With the Cactus League season on the back burner and the Cubs looking to open the 2009 campaign in Houston in 4 days, the Cubs' bullpen picture was supposed to be clearer by now, right? Not so much. Even Lou Piniella has admitted to not being sure who will fill the Cubs' final two spots.
But what might be scarier than the vacancies themselves, is what Piniella brought up about their experience: it's not with the Cubs.
Carlos Marmol and Neal Cotts remain the only players named to the bullpen roster who were with the Cubs last season. Kevin Gregg (signed from Florida), Aaron Heilman (traded from the Mariners) and Luis Vizcaino (from the Rockies for Jason Marquis) are the other confirmed spots.
That leaves Chad Gaudin, Jeff Samardzija, Angel Guzman and Rule 5 pick David Patton as the Cubs' only options. Patton is obviously the most surprising. He has gotten this far on numbers this season. His ERA is 1.35 with 13 hits in as many innings. The ERAs of the other three mentioned above: atrocious. Gaudin has surrendered 20 runs, in 26 innings, leaving him with a 10.91 ERA. Samardzija and Guzman are both in the 7s.
It's likely that Piniella would much rather have someone more seasoned than Patton, but nobody's giving him the excuse. The only real excuse is that Gaudin is owed $2 M this year. In fact, I would predict Gaudin and Patton are the two final selections with Samardzija getting some time in Triple-A to make some adjustments and Guzman could get the short end of the stick having not been placed on waivers.
So while things might change after the Cubs take on the Yankees at Billion-Dollar Field this weekend, here's my pen picture: Gaudin, Patton, Cotts, Vizcaino, Heilman, Marmol (set-up), Gregg (closer).
Vizcaino, Cotts and Marmol all posted 4.50 ERAs or higher over about 10 innings a piece. Vizcaino is a journeyman, his stats might be up and down all season, Cotts is a lefty specialist who Piniella tends to use less than an inning at a time and Marmol still has something left to prove as a wannabe closer. As fun as Marmol was to watch at times last season, I maintain the Cubs could have benefited from trading him. His value was so high at the end of the season that the Cubs could have gotten back another reliever to fill his place (with Heilman in the set-up role) and some other talents, instead letting another team deal with erraticism. There are some serious overuse concerns after what happened last season and with Piniella's notoriously short leash and a pen that's less than deep, Marmol could see the mound just as much this season when he shouldn't.
Gregg has given up 4 hits in 9 innings and no runs, so he's the right man for the closer job at the moment. If Marmol should find his game and Gregg struggle, that could change.
The only other obvious problem besides who is going to get the Cubs to Marmol and Gregg in games where the starter has issues is the lack of a left-hander. Lefty bench bats are going to tear at the Cubs in a handful of games this season. With Sean Marshall in the rotation, the only question in opposing managers minds will be "have they gone to Cotts yet?" If yes, then high-ho lefties, away.
Sure, there's always the chance that Gaudin will find his form and Patton will turn into a bona-fide pitching gem, but right now, skeptics have got to be eying that pen as the Cubs' only potential downfall. If for some reason the rotation can't live up to another year of high expectations, the pen could cause a lot of harmful undoing. I wouldn't be surprised in that situation to see the Cubs flirting with Jake Peavy again come July.