The Baseball Notebook

April 7, 2010 1:59 PM

The Cubs' Bullpen

For Wednesday and Thursday commentary, at least in the early part of the season, the Notebook is going to give an extended look at certain areas that couldn’t be covered in-depth during the preseason previews. Each of those days I’ll pick a spot that was identified as key to determining a prospective contender’s success and go into it a little deeper. I’m hoping to keep balanced between American League and National League, between hitting and pitching. Today we’ll look at the bullpen for the Cubs.

Carlos Marmol is slated to be the closer in Wrigleyville. He’s had three straight good years, but it has to be of concern that his ERA has crept up in each of those years. He’s gone from being lights-out in 2007 to good in 2008 to pretty good last season. There’s not much more room for decline without it becoming a problem for Lou Piniella. It also has to be noted that Marmol posted those numbers primarily in setup work. So you have a lot of questions surrounding him. Can he stop his decline? Will the shift to closer affect him negatively? And how they will replace his work in the seventh and eighth inning?

Pinellas’s best two candidates to stabilize the setup area are John Grabow and Sean Marshall. Grabow was a regular in the Pittsburgh pen from 2004 through his trade to Chicago last season. It wasn’t until 2008 that he really stepped it up and became a solid pitcher, with a 2.84 ERA in 76 IP. He was solid again last year. Marshall lost out in his bid to become a starter, an area he was pretty good at in 2007, before being shifted back to the pen. He’s been adequate the past two years. Combined, they aren’t bad, but aren’t going to leave opponents quivering at the idea of trailing after six, and there is no reliable lefthander to get the outs Marmol used to get. Pinella will also try to find a gem amidst the youngsters, primarily Jeff Samardzija, once a wide receiver on Notre Dame’s 2006 Sugar Bowl team and brought slowly into the major leagues with very limited work the past two years. Justin Berg got a cup of coffee last year and was very good in 11 appearances. And if you’ve got the horse racing mindset and believe in bloodlines as we get closer to the Kentucky Derby, the Cubs have the son of major league closer Jeff Russell back there too. Expect his boy James to get a fair shot to prove himself.

Prognosis? I picked the Cubs to win the division because I believe Marmol will handle the transition. But the setup area is a risky spot. Chicago likely has to make some kind of trade to strengthen this area, and some of the worst deadline trades are made by giving up quality prospects for stopgap relievers that are a dime a dozen. Finding the balance between winning now without selling the store to do it will be a prime challenge for the front office.

Tomorrow we’ll jump over to the American League and look at the Boston offense. And later today, the Notebook's first foray into 2010 football starts, in this month of spring practice and the NFL draft. There will be a Big East overview on The College Football Notebook and an NFC East overview on The Pro Football Notebook.

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