Tagged: Carlos Marmol

The Bullpen Takes Shape

The bullpen for the Chicago Cubs is finally set. With the departure of Carlos Silva, better late than never, the team opted to go with Marcos Mateo to round out the middle relief portion of the pen. With seven pitchers in the Cubs pen, they are prepared to go into battle, and believe they have more than enough to sustain any lead which is handed to them, or to keep the game within reach if a starting pitcher is pulled with the Cubs trailing. In case you missed the official announcement as far as who is in the pen, allow me to fill you in.

Outside of the newest addition of Mateo, the Cubs will also be taking left handed pitchers James Russell, John Grabow and Shawn Marshall. The other three men in the pen will be right handed pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Kerry Wood and of course Carlos Marmol. This may not be the most talented bullpen in the league, but they are not the worst bullpen either.

Obviously, as with every team, there are pitchers in the pen which the fans are less than pleased to see making the cut. You do not have to take too long to think about who those pitchers are for the Cubs. Take a few seconds to think about that, and come back. I will start with those three.

I am not sure which pitcher is the least desired of the bunch, but I will start with Grabow; only because he comes first alphabetically. When he was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009, he did not do a bad job at all. A very respectable stat line backs that up. The problem comes into play with Cubs General Manager extending his contract, and paying him more than he was worth. Nothing was more evident of that than his poor performances in the 2010 season, which you might be able to write off to his being injured most of the year. Right now though, he appears healthy so there are no more excuses. If he pitches well as he did in 2009, he will be a nice addition to the pen. However if his performance mirrors last season, then the Cubs will be in trouble.

Russell is likely the most tolerable pitcher of the three less desirables, only because he is young and still has a chance to rebound from his first year, which was not that great. Being the third left handed pitcher in the pen, he is likely to be a LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY). Put in to get one tough left hander out. Perhaps if he succeeds as a LOOGY, he may be used for full innings at some point this season. Regardless, in his second season, first full season, he may not have much of an impact if he is used for one batter a game. He might be the most irreverent pitcher in the pen, unless Grabow gets injured again.

Then we have Samardzija, who appears to be the bane of all Cub fan’s existence. He has yet to live up to expectations, even though he has had his moments where he has looked like everything we have been hoping for. However, those moments of greatness have been too far and few between. Perhaps this year, which is his final guaranteed year, he may finally be close to figuring things out, and become a real major league pitcher. The Cubs have not done anything to help him out on his quest though. They rushed him through the system, and threw him from bullpen to rotation and back again so many times that his head is likely still spinning. Not to defend his defaulting talent, but pitchers are creatures of habit and like to know what their role is. If you are constantly changing what they are supposed to do, you would be hard pressed to fully blame him for his failures.

Mateo is a flame thrower, and could really help the ball club by blowing people away. Not much is known about him, nor how he will convert to the big league level, but looking at his skill set, he could turn into another solid setup man in the near future.

With Marshall, you have a pitcher that many fans would love too see be given a full year to prove himself in the starting rotation. However, I feel he is best served in the bullpen; ironically he seems to agree. In a recent interview on 670 The Score, he mentioned that he actually likes pitching in the bullpen better because he doesn’t have to use all of his pitches, and has no need to set up various pitches for later use.  If he continues to have his great success in the bullpen, then our left handed setup portion of the pen will be well taken care of.

Then we have long time fan favorite, and returning Cub, Wood. Many fans will say that the team made a massive mistake allowing him to leave in free agency two years ago. That is a mistake that was rectified this year when he came back to the Cubs at a massive discount. If he pitches as well for the Cubs as he did for the New York Yankees last year, the Cubs will have no problem getting the ball to Marmol in the ninth.

Finally, we have the strike out and walk machine  himself. As I noted in a previous blog about him after he got his contract extension, he is the most inconsistent pitcher in baseball of the past four years. That being said, no one strikes more fear into batters than he does, and he does not allow people to get hits off of him. If he didn’t walk the world every other time out, or hit at least one batter an inning, he would be unstoppable. If the ball gets to him, your chances are high that the game is all but over. He may give you a heart attack every time out, but he gets the job done.

