Cubs bullpen: As good as it gets?

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Cubs bullpen: As good as it gets?

Saturday, March 19, 2011Posted: 2:40 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Kerry Wood has lived so long in the spotlight that he might be one of the few players who could move to New York and find it relaxing. But he wasnt the face of the franchise anymore, and got to watch the great Mariano Rivera up close.

Wood lasted less than three months there, but the trade deadline deal that brought him to Yankee Stadium revitalized his career. When he left Cleveland with a 6.30 ERA, baseball wasnt much fun anymore. He had to reinvent himself.

Woods now working on a cutter, the signature pitch that has made Rivera the games greatest closer. But what Wood really took away was the feel of the place, the way you should do your job.

There was never any panic over there when the phone rang in the bullpen, Wood said. Everybody was real calm and Im sure Mariano has quite a bit to do with that. That helped me more than anything. Theres no rush to jump up and panic and you dont get ready properly. Then you go into the game and your adrenalines taking over and you cant calm down.

Wood is supposed to be that steadying influence for a bullpen the Cubs hope will be as good as it gets. They have the elite closer in Carlos Marmol, two accomplished setup men in Wood and Sean Marshall and an expectation that John Grabow will again be healthy and effective.

On paper, we look pretty good, Marshall said. Its what we do on the field that really matters. You can come in and say, Were the best bullpen, the best pitching staff in the league. But its what you do when it counts.

You can say it all you want in spring training, but its really April 1 and on when you make your money.

Over the winter, the Cubs invested in Marshall, rewarding the left-handed reliever with a two-year, 4.7 million deal. He might have been the teams most valuable player last season, posting a 2.65 ERA in 80 games.

The Cubs also made a commitment to Marmol, buying out a year of free agency with a three-year, 20 million contract. Since taking over as the Cubs closer in August 2009, hes converted 91 percent of his save opportunities (49-for-54).

Marmol has pitched six innings this spring, walking six and striking out nine while giving up only one run. He doesnt stress over the money, or runners on base, or how he pitched the night before. He has the perfect personality to close in Chicago.

Im not worried about walks, Marmol said. I worry about striking out people. So you walk (a guy), you dont have to worry about (him) anymore.

The bullpen will have to be good because the Cubs played 54 one-run games last season, and lost 32, the most in the majors. Eighty-three of their 162 games were decided by two runs or less, and they went 37-46 in those situations. These are the margins this team will be working with.

The X-factor could be Grabow, who was once good enough to be chosen to pitch for Team USA in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He says he feels strong again knee, shoulder, arm and wont resemble the reliever who was shut down with a 7.36 ERA last summer.

It took Grabow only five words to summarize the bullpen philosophy.

Get the ball to Marmol, he said. Thats our key somehow, someway throw up zeroes and keep us in the game and get the ball to him.

The Cubs need Grabow and Jeff Samardzija, who is out of minor-league options, to stabilize the bridge to Marmol. Left-handers Scott Maine and James Russell could also be in the mix. Andrew Cashner thrived as a reliever late last season and is guaranteed a spot on the major-league roster, but ideally the Cubs would like to develop him as a starter.

That the Cubs can talk about their relievers with such confidence represents a huge change from last year. They used 12 rookie pitchers in 2010 and finished second-to-last in the National League with a 4.72 ERA out of the bullpen.

Relievers are notoriously hard to project from one year to the next. If they were that reliable, they probably would have been remained starters.

But Marshall and Marmol are just 28 and figure to get better. Wood seems like hes been around forever, but hes still only 33. Bullpens are unpredictable, but right now the Cubs begin 2011 looking at the endgame without any anxiety.

Its a nice feeling to have as a starter, Ryan Dempster said. Weve got a bunch of guys down there with a lot of confidence and experience that you trust to hand the ball over to.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs visit White House; Blackhawks, Bulls in action tonight

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs visit White House; Blackhawks, Bulls in action tonight

Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from Monday:

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Avalanche tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls host Mavericks in search of third straight win

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

The state of the Bulls after the first half of the season

Reports: Dolphins assistant Jeremiah Washburn to be Bears' new O-line coach

Does Cubs president Theo Epstein have a future in politics?

President Obama, with Cubs at White House: 'Among Sox fans, I'm the Cubs' No. 1 fan'

At Cubs' White House visit, President Obama touts Michelle Obama's Cubs fandom, shouts out Jose Cardenal

Fire trade for midfielder Dax McCarty

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

WASHINGTON – A "Let's go, Cubbies!" chant started at 1:38 p.m. on Monday when the team walked into the East Room. One minute later, a voice from above announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States." 

