Cubs bullpen: As good as it gets?

Cubs bullpen: As good as it gets?
March 19, 2011, 7:51 pm
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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.