For me, and most likely everyone else, the key to the bullpen is the back end. With Wood and Marshall in the set up roles, you will not see many leads evaporate before closer Marmol has the opportunity to lock down the save. In many ways, the setup pitchers are more valuable to a team than the closer, and the Cubs may very well have two of the best. If they perform as well as they have done in years past, these three could turn every outing into a three inning affair.

With the Cubs starters slated to get 73 wins, at least in my starting pitchers thread, the bullpen will need to win at least 15 games in order for the Cubs to be a viable contender for this season. Bullpen wins and losses are very hard to predict, so I will not even try. I will just repeat that they will need to be responsible for at least 15 wins, and that is to only have a shot to compete. The pen has holes that will have to be over come, but the back end is more than enough to give you hope.

Cubs Sign Carlos Marmol to a Long Term Deal; Is This Good or Bad?

Today, in a highly expected move, the Chicago Cubs finally signed Carlos Marmol on a three year deal worth a total of $20 Million. What this new contract does, is lock up their electric closer through both of his remaining arbitration years, as well as his first year of free agency. While Marmol is a key piece to the bullpen, fans across Cub Nation are split on whether or not this is, in fact, a good deal.

On one hand, baring injury or a complete implosion that we fans have come to be used to, the Cubs know exactly who their closer will be over the next three years. On the other hand, he is costing them a lot of money over the next three years combined. While the first year of his contract is a very manageable $3.2 Million, he gets  a massive increase in 2012 when he will get a major pay raise to $7 Million. The contract which runs through the 2013 season, will then pay Marmol $9.8 Million in his final year. That is a major price for a relief pitcher, no matter how dominating he can be.  However the best closer in baseball, Marino Rivera, just signed a new contract which says he will be making $30 Million over the next two years. In that aspect, you could very well consider the Cubs got Marmol at a discount. While pondering this, forget that Marmol is nowhere near the closer that Rivera is.

The sad thing about the arbitration years, is that no matter how much money you make, or how poorly you have played, you are guaranteed to get a raise if your current team decides to keep you. So if the Cubs and Marmol did not come to this agreement, he would have been making around $5 Million this year, and next year would have gotten another raise to likely between $7-8 Million then enter free agency, and the Cubs might have actually saved money in the long run.

Statistically speaking, Marmol is the most inconsistent pitching in baseball over the past four years, which just so happens to be his whole career. In his time with the club, we have seen the mixed bag that is the “Marmol Experience”. We have seen him walk the bases loaded on seemingly 12 straight pitches, and we have also seen him strike out the side on nine pitches. He is likely the most frustrating pitcher the Cubs have ever had, since Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams.

In order to understand  just how maddening Marmol is, and to get a grip on the whole “Marmol Experience”, how about we take a look at his surprising numbers throughout his career.

First, on the plus side, Marmol has been the most dominating relief pitcher since he came into baseball. To say he is a lights out pitcher does not do him justice, because no one can get a hit off of him. Since the start of the 2007 season, Marmol leads all major league relief pitchers with 441 strikeouts and a .154 batting average against. Looking at strictly these stats, you would say that Marmol is worth every penny of the $20 Million he will be making over the next three years. However, if you are going to celebrate and embrace the greatness that is Marmol, you must also take the  bad. You must also accept what makes you want to put your foot through the television set every time he takes the mound.

As dominating as Marmol has been over the course of his career, he has also been as inefficient as any pitcher over the same time frame. I said that no one can get a hit off of him, but that may be because he walks them before he allows them to get a hit.

Over the same timeframe that he has been completely lights out, leading all relievers in strikeouts and batting average against, he also leads them in some highly negative statistics. On top of those stats that make you say wow, he also leads all relief pitchers in walks allowed per nine innings. Currently, Marmol is allowing 5.63 walks per nine inning pitched, and has a grand total of 193 free passes in his four years of service. That is 60 more walks allowed than the man who holds second on the list of most walks allowed over the past four years. Ironically, that pitcher is Kevin Gregg, whom I am sure you all regret remembering. To add to the conundrum that is Marmol, he leads all relievers in hit batsmen over the same time frame, eight more than the next closest wild pitcher. Going off these stats, there is no way in hell Marmol is worth anything close to what he was signed for.

