Storylines of the Spring….The Bullpen and the Backstops

Time to play a little ball. Cubs’ pitchers and catchers will have their first workout later today at Fitch Park. Another pitcher made a bold prediction for the upcoming season, but this time it was not Carlos Zambrano. Ryan Dempster told reporters on Wednesday the Cubs will win the World Series this year. Dempster said, “It’s like anything, if you believe it you can achieve it.

Reports on WGN Radio indicated Kosuke Fukudome will likely report to Mesa early and could join the team on the field as soon as Friday….the other position players are not scheduled to report to Fitch Park until Monday.

Paul Sullivan reported on the Brian Roberts trade rumors. According to Sullivan “there has been no movement” on the Cubs being able to obtain Roberts and Jim Hendry is “a little frustrated he wasn’t able to get a deal done before the start of Spring Training.” Buck Martinez indicated on Wednesday morning the Cubs are still showing interest in Roberts….

With stretching and long toss on the horizon at Fitch Park, here is a look at the Cubs’ bullpen and catchers.

fitchpub.jpg The Bullpen

The bullpen figures to be one of the strengths of Lou Piniella’s crew this year, but many thought the same at the beginning of last season as well. A reliever’s performance from year to year is one of the most difficult aspects of the game to predict. With that being said, Jim Hendry changed a couple of parts in the off-season and added a few arms to the mix.

The Battle of the Backend

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Cubs as camp opens is the all-important closer’s job. With Ryan Dempster auditioning for the rotation, Lou Piniella reportedly has an open competition on his hands. Bobby Howry starts Spring Training as the favorite with Carlos Marmol not to far behind….and then there is Kerry Wood.

Bobby Howry showed last year he is capable of getting the last three outs of a game when he filled in for Ryan Dempster. Howry’s been very successful as a setup man and sometimes those roles are not easily switched, just ask LaTroy Hawkins. One huge factor for the Cubs….this season is the final year of the 3-year contract Howry signed following the 2005 season. Howry has a lot to gain on the open market if he is successful as the Cubs’ closer.

Carlos Marmol had a breakout season last year after being recalled from Triple-A in May. Marmol helped turn around the Cubs’ pen and performed extremely well in high-pressure situations in the 6th and 7th innings. While there is more prestige in being a team’s closer, if Marmol can continue to pitch the way he did last year he probably serves Lou Piniella’s need for a shutdown middle reliever and not a closer.

Marmol stated a couple of weeks back that he wants to be the team’s closer. Marmol is coming off a tremendous winter, minus his last outing (2 runs on 4 hits with 2 strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings), and has his sights on giving Lou Piniella the dominating closer he was in search of a year ago.

Kerry Wood is a fan favorite (those last six words brought to you by Captain Obvious) and most would like to see him return to dominance as the Cubs’ closer. Until he proves he can pitch three to four days a week and can remain healthy for an extended period of time, Wood will likely replace Bobby Howry as one of Piniella’s right handed setup men.

The Long and the Short of the Pen

One of the glaring holes in last year’s pen was the lack of a long reliever. Piniella brought up on several occasions he had several good arms in the pen, but all were one-inning relievers at the most and he needed a long man in his bullpen. Here is where Kevin Hart (ranked as the Cubs 10th best prospect by Baseball America) and or Ryan Dempster could be a factor. Hart appears to have the make up as well as the endurance to pitch more that one inning and if Dempster cannot secure a spot in the rotation, he might be better served as a very expensive innings eater in the bullpen.

Once Scott Eyre was given a new name last year, he was very effective and Eyre getting off to a good start and remaining consistent throughout the season is key to the Cubs having a successful bullpen. Like Howry, Eyre will be a free agent after the season and a strong 2008 campaign will not only benefit Eyre, but the Cubs as well. In 27 games before the break last season, Eyre was 0-1 with a 6.60 ERA and a 2.13 WHIP with a .350 opponents batting average. After the break, 2-0 in 28 games with a 0.81 ERA, a 1.34 WHIP and a .205 opponents batting average….only 4 runs in 22 1/3 innings. With Will Ohman in Atlanta, the uncertainty of Neal Cotts and the unknown in Carmen Pignatiello (4.50 ERA in 4 games, 2 innings, 3 hits, 1 run allowed, no walks and 3 strikeouts), the Cubs have only one proven left-handed reliever in the pen.

Michael Wuertz had another solid year (2-3 with a 3.48 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP) and it seems every year he is “on the bubble“. While Wuertz may not be flashy, he has been very consistent. In the last 3 years Wuertz has posted an 11-6 record in 189 games, 188 2/3 innings….72 earned runs (3.43 ERA) on 159 hits with 91 walks (1.31 WHIP) and 210 strikeouts while holding opposing hitters to a .226 batting average.

