Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How long should the Cubs be patient with their bullpen?

The one thing Jim Hendry tried but was unable to obtain this offseason was a bullpen arm. A combination of budget restraints, a diluted free agent reliever pool, and a seller's trade market have hampered his efforts. After being rebuffed in their efforts to sign Chan Ho Park or trade for Jason Frasor, the Cubs had little choice but to cross their fingers and go with the kids. But early on, it hasn't been the kids who've been the problem, Monday it was defacto "veteran" Jeff Samardzija and today it was an actual veteran, John Grabow, who have been giving us cause for concern. If these are the experienced guys we're supposed to depend on, maybe we should start getting a little worried.

The Cubs have some good arms in the bullpen. That's a good start. But they all come with their own set of warts.

Carlos Marmol - His slider is absolutely filthy and one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball. Coupled with a mid 90s fastball, Marmol's closer stuff is as good as anyone's in baseball. At times, he has such incredible movement on his pitches that he has trouble harnessing it. He'll never be a control guy, but he needs to reduce his walks to 2007 levels to be dominant.

John Grabow - Unlike Marmol, his stuff isn't good enough to get away with walking people. He has to throw strikes. Even when he does, he's just going to get hit once in a while. Ideally, he's probably a 7th inning guy. The Cubs miscalculated the market for relievers badly this offseason, giving what amounts to an average reliever in Grabow a bewildering $7.5M over 2 years. In retrospect, they could have gotten at least two decent arms for that kind of money.

Esmalin Cardiad - A sleeper in my opinion with a real chance to surprise. As a starter in the minors, Caridad got by with a 91-92 mph fastball with inconsistent secondary pitches. As a reliever, that fastball jumped to 95-96 mph and became a swing and miss pitch. He still lacks a real consistent secondary pitch but it's less needed as a reliever. Additionally, the bullpen suits Caridad's aggressive approach much better. He has a good fastball and good control that allow him to attack the strike zone and keep hitters on their heels. I'd like to see him develop a cut fastball to help neutralize the lefties a bit and stick with the splitter for a change of pace. Just keep it simple...there's definitely something to work with here.

Sean Marshall - He's been outstanding since the bell rang this spring. Though he has a nice curve to go along with an average lefty fastball, he's not going to overwhelm anybody with his raw stuff. But his stuff is good enough if he keeps the ball down, changes speeds and throws strikes, three things he's done all spring.

Justin Berg - I'm just not a fan. He doesn't strike people out and, except for his cup of coffee last year, he walks a whole lot of people -- and his stuff is pretty hittable. It all adds up to men on base and a lot of balls in play - not the kind of combination you want from your relief pitchers. He did well in his auditions last fall and this past spring, but it remains to be seen whether those decreased walk rates as a Cub are for real or whether he reverts to his minor league walk rates. My guess is it's the latter.

Jeff Samardzija - The Bears need a wide receiver, don't they?

Jeff Russell - the most unknown commodity of the group and, unfortunately, the most likely to return to the minors when Lilly gets back. His stuff is pretty average but he throws strikes and knows how to pitch. He's a confident guy too, which is a nice quality to have if you're going to be called on to bail out Samardzija and Berg from bases loaded jams.

You can be pretty certain that this won't be the group all year. The question isn't if the Cubs are going to make a move, it's when. The Cubs have a decent core in Marmol, Caridad, and Marshall. And Grabow is here to stay whether we like it or not, but that leaves some wiggle room to add an arm or two. The Cubs will likely first go with internal options like Jeff Gray and John Gaub to try and stabilize their bullpen. Some sleepers include Rafael Dolis, who got his fastball up to 100 mph this offseason, Blake Parker, and further down the road, David Cales, who looked brilliant at Daytona last year before struggling at AA. There's also the possibility of temporarily using Cashner as a reliever. The problem is that all of these guys, with the possible exceptions of Gray and Cales, tend to run into the same types of control problems as the guys they are trying to replace. It may take a while to find the right mix of arms. But here's a good start: the Cubs should replace Samardzija with Gray, who's had good walk rates at every level (including the majors) except AAA, where it was just average. Then when Lilly comes back, send back Berg. Then put Gaub in front of the line at AAA for the next call-up.

If they can't find the answer from within, I expect Hendry to get Toronto and San Diego on the phone again. But let's not lose perspective and deal a good prospect for a big name relief pitcher with inflated value. In other words, no more of this Jose Ceda for Kevin Gregg type tomfoolery. If we have to make a trade, I'll settle for a guy with a decent K rate and above average control that won't cost as much...anyone like that available?


  1. To be quite honest Hans, the bullpen will be the downfall of the 2010 Cubs. I, being a neutral Sox fan, can say with confidence that this inexperienced bullpen will kill the Cubs chances this year. I was afraid this would happen, but there is no one there in the bullpen I can say "well, he will get better" because so few of them have much big league experience.

  2. The young bullpen is a huge concern right now. The flip side about young guys is that they can and do develop and get better. Mostly what you get from young arms is inconsistency, though. They can look good at times and just blow up at others. At this point, there just isn't a guy you can depend on to shut down the opposition game in and game out. It may change and one or two guys may emerge as that go-to guy(s), but right now, it's a bit of a mess. While I'm not going to use the word "downfall", I do agree that it will be the bullpen that will play a big role in the Cubs chances this year.

  3. This is true, there is always a chance that the young guys will get better, but I remember the White Sox a couple of years ago when they had all those young guys like Aardsma and that bullpen just collapsed.It's always good to have a couple of veteran guys in your bullpen like John Grabow who however is overrated in my opinion.

  4. Maybe the Sox can let us have Matt Thornton? ;)

  5. Sure, and maybe the Cubs can give the Sox, Josh Vitters.

  6. Please don't tempt Hendry to trade good prospects for relief pitchers!