So you tell me Cub fans, with Marmol being the most inconsistent relief pitcher in baseball over the past four years, is he worth the $20 Million he will be making over the next three years? You can not argue with the fact that when he is on his game, there is no one better. But the flipside of the coin is when he does not have his “A Game”, he may very well be the worst pitcher in the game.

Either way you look at things, these next three years with Marmol will be very exciting.

Kid K Likely Ends Bullpen Rebuilding

With the Chicago Cubs seemingly in full rebuild mode after a horrific year, the team continues to improve in areas that needed to be upgraded. While they are not improving in the ways many fans would have liked them to, the Cubs are still doing what is needed to put together a team they can only hope contends. They added Carlos Pena to fill the vacancy at first base, and then Kerry Wood to complete the back end of the bullpen. With little money, and room left, the Cubs may only have one move left, which could be to add an unneeded starting pitcher; which is presumably a still rehabbing Brandon Webb, who could be had at a very low price. However, I already gave my thoughts on him, as well as how I would only take him at a low price, so there is no need to bring this up again.

With Wood now being back in the mix for the bullpen, that is where we turn our attention to today. The bullpen has been a trouble spot for years, and now appears as though could be a possible strength of the team. With Sean Marshall teaming up with Wood setting up the save in the late innings for effectively wild, but dominating closer Carlos Marmol, the Cubs may have turned every ballgame into a six or seven inning game. Whether or not that helps matters much, depends solely on the strength of the pitching staff as well as the offense. But the late innings is not the only place in the bullpen which needed a massive improvement, just the most important.

Other areas which are in serious need of a tune up for the pen, is the middle relief. At the moment we are looking squarely at John Grabow as the primary arm to come out of the pen in the middle innings, which does little to settle the fears or stomach pains of Cub fans. However, there is still hope on the horizon, as well as a slight silver lining. Angel Guzman, the one time promising but often injured pitcher, has a chance to make the bullpen. If he is ready to come back (but don’t hold your breath) he could only add to the dominance to the beaten and broken situation in the later innings. Another injured bullpen pitcher who has a chance to earn a job again is Esmailin Caridad, who has never been able to fully give Cub fans any reason to have hope in him. Other than a very impressive half season in 2009, Caridad has not done anything to impress anyone. However, and this is a huge reach (but as Cub fans when are we not reaching on most things), if he is healthy and can pitch the way he did in 2009, the Cubs have something going for them.

Outside of the big three which will be closing out games for the Cubs, there will be between three and four bullpen spots up for grabs in a Spring Training competition. In all likelihood, baring a trade of a player, those voids will be filled with a player who was on the team last year; mainly because they are under contract, and comfortably (at least for them) paid. Sadly, that does include Grabow as well as both Carlos Silva and Jeff Samardzija, both of whom may have to settle for a bullpen roles if they fail to grab a spot in the rotation. Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner are also names which will be considered for the rotation, with the bullpen as a backup plan. That leaves little room, about one or two spots left for the young Cubs to grow and blossom at the major league level.

One of the wildcards in the arms race is Tom Gorzelanny, as he would either be a starter or come in as relief. Personally, I would prefer to see him fill out one of the five spots in the starting rotation, as there are no current left handed pitchers other than him on the roster who can fill that void on the roster, nor in trade or free agent rumors. The reason I am calling him a wild card, is he is heavily rumored to be traded at some point this off season. With him on the team, there will only be one spot left to be filled, though depending on what the Cubs get in return for him, if he is indeed traded, will undoubtedly open another slot that could be filled by a younger up and coming talent. With as much as I like Gorzelanny, and consider him to be immensely under rated, I would hope that he remains a Cub for the 2011 season.

Unfortunately, with the pitchers who are currently on the projected 25 man roster, the pitching staff will likely not have one of the Cubs young studs filling out a void, unless there is an injury or the aforementioned trade of already established talent. With the heavily rumored signing of Webb, if he passes all the medical requirements of the team, that would seal the deal; meaning no young pitchers will be making the team.

