Cubs’ Storylines of the Spring….The Bullpen

Lou Piniella’s bullpen will have a different look than it did a year ago when pitchers report on Friday. With Kerry Wood in Cleveland and Bobby Howry with the Giants, the backend of the pen has two holes to fill and a big question mark.

Carlos Marmol is the odds on favorite to become the Cubs’ closer but Piniella has repeatedly said that Marmol and Kevin Gregg will compete for the spot in the spring. But what kind of competition will it be with Marmol pitching for the Dominican Republic in the WBC? Then there is Jeff Samardzija. Will he be a starter? Will he end up in Iowa? Or could he fill the 7th inning spot vacated by Howry?

On the eve of pitchers and catchers reporting to Fitch Park, here’s a look at the candidates Lou Piniella will have to choose from for his pen.

The Cubs have several young quality arms that must take the next step in their development this year. Lou Piniella has little to no patience for relievers that do not throw strikes and that could lead to wholesale changes, and tinkering, throughout the year.

The Cubs reportedly will carry 12 pitchers when the season starts, with many of the jobs filled, the competition in the spring comes down to the fifth starter and the final spot in the pen.

Many are projecting the following staff to leave Mesa:

  • Carlos Zambrano
  • Ryan Dempster
  • Ted Lilly
  • Rich Harden
  • Sean Marshall
  • Chad Gaudin
  • Angel Guzman
  • Aaron Heilman
  • Luis Vizcaino
  • Neal Cotts
  • Kevin Gregg
  • Carlos Marmol

Carlos Marmol

Carlos Marmol is coming off a tremendous first full season in the big leagues. Marmol struck out 114 batters in 87 1/3 innings while walking only 41 and in the process became one of the premier setup men in the league.

Marmol has been groomed to be the Cubs’ closer but sometimes games are decided in the 7th and 8th innings. Would Marmol help the Cubs win more games if he remained in his familiar setup role?

Senor Nasty recorded several huge outs in crucial situations last year. Countless number of times Marmol retired the heart of the other team’s order in the 7th and 8th and gave the Cubs offense a chance to tack on to their lead. Marmol wants to close and has said so publicly, but it might be hard for Lou Piniella to save his best reliever for the 9th inning with the game on the line in the 7th.

Kevin Gregg

Kevin Gregg gives his new skipper another hard thrower at the backend of his bullpen and one that has closed out 61 games over the past two seasons. Gregg has a tendency to lose his command, throw a lot of balls and wild pitches…his 1.28 WHIP last season is a little concerning. But the biggest question mark surrounding Kevin Gregg is how will he respond to the pressure that comes with pitching for the Chicago Cubs?

Gregg is coming off surgery in late October on his left knee and the Cubs will monitor his health throughout camp. Gregg has the tools and the Cubs have seen how good (and bad) he can be first hand. The key to his success will be getting off to a good start and not give the home crowd any reason to turn on him early on.

Neal Cotts

Depending on what role Sean Marshall ends up with out of Spring Training, Neal Cotts could be the Cubs only lefty in the pen on Opening Day in Houston. Cotts has been inconsistent at best in his first two seasons with the Cubs, spending a lot of time at Triple-A Iowa. Cotts is out of options and unless he is traded will break camp on the 25-man roster.

Cotts’ biggest problem is throwing strikes and he has not come close to the success he had on the South Side in 2005. Cotts walked 13 batters and gave up 38 hits in 35 2/3 innings last year (50 games) while posting a 4.29 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.

Cotts was better at times toward the end of last season and the Cubs could end up benefiting from the fact Cotts will become a free agent at the end of the year. If Cotts struggles in Arizona, he could force Jim Hendry to look for other options.

Chad Gaudin

Chad Gaudin will reportedly compete for the 5th spot in the rotation but he might serve the Cubs better as the long man out of the pen and as a spot starter. Gaudin showed glimpses as a Cub of the pitcher that posted a 5-3 record in 26 games, 6 starts, with a 3.59 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP with the A’s. But a mysterious late season injury derailed his year and cost him a spot on the Cubs post-season roster.

