Chicago Cubs

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.

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now: Cubs' first baseman named NL Player of the Week

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USA TODAY

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now: Cubs' first baseman named NL Player of the Week

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now.

And Major League Baseball noticed.

Rizzo was announced as the National League Player of the Week on Monday after a terrific performance last week.

The Cubs' first baseman collected 12 hits, drove in 13 runs and slashed a ridiculous .429/.484/.750.

The Cubs had a pretty good week as a team, too, winning five of their seven games against the visiting Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays.

They take their three-game winning streak to Ohio to start a three-game set with the Reds on Tuesday.