A mistake which could come back and haunt the Cubs as time goes by,

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.

A Preview of Cubs Spring Training 2010

With the start of Spring Training only days away, the fans of the Chicago Cubs can finally look forward to the 2010 season. After everything that went wrong with the previous years ball club, Cub fans were left with a bitter aftertaste in their mouths, and need a reason to believe that this year will be different. That is what Spring Training is all about, a fresh start and a new beginning. After last season, Cub fans everywhere are looking for just that. While most of the positions are already set, and locked in, there will still be some good competition that all fans should want to keep an eye on.

Lets start with the only competition that will be taking place for a starting job. That competition is for the starting second baseman’s job. There are two men who have their eye’s on the prize for this job, Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker. Many fans would see Baker as the odds on favorite to win the job after he performed so well after the Cubs acquired him in a trade from the Colorado Rockies. He finished the year with a .288 batting average, but hit over .300 for the Cubs with a .362 on base percentage. Those are some pretty good statistics for a second baseman and, I for one, would not be too upset if he was the one to leave camp as the starter. The only problem I have with this, is I am unsure how much trust to put in Baker to continue to play the way he played last year. We fans, and management, have been fooled more times than we would like to admit when looking at a player who put up half of a good season. Need an example? Just look at Baker’s competition in Fontenot.

One reason why Fontenot might get the nod as the every day starter at second base, is because he is a left handed bat. If he isn’t starting the game, the Cubs have only one left handed hitter in the lineup. However, if we learned anything last year, we learned that Fontenot might not be starter material. In 2008, Fontenot put up some amazing stats considering he was only being used in part time play. What he was able to do in limited time, made Cub fans crave to see him getting more starts. That desire to see him get more time, also helped the Cubs decide to trade fan favorite Mark DeRosa. Last year though, Fontenot got his chance at starting, and we watched him fail to provide what we needed him to give us. In 16 more games, and getting 134 more at bats, Fontenot saw his batting average fall from .305 to .236. Management had also thought we would see him deliver more power with more time, that too failed to meet expectations. He only hit nine homeruns, the same amount he hit the previous year, while driving in only three more runs. Fontenot is a prime example of why you should not want to see a half year stud, taking over an every day job.

One of the other competitions that will be taking place, is for the fifth outfielder’s job. The starting outfield is already set with Alfonso Soriano in left field, Kosuke Fukudome in right field and Marlon Byrd patrolling center field. Newly signed Xavier Nady will be the fourth outfielder and will be backing up both Fukudome and Soriano. That leaves three outfielders competing for the fifth outfielder. Those players are Micah Hoffpauir, Sam Fuld and Tyler Colvin. While I like the versatility of both Colvin and Fuld, who can play all three outfield positions, I would give the nod to Hoffpauir myself, as he would be a welcomed left handed power bat off the bench. While Hoffpauir’s statistics are nothing to get excited about, he would provide more of a threat off the bench than either Colvin or Fuld.

In all honesty, I would say that this job would come down to Hoffpauir and Fuld, with Colvin being sent back down to the minors. While he is still in development, I would rather see Colvin get at bats everyday, something he wont be able to do in the major leagues. You don’t want a young player wasting away on the bench in the major leagues, let him continue to grow and play ball in the minors. While I said I would give the nod to Hoffpauir, don’t count out Fuld making the team. One of the competitions that will be taking place for the infield spots may actually work in Fuld’s favor, and give him a better chance of breaking camp with the team.

The battle for the infield bench jobs will also have the most competition. There are only two jobs open on the bench for backup infielders, with four players vying for them. The four men are Kevin Millar, Chad Tracy, Andres Blanco and whoever does not win the starting second base job between Baker and Fontenot. This competition will likely be watched the closest, as there are many things to factor in when filling the voids. Blanco is the only man in the group that can backup the Short Stop position. Yes, there is Sterlin Castro, but I am not considering him. I will get to him at a later date. Because of him being the only viable backup to Ryan Theriot at short, I feel he would have to be a lock to make the team. He is aso able to play second base.