There are four names on the 40-man roster that have the talent to push Michael Wuertz, but not the experience. If healthy, Billy Petrick (ranked as the Cubs 11th best prospect by Baseball America) was impressive last year in limited action but a sore arm cut his season short. Adam Harben spent last season on the DL recovering from Tommy John surgery but the Cubs still have high hopes for Harben….Baseball America ranked Harben the 12th best prospect in the Twins organization before the 2006 season.

And then there is Jose Ascanio (ranked as the Cubs 25th best prospect by Baseball America) and Tim Lahey (ranked as the Cubs 30th best prospect by Baseball America). Tim Wilken reportedly was very high on Lahey and pushed Jim Hendry to make the deal with the Tampa Bay Rays to select him with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft from the Twins. Lahey has a live arm (90-92 MPH sinker and a mid 90′s fastball) and must prove he is worth a roster spot or risk being offered back to the Twins. Jose Ascanio is said to be another flame-thrower (mid 90′s fastball topping out at 97 MPH), maybe Piniella is trying to recreate the ‘Nasty Boys’ pen after all. Ascanio was acquired from the Braves during the Winter Meetings for Will Ohman and Omar Infante. Ascanio will add depth to a very talented pen….at least on paper.

Phil Rogers recently mentioned Angel Guzman as a possible option as a reliever and the Cubs former top-pitching prospect reported to camp early. Despite Rogers including Guzman in his list of possibilities for the upcoming season, Guzman had reconstructive elbow surgery in September of last year and will likely miss all of the 2008 campaign.

The Storylines of the Spring

  • The closer job….Howry? Marmol? Or Wood?
  • Bobby Howry, Kerry Wood and Scott Eyre finishing the Cactus League schedule healthy and getting off to a fast start
  • Carlos Marmol repeating his performance from last year
  • Identifying a long reliever
  • Identifying another left-handed reliever
  • Tim Lahey earning a roster-spot

The Catchers

Along with centerfield and right field, the Cubs have put all of their eggs in an unproven commodity behind the plate in Geovany Soto….without a real backup plan. Soto lost a lot of weight last off-season, came into Spring Training in shape after winning a bet with Carlos Zambrano and in turn had a breakout year. Soto earned an MVP award at the Triple-A level and a starting spot in the post season.

Lou Piniella appears to have the catcher he was searching for last year. A guy that can handle the staff with a good arm that can hit as well, but if Soto struggles, the revolving door of backstops could continue this season.

Geovany Soto

All signs point to Geovany Soto being ready to provide the Cubs with their best catcher since the days of Jody Davis. Soto hit .353 with a .424 OBP, a .652 SLG and a 1.076 OPS in 110 games in Triple-A with 26 home runs, 31 doubles and 109 RBI’s. After a September call-up he hit .389 with a .433 OBP, a .667 SLG and a 1.100 OPS in 18 games (54 at bats) with 6 doubles, 3 home runs and 8 RBI’s. Soto replaced Jason Kendall, kept Henry Blanco off the post-season roster and provided one of the few highlights of the Divisional Series against the Diamondbacks.

Soto’s biggest achievement so far in his young career could be the pitchers like throwing to him. If he has in fact earned the staff’s trust that could go along way toward a successful season.

Henry Blanco

Hank White had an injury-plagued season a year ago and many thought his career was in jeopardy. Blanco was placed on the DL on June 1st with a cervical herniated disc and played in only 22 games. Blanco was activated in late August but was less than effective in just 8 games over the last 6 weeks of the season.

Blanco played winter ball this year and from all indications, he is healthy and ready for the upcoming season. Blanco’s biggest contribution to this year’s squad could be mentoring Soto but if Blanco cannot remain on the active roster, look for Koyie Hill to get another shot in the big leagues.

Jake Fox

Depending on which roster you reference, Jake Fox may or may not be listed as a catcher. Fox made his Major League debut last year, but not as a catcher, as a right fielder. Many have not projected Fox as a big league catcher because of his defense, not his offense. Fox can hit but probably does not figure as an option for Lou Piniella behind the plate. Jake Fox will likely spend a majority of the year learning the corner outfield spots and playing a little first base at Iowa.

The Storylines of the Spring

  • Geovany Soto’s development
  • Welington Castillo
  • Henry Blanco’s health
  • Koyie Hill’s offense

The CCO will take a look at the other position players on the 40-man roster next week.

2008 Spring Training Articles from the CCO

On deck: Spring Training NRI’s….The Infield and the Outfield

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Quote of the Day

"The man says 'play ball' not 'work ball,' you know." - Willie Stargell
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