"They said this day would never come," Barack Obama said once he got in front of the podium. "Welcome to the White House, the World Series champion Chicago Cubs."

With those words that still sound weird more than two months later, Obama began his last official event at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., rolling through a speech that lasted almost 22 minutes and delivering a powerful message on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"Sometimes people wonder: 'Well, why are you spending time on sports?'" Obama said. "Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country's divided. Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle, but ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were.

"It is a game and it is a celebration. But there's a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here. There’s a direct line between people loving Ernie Banks and the city being able to come together and work together."

As Washington prepares for Donald Trump's inauguration – with the neighborhood turning into a maze of risers, fences and barricades – this became a parting gift from the White Sox fan in chief to all the Obama staffers and alumni who love the Cubs and are now facing life after the White House.  

"Listen, I made a lot of promises in 2008," Obama said, "and we managed to fulfill a large number of them. But even I was not crazy enough to suggest that during these eight years we would see the Cubs win the World Series.

"But I did say that there's never been anything false about hope."

After a searing election, Obama stood front and center in between Cubs board members Laura Ricketts (a Hillary Clinton superdelegate) and Todd Ricketts (Trump's pick to be deputy commerce secretary). With a booming voice and some good speechwriting, Obama commanded a room filled with Hall of Famers (Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg) and Illinois politicos (Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Sen. Dick Durbin, Rep. Mike Quigley, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett).        

Obama mentioned how his administration had hosted at least 50 championship teams in the Oval Office. Until the Cubs showed up, FLOTUS hadn't participated in any of those ceremonies, but she did make time for a private meeting with the group that ended the 108-year drought for her hometown team.    

"The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Teddy Roosevelt was president," Obama said. "Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison (were) still alive. The first Cubs radio broadcast wouldn't be for almost two decades. We've been through World Wars, the Cold War, a Depression, the space race and all manner of social and technological change.

"So the first thing that made this championship so special for so many is the Cubs know what it's like to be loyal and to persevere and to hope and to suffer and then keep on hoping.

"It’s a generational thing (that) Michelle is describing. People all across the city remember the first time their parents took them to Wrigley, their memories of climbing onto their mom and dad's lap to watch games on WGN.

"That’s part of the reason, by the way, why Michelle wanted to make sure Jose Cardenal was here, because that was her favorite player. Back then, he had a big Afro and she would describe how she would try to wear her hat over her Afro the same way.

"You could see (it in) the fans who traveled to their dads' gravesites (and) wore their moms' old jerseys to games (and) covered the brick walls of Wrigley with love notes in chalk to the departed fans whose lifelong faith was finally fulfilled."       

Obama gave shoutouts to David Ross – "we’ve both been on a yearlong retirement party" – and "my fellow 44, Anthony Rizzo." Obama congratulated newlyweds Kris and Jessica Bryant and described how chairman Tom Ricketts met his wife, Cecelia, in the Wrigley Field bleachers "about 30 years ago, which is about 30 years longer than most relationships that begin there last."

Obama turned toward groovy manager Joe Maddon, who wore a black turtleneck and an olive coat, and said: "Let's face it, there are not a lot of coaches or managers who are as cool as this guy. Look how he looks right now."

"He used costume parties and his shaggin' wagon," Obama said. "He's got a lot of tricks to motivate. But he's also a master of tactics and makes the right move at the right time, when to pinch-hit, when to pinch-run, when to make it rain."

The no-shows included Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, but 22 players stood behind Obama. Dexter Fowler – the first African-American Cub to play in the World Series and now a St. Louis Cardinal – brought Obama a personalized pair of Air Jordans. The group photo included guys from Puerto Rico (Javier Baez), Venezuela (Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras), Cuba (Aroldis Chapman) and the Dominican Republic (Pedro Strop) who will be remembered together forever.

Before Obama exited the stage and the Cubs went to visit the wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the president delivered a final thought.

"Sports has a way of sometimes changing hearts in a way that politics or business (can't)," Obama said. "Sometimes it's just a matter of us being able to stay relaxed from the realities of our days. But sometimes it also speaks to something better in us.

"When you see this group of Cubs – different shades, different backgrounds, coming from different communities and different neighborhoods all across the country and then playing as one team and playing the right way and celebrating each other and being joyous in that – that tells us a little something about what America is. And what America can be."