If Blanco is a lock to make the team, as I think he should, that leaves Fontenot or Baker competing with Tracy and Millar for the final spot. With these three men in competition you need to factor in the Ramirez effect. The Cubs current third baseman rarely plays the whole season, and usually missed a chunk of games every year. The team needs someone who can back up Ramirez. While all four men can play third base, Tracy would be the best at the position. He can also back up Derrek Lee at first base, which would make Hoffpauir less of a necessity, meaning he could be sent down to the minors and Fuld could make the squad.

Management has come out and said that Millar and Tracy will be competing with one another for a bench job , which could mean that there could be a trade towards the end of Spring Training involving the odd man out in this competition. If Blanco makes the team, which I believe he should, who ever doesn’t win the second base job could likely be traded.

The problem with Tracy, is he doesn’t exactly have a great bat. His offensive production has fallen off dramatically since his first couple of years in the majors. So with Tracy you need to figure out what you need more. Do you need a good bat of the bench, or do you need a dependable replacement for Ramirez if he is forced to miss some time?

Millar is another issue, because like Tracy his offense is nowhere near what you would want in a bench player. However, he can play both corner infield spots, and if you are a believe in clubhouse chemistry there wouldn’t be a better man to add to the mix. I am not sure if I would pick him to beat out the other three candidates, but maybe he surprises everyone and pulls an ace out of his pocket.

With Ted Lilly possibly missing the first month of the season, there will be an extra spot in the pitching rotation. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells will lead the rotation, with the Cubs needing at least one more pitcher to fill out the rotation. With the month of April spreading out games and usually having a good number of off days, you wont really need a fifth starter until April 18 against the Houston Astros. Lilly said that he was targeting the middle of April for his return, so there may not be a need for a fifth start, which would be the best thing for the Cubs.

However, there will still be a need for a fourth starter until then, and that pitcher will become the fifth starter once Lilly returns. The likely candidates are Sean Marshall, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Samardzija and Carlos Silva. If I were to put my money on one of them, I would nominate Gorzelanny to fill out the rotation. For one, he is a lefty, something the rotation will lose with Lilly being out. But why him over Marshall? That is an easy one. While Marshall has never gotten an extended look in the starters role, he hasn’t been able to show that he belongs as a starter, over the role we are used to seeing him in, and that is as an excellent arm coming out of the bullpen.

Silva was brought in, but his recent track record does nothing to inspire you that he would be anything better than what he has been the past four years. While he is likely to make the team, he might be demoted to the bullpen and mop up duty if he is unable to show any signs of improvement.

The one pitcher who might surprise people is Samardzija, though I am not ready to put my faith in him. Various reports from the Cubs player development staff have stated that he has shown a lot of good progress. If he has grown into the starters role, than he could give Gorzelanny some good competition, though I think I would rather see him sent to the minors to continue to work on his mechanics and developing a new pitch or two.

The bullpen is the final spot where we will see a lot of competition. Though, much like with the starting pitcher competition, there are the likely favorites. We already know that Carlos Marmol will be the closer, and Angel Guzman and Jeff Grabow will be the likely setup men. Others who are likely to make the squad are Jeff Gray, and if he doesn’t make the rotation Marshall. That leaves two spots in the bullpen for four other candidates. The most likely candidates are, Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, John Gaub, and Jeff Stevens. However, both Samardzija and Silva might also be in competition for the bullpen spots. This will be the most important competition in camp. The better your bullpen is, the better your team will be. For the final two spots, I have no idea who I see making the team. Whoever wins those last two spots will have earned them with this crowd that is in competing.

Well, hope springs eternal Cub fans, and this Spring Training is bound to give you all a lot of hope. Everything begins on February 17 when pitchers and catchers report.

Time to Break Out the Hot Stove for the Chicago Cubs

With the 2009 Chicago Cubs season all but over, the attention of the fans, and hopefully General Manager Jim Hendry, will be how to fix the mess that they currently find themselves in. As a whole, I honestly do not believe that much needs to be done; only a little bit of tinkering. Sure Hendry needs to pull off a miracle trade in order to get rid of Milton Bradley, but other then that, I believe that our team does not need too much work. With most of our team already in place, and with the key pieces already locked in, all that remains is to find one or two key elements which will bring us back to the championship form the Cubs found themselves in the previous two years.

