  Perhaps he is as good as he showed, and perhaps those numbers are not just a mirage, but let him get tested for a whole season before anointing him as the next great thing.

 

Marshall got thrust into the bullpen after losing out on the starting rotation job, which is probably the best thing for the Cubs. He has a lot of experience pitching out of the bullpen, and while he would rather start, the Cubs needed his experience in the pen where he has performed far greater than in his time in the rotation. The lefty throwing Marshall also works as the long man in the pen, who can slide come into a ball game in case the starting pitcher for the day gets knocked around hard early and often. His veteran presence in the pen can also help with the younger guys who haven’t been around nearly as long as he has. While Marshall is still only a few years into his major league career, he is still years ahead of most of the others in the pen. His career ERA of 4.55 and WHIP of 1.42 are ugly stats to see out of a pitcher in your bullpen, but he is still going to be leaned upon heavily down the stretch. He will also likely be called upon to start a game here or there if one of the regular starters is unable to go. He is good at his best, but below average at his worst. Looking at his career statistics, you pretty much know what you can expect from him. A high three or low four ERA, but someone who will do whatever job that is asked of him.

Another pitcher who lost out on a starter’s job, is Samardzija. This was a no brainer as he has a very limited pitch selection. He lacks the control as speed on his fast ball that will make him the dominant starting pitcher Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry envisioned when he drafted him. He is in his fourth year of a six year contract, and many fans are already getting tired of waiting on him to show up and do the job he is paid to do. At this point in his career and development, he should be much further along than he is. His career ERA of 5.20 and WHIP of 1.60 is simply disgraceful and has no place in a major league bullpen. He has been working on new pitches, which is long overdue, so perhaps this will finally be the year that he is able to put everything together and earn the paychecks he has been cashing the past three years. However, if his last two seasons in the majors are any indication; this will be a long year for Cub fans that are forced to watch him coming out of the pen.

That brings us to the actual rookie, Russell. The pitcher, who has absolutely no experience pitching in a big league game, has earned a spot in the bullpen. Whether he will be a great addition to the major league pen, or if he is going to be a total failure is anyone’s guess. Personally, I would not have selected him to be a part of the pen, and that is not because of his lack of experience. The main problem I have with him being there, is now the Cubs have three lefty pitchers in the pen, which I think is one too many. However, the choice is not mine to make, so I will leave my complaint out of things He is the wildcard in the pen, though I don’t see him lasting long. Once Ted Lilly returns in the middle of April, one of the starters will be moved to the pen, likely taking his place, unless he has a very stellar start to the season.

Overall, the bullpen scares me, and I believe this to be the clubs biggest weakness. If they are able to pull things together and not allow leads to slip away, this club could have a fighting chance to win the division. With the inexperience that is overflowing in the pen though, I am not sure that I like their chances of having a successful season.

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