There was talk in November that the Cubs could non-tender Gaudin. He is out of options and like Cotts, will make the team unless he is traded.

Angel Guzman

The Cubs have waited for Angel Guzman to pitch to his potential for many years. Injuries have kept Guzman from reaching his potential and the former top-pitching prospect in the organization has yet to pick-up his first big league victory (0-7 in 33 games, 14 starts, with a 6.00 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP).

Reportedly Guzman is fully recovered from the Tommy John Surgery that cost him most of the 2008 season. Guzman was a September call-up and pitched in 6 games. His only start came on the final game of the year against the Brewers. He threw two shutout innings, allowed just one hit and struck out four without a walk….one of the best outings of his career. Guzman is out of options and if healthy will make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training.

The Cubs need Guzman to stay healthy and pitch like his did in his final two outings of 2008….no runs in 4 innings with 7 strikeouts, 3 walks and only one hit allowed.

Aaron Heilman

If Aaron Heilman does not make the starting rotation he will likely fill the 7th inning role for Lou Piniella. Heilman has been a very successful big league reliever and one Jim Hendry has coveted for many years.

Heilman posted a 7-7 record with a 3.03 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP in 81 games, with a save, in 2007. Heilman struggled down the stretch in 2007 and many felt he was one of the main reasons for the Mets collapse. The fans in New York did not forget and booed him when he took the mound for the first time in 2008. Heilman finished the year with a 3-8 record with a 5.21 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP in 78 games (76 innings)….the first season his ERA had not been under 3.75 and the first time his WHIP had not been under 1.16 since 2004.

Heilman gives Lou Piniella another arm and it will be up to him to figure out the way to utilize Heilman the best.

Sean Marshall

Sean Marshall is a very valuable piece to the Cubs puzzle. Marshall has proven he will do whatever the Cubs need him to do. His willingness and versatility could end up costing him a spot in the rotation.

Marshall pitched well out of the pen last season. He posted a 2-1 record with a 3.42 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP in 27 games (26 1/3 innings)…as a starter just 1-4 in 7 games with a 4.15 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. Depending on how Neal Cotts performs, Marshall could end up in the pen by default and make only the starts that Rich Harden misses.

Jeff Samardzija

Jeff Samardzija could end up caught in a numbers game. Samardzija has options left and barring injury will likely start the season in Iowa’s rotation.

There is no denying the job Samardzija did in the late innings last season. He recorded several big outs and even notched his first big league save.

David Patton

David Patton was selected by the Reds in the Rule 5 Draft in December from the Rockies and traded to the Cubs for cash in a prearranged agreement. Patton is a long shot at best to make the Cubs out of camp…the trade of Michael Wuertz to the Oakland A’s opened up the possibility of Patton making the team.

Patton posted a 4-5 record last season with a 3.54 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP in 50 games with the Modesto Nuts (High Class A). He struck out 87 batters in 73 2/3 innings.

Jeff Stevens

Jeff Stevens was acquired in the Mark DeRosa trade and could make an impact for the Cubs in 2009. Stevens put together a solid 2008 campaign in Double-A and Triple-A. Stevens was a combined 5-4 with a 3.24 ERA with 6 saves.

Stevens will likely start the year in Iowa.

Luis Vizcaino

The Cubs traded one bad contract for another when they acquired Luis Vizcaino from the Rockies for Jason Marquis…and many thought at the time that Vizcaino would be flipped to another team before the season started.

Vizcaino remains on the Cubs roster and to say he needs a bounce back season would be an understatement. Vizcaino was 1-2 last year in Colorado with a 5.28 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP in 43 games after posting an 8-2 record in 77 games with the Yankees with a 4.30 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP the year before.

Lefties pounded Vizcaino last year while he was effective against right-handed hitters.

Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio and Randy Wells should begin the year in Iowa’s rotation.

Coming Soon: Storylines of the Spring…The Other Arms and the Catching Corp

Quote of the Day

"When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all." – Theodore Roosevelt