The first, and in my eyes the most important, piece to the championship puzzle that Hendry must bring into the fold, is a true leadoff hitter. The Cubs need an explosive bat at the top of the order that will be able to put the team in the best position possible to score early and often. They need a player who not only has the ability to hit and get on base at a high level, but also has the ability to steal second or third when they get on base. Presently, the Cubs have two options for leading off, neither of which fits all three areas of need.

With Kosuke Fukudome, they have a player who is able to fill the need for a great on base percentage. The downfall for having Fukudome lead off is because he has not proven that he can hit at a high level. His batting average, while slightly improved over last year, still sits at a mediocre .256. Even if he were able to show that he can hit closer to .300, he lacks the true potential to be a stolen base threat. Fukudome, while he can be a decent number two hitter, should not be looked upon to be the leadoff hitter for the Cubs next year. His qualifications do not meet the standard of what the ball club needs.

As far as Ryan Theriot, much like with Fukudome, he does not fit the ideal description of a leadoff hitter either. While he is able to hit at a respectable level and get on base close to a .350 average, he does not have the true speed to make him a stolen base threat either. While he does lead the team with 21 steals, only being caught seven times, he does not run enough to put the fear into the opposing team’s pitchers or catchers. His ideal position in the batting order would be either second or eighth in my eyes. While you want to take advantage of his ability to get on base for your sluggers, we saw in 2008 what his presence at the bottom of the order could do for our offense. With Fukudome batting second in a line up I would write out, Theriot would be a nice fit in the eight hole.

The Cubs could also look at using some of their minor leaguers to fill the void at leadoff. This option is very intriguing, as he has shown to be a great defensive player, making several amazing plays in the outfield. While his batting average is still a bit lower then you would like to see your leadoff hitter have, his on base percentage is amazing, hovering around .380. The one draw back, is he apparently does not have enough speed to be the stolen base threat the team requires. However, we do not know fully what he can do, as he has only been allowed to steal base three times, of which he was caught once. I would not be opposed to his leading off, if they were unable to find a suitable replacement.

If none of these three option fit Manager Lou Piniella’s desire, that leaves us with a need to be found outside the organization, and a limited availability for positions to play. The Cubs need to find a leadoff hitter who can play one of three or four possible positions. Fukudome can play either Right or Center field, and while Theriot has mostly been used at Short Stop, he is also capable of playing second base. While there are many options that will be available for the Cubs to sign once the free agency period starts in November, most of them are already in the 30s, and will all come with a hefty price tag. The list is long, and I will not list them at the moment, but rest assured, I do have my favorites already picked out, and I will let you know that sooner rather than later.

In today’s Chicago Sun Times, Piniella mentioned that the Cubs top priority should be to add another power bat to the middle of the order. As I mentioned, I believe that finding a true leadoff hitter should be on the top of the Cubs wish list. However, do we really need another power hitter on the team? With Alfonso Soriano being moved permanently out of the leadoff role, he would be a nice addition to the heart of the order. That is, of course, if he is able to give the team the power numbers he gave them during his time here. If he is able to do so, then the need for another power hitter becomes lower on the wish list.

Another reason the team may not need another power bat added to the lineup is Geovany Soto. While he has raised red flags with his performance this year, I for one am not willing to give up on him. He has shown exactly what he is capable of when he fully prepared for the season. He has admitted that he slacked off in the off season, and did not prepare himself the way that he should have. I am willing to write off 2009 as a rookie mistake, even though he is no longer a rookie. Lesson learned, and he has earned the chance to redeem himself with the level of play he displayed at the end of 2007 and all of 2008. All he needs to do is revert to doing whatever he did in those two years, and I believe that he will be back to everything the team expected of him. If both Soriano and Soto return to form, then there is no need whatsoever to go out and spend a lot of money on another power bat for the middle of the order. If they both fail to accomplish what the team needs from them, there are two options that could fill the bill, though I would advise against them.

