The 2014 Bullpen: Rebuilding from Within

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The Rule 5 draft is only a few weeks away. The Cubs currently have 37 men on their 40 man roster. By the middle of the week, that number could reach 40 or even drop depending on who the Cubs protect and do not protect. Regardless, look for the Cubs to do what they have done the last two years and select a pitcher in the Rule 5 draft. Two years ago it was Lendy Castillo who spent 2013 in the Cubs minor league system, but last year Hector Rondon was a big success. He showed flashes of having a power arm late in the season and his selection strengthened the bullpen late in the year. The problem was, however, the bullpen imploded early and often throughout 2013.

In all, the Cubs trotted out 23 relief pitchers in 2013. Five guys would get saves but nobody foresaw Kevin Gregg stabilizing the bullpen. After the Marmol meltdowns, the Fujikawa injury, there was really nowhere else to go and Gregg came in and won the job. In June and July, the Cubs bullpen situation stabilized some as players began to find their roles but more injuries, despite the Marmol trade, began to take its toll. As a team the Cubs only converted only 60% of saves last year. That was 25th in the league! The relief corps blew 26 saves! Heading into 2014, the bullpen, along with strengthening four positions (3B, LF, CF, 2B), are the main areas of concern for the Cubs.

The Candidates from the 40 Man Roster
Daniel Bard
Kyuiji Fujikawa
Justin Grimm
Chang Yong-Lim
Blake Parker
Pedro Strop
Brooks Raley
Zach Rosscucp
Chris Rusin
James Russell
Carlos Villanueva
Arodys Vizcaino
Carlos Villanueva

Candidates from the Minors
Marcos Mateo
Marcus Hatley
Dallas Beeler
Rafael Dolis
Yoanner Negrin
Zach Putnam

Roles to be filled
The Injured – Fujikawa and Vizcaino will likely start the year off either in Iowa or rehabbing their surgeries. Of the two, Vizcaino shows the most promise but needs to build up arm strength after being off for what could be classified as three years. Vizcaino, after pitching a few innings at instructs this fall, will likely be limited to relief duties twice a week at Iowa while he rebuilds his arm strength. In the long run, for 2015, he becomes a viable closer candidate.

Long Relief – Clearly this is Carlos Villanueva’s role from last year. Along with Justin Grimm, the two could fill this role along with the 6th/7th inning setup simultaneously.

6th/7th Inning – Villanueva and Grimm could fill this role as well, but for my money, this is Hector Rondon’s domain. In August and September, he was hitting 95 on the radar gun regularly in this role. Zach Putnam, Mateo, or Hatley could gain a spot here depending on their performance down in Mesa.

Loogy – the odds of the Cubs breaking camp with more than two lefties are slim. Russell has been used a lot in longer stints the past two years because they had no dependable arms. I would like to see Russell have a smaller more dependable role this year. His 8 blown saves led the club in 2013. The other option is Rusin/Rosscup/Raley. One could be a starter (Rusin) while one of the other would aid Russell, and the third would stay stretched at as a starter at Triple A

8th Inning Setup – Ideally, this is where Pedro Strop and Josh Bard belong. They are two power arms who, in the past, have shown they can get the job done. Bard had a horrible conversion to starter and then back again. Whether he can regain his form is yet to be seen. We know that Strop has the potential. Blake Parker, along with Rondon also showed flashes here.

Closer – As of now, the Cubs going out and hitting the free agent market for a closer would be a poor investment. Theo and Jed tend to build from within.

Longshots – Negrin, Hatley, and Mateo showed some flashes in the minors. Negrin at 29 is the oldest and has the best chance of earning of spot. But really, it all depends on their product and arms in spring training. I truly believe they will be given every opportunity to earn a spot just based on how horrible the pen was last year. The Rule 5, if a lefty, has a great chance to make the team as the Cubs are bereft of left-handed relievers, specifically, left-handed power relievers. Soft tossing lefties, the Cubs have that covered.

Free Agency
Grant Balfour would be a nice pickup, but not for a long-term contract. I don’t see the Cubs going this route unless they intend to flip him at the deadline. Balfour would be a stable addition at the back-end and could provide some leadership to what is basically a collection of young pitchers. I would like to see the Cubs also bring back Matt Guerrier in the 6th/7th inning role. He did a nice job after his trade from the Dodgers before injuries derailed his season. It would not surprise me to see both men in Cubbie Blue next season, but the odds are the Cubs front office will build from within, and do it on the cheap for one more year.

What Will Likely Happen
Villanueva, Bard, Rondon, Strop, and Parker will be the right-handed relievers while Russell, for now, will be thee left handed reliever. Ideally, you would like to see two lefties out there, but Rosscup will likely need some more seasoning as a starter at Iowa and Raley will likely join him. Rusin, his situation is still a little unclear. At times, he was the crafty lefty and has earned a shot at the rotation with Samardjiza, Wood, Jackson, Arrieta, Villanueva, Grimm, Scott Baker (if resigned) and Kyle Hendricks. Although compared to the bullpen at the beginning of 2013, this bullpen has a little more heat and more well defined roles.

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