In the outfield, you can play either Micah Hoffpauir or Jake Fox in Right Field. If I had to choose between the two of them, I would choose Fox over Hoffpauir, because Fox has more upside. With that being the case, I would severely advise against either one of them playing in the outfield, especially with Soriano playing in the opposite corner. The team can not, and should not, depend on an outfield which would have less than average defenders in both Left and Right Fields. While I would greatly welcome both of them to the bench, I do not want to see either as the everyday Right Fielder. Fukudome would collapse with all the ground he would have to cover in Center Field.

While you can never have enough power in the lineup, the money would be better served elsewhere. However, much like with the speedster that the Cubs should be looking for, the team would need to find a player who can hit for power, who also is able to play one of the previously mentioned four positions. Again, there are many options that may be available, but all would come with a hefty price tag, and are all in their early to mid 30s.

With the slight improvements in mind to help the everyday lineup, the focus should then move to the bench and the backups for each of the replacements. The bench portion of our team is a mess, but in a good way. The Cubs have more pieces then they know what to do with. In the outfield, assuming the Cubs sign a free agent, they have the options of re-signing Reed Johnson, Fuld, Fox and Hoffpauir. Some would question why I left out Tyler Colvin, but that is simply because of his lack of experience, and the Cubs lack of space. He would benefit well from having a little more time in the minors, mainly because he could have an everyday job playing in Triple A. If the Cubs were to sign a free agent for the outfield, chances are only one or two of these players would be on the Cubs bench, that is assuming they decide to re-sign Johnson. If the Cubs decide to have one of them be a starting outfielder, they can keep three of the players. While the Cubs said they wanted to resign Johnson, his time with the Cubs would likely come at the expense of Fuld.

If you thought that the outfield situation was a tricky one to work out, take a look at the log jam the Cubs will be facing with the infield backups. In my opinion, the Cubs need to sign a player to play second base. While Jeff Baker has played very well since coming to the team, I am not completely sold on him being the everyday player at second base. We fell into this trap last year with Mike Fontenot, thinking he would be able to produce the entire season the way we saw him perform in limited time in 2008. If we carry two backup outfielders, that limits us to only being able to carry two back up infielders. There are a few people I would love to see make the team as role players, but only one of them will get the nod, mainly because the Cubs are stuck with Aaron Miles for another year. That means that two of the following three men will not make the team, if the Cubs sign a second baseman. The Cubs can keep Baker, Fontenot or Andres Blanco. Personally, I would let Fontenot go, either by a trade or sent back to the minors. That would leave Piniella and Hendry with the tough decision between Baker and Blanco. This, of course, could all be solved if Baker becomes the starting second baseman. While I don’t know if he can be dependable as an everyday second baseman, he has got to do better then Fontenot. That would also allow us to keep Blanco on the team.

The way the starting rotation for the Cubs will likely only carry over four of the five starters from this year. Love him or hate him, Carlos Zambrano will likely return to the team next year, along with Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Randy Wells. While Rich Harden would be a welcome commodity, there are far too many rumors floating around that he will not be brought back. If he is willing to give the Cubs a discount, and not demand a long term deal, he may be brought back, but according to some baseball analysts he will get a contract worth at least $10 million a year. With his injury history, that would not be a quality investment. That would leave the Cubs one starting pitcher shy, but they have a few names who could step into the role as the fifth starter for 2010.

The in house options that the Cubs can consider for the vacant starters job are Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija and Tom Gorzelanny. From the way the end of the season is winding down, with Samardzija and Gorzelanny getting a few starts, you would be led to believe that the competition is currently limited to these two men. While Samardzija has looked very shaky in his outings this year, out of the bullpen and with his first start, he looked impressive in his second major league start. Gorzelanny on the other hand has been more then impressive in most of his starts with the Cubs. Whether or not they will be able to fill in and give us what we need will be determined once Spring Training commences. However, if neither of them impress, they can always look to free agency, and there are a few starters out there that could be

The bullpen is another mess that needs to be fixed, however this may be fix may not be all that difficult. We have our closer in Carlos Marmol, but after him everything else is a crapshoot. While Angel Guzman has looked amazing this year, he once again ended the year with an injury. If he could stay healthy, he would be an amazing set up man for the eighth inning. John Grabow is a free agent at the end of the year, but from all things I have heard, the Cubs want to resign him. That leaves four pitchers left to fill in the remaining bullpen spots. The Cubs have a slew of young arms that could fill those roles, like Jeff Stevens and Justin Berg. They could also use Marshall as the second lefty in the bullpen. If those three all make the team, that leaves one spot open for any number of guys. However, like everywhere else, there are plenty of options to sign in free agency.

While the Cubs have needs, they don’t necessarily need to go out and sign anyone. All of their holes can be solved in house. However, over the next few days and weeks, I will break down my thoughts on the possible targets who I think the Cubs should go after for all the open spots that need to be filled before the 2010 season beings. Just to recap, those positions are: Center Field or Right Field, Second Base or Short Stop, Starting Pitchers and Relief Pitchers. All the Cubs need is a little bit of tinkering, and they will be more then fine for he following season.

Gregg gets hung with the loss, but Piniella should get full blame

Last night the Chicago Cubs lost a game to the Philadelphia Phillies, which they should not have lost. Now, fingers will be pointed directly at Cubs closer Kevin Gregg for giving up the game winning homerun, but I am here to tell you that if he is who you are blaming, then you are way off base. I am not defending Gregg because I like him, or think that he is a stud closer. I am defending him in the here and now, because he is not the culprit that is responsible for the Cubs loss. Yeah, Gregg gave up the homerun which put the game out of reach, but that situation should never have even arisen.

In his first inning of work, Gregg faced three of the top hitters in the National league in Chase Utely, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez getting them out in order. Any manager who isn’t fast asleep on the bench knows that if a pitcher has been struggling lately, you let them leave the game on a high note. You cant get much higher then that. I can understand why he was left in though, you get out of a tough spot against a teams best three hitters, and you figure the next few batters will be a breeze to get though compared to the previous inning. With the game still being tied, you need to save as many pitchers as you can, just incase you need them. Trying to get another inning out of Gregg was the final nail in the Cubs coffin, but the game started slipping away a few innings earlier.

What I will look back on as what really lost us the game, that moment would come in the eighth inning, with Carlos Marmol on the mound. Sitting there at the game, when his name was announced as the new pitcher, you knew the game was in serious jeopardy of being lost. As you can usually expect out of an inning that Marmol pitches, anything and everything usually can and will happen. He walks the leadoff hitter, as he has done more often then I care to remember, but then seemingly settles down, and retires the next two batters. With getting them out, you started to feel more comfortable. Thoughts that he would be able to get the Cubs out of the inning seemed like a real possibility. Sadly, we were fooled again as Marmol hit the next batter. This is where I feel the game was lost, not in the 12th when Gregg gave up the game winning home run.

Can someone tell me, why after hitting a batter did Cubs Manager Lou Piniella not get John Grabow up in the bullpen? Instead, he waits to get Grabow up and into the game until Marmol walks the next two batters, walking in the go ahead run. There was plenty of time to get Grabow up. Stall for time, send the catcher out to make small talk with Marmol. But no, they let Marmol try to get out of the inning, and allow him to face Howard with the bases loaded. Sure, walking in the go ahead run is better then giving up a grand slam, which is what I feared, but Howard cant hit lefty pitching. This was the spot Grabow should have been brought into the game. I am not saying Grabow wouldn’t have given up a bigger hit, but at this point in the game, I would have had more faith in him getting Howard out then Marmol.

Today’s game wont be much better though. The pitching match up of Jeff Samardzija and Pedro Martinez is sure to be a bad game. Samardzija has yet to show any signs that he can get major league hitting out, and he will be our starter? Something tells me that the Phillies will be scoring at will tonight. Though, they have Martinez starting, who is far from the dominating pitcher that he once was. The Cubs would hopefully be able to touch him up a bit as well. We could be looking at a very high scoring game, though if you look at past baseball logic things always work in reverse, so expect a low scoring game. Then you have to take into account that the home plate umpire for the game will be the blind as hell ump who called a foul ball a home run, you cant like the chances of an accurate or consistent strike zone.