Chicago Bullpen Blues: It’s Time for a Double Switch

I tend talk baseball more on Twitter than on here (specifically about my team, the Chicago Cubs), but this time I have a few thoughts on my mind about ‘dem Cubbies that would just take more than 140 characters to express.

Let’s start with 2 words: The Bullpen.

Early in the season, Kevin Gregg, who won the controversial closer competition over Carlos Marmol during spring training, was looking shaky. Even if he didn’t blow a save, he’d give up a run or two per outing. Piniella excused his poor pitching by stating that he still had a sore knee and he couldn’t warm him up, sit him down, and then bring him in later. Once Gregg got it together, the middle relief imploded.

Lefty-“specialist” (and I use that term with dripping sarcasm) Neil Cotts has walked 8 batters this season in only 6.2 innings, after walking a total of 13 all of last season. His WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) is 2.55. The batting average against him is .346. That’s pretty horrendous for a relief pitcher. With each opportunity Piniella continues to give him to “trust his stuff” he can’t seem to find whatever stuff that is.

Rule-5 Draftee David Patton, who had never pitched above A ball in the Rockies organization before the Cubs got him, was surprisingly good early, but Cotts’ walk problem became contagious and he too caught the bug. He must be in Piniella’s doghouse because his opportunities to pitch are becoming few and far between, his  last two appearances being when the Cubs were already behind by a considerable margin. He’s only had 3 appearances in May, with 4 hits, 2 ER, 3BB and 1K to his name in 3.2IP.

Aaron Heilman, who came over in the offseason from Seattle via the Mets, where he was blamed for much of the Mets’ bullpen collapse last season,  started the season very strong, posting an ERA under 1.00 in his first several outings, before he gave up 6 runs in a 2-2 game in the top of the 10th inning vs the Marlins on April 30. He seems to also have caught the Cotts BB flu and hasn’t been the same since.

Even Carlos Marmol, who most argue should be the closer, has had his problems, particularly after twisting his knee and sitting out a few games last month. Marmol gets the benefit of the doubt because of his history of being lights-out, even when he does have a shaky outing of walking a couple batters and throwing a wild pitch or hitting a batter. But moreso than the other relievers, when Marmol gets himself in a jam, he likely gets out of it. He almost seems to thrive on the adreneline of having runners on base, challenging himself to get a strikeout in a key situation. That’s why he’s a cult-hero in Chicago.

And I don’t even want to mention Chad Fox, who got called up from AAA Iowa after pitching well there, only to give up 5 runs in 0.1 innings over 2 outings, posting an ERA of 135.00 (yes, the decimal is after the 5)  and then re-injuring his historically problematic elbow. Thankfully, Lou immediately placed Fox on the DL and called up Jose Ascanio, who has been throwing very well at Iowa this season (1.01 ERA, 26.2 IP, 26K, 7BB, 0.94 WHIP). And the karma looked like it was beginning to change…

The strongest reliever through the season has been Angel Guzman, who after picking up his first major league win (after going 0-7 as a starter & reliever with the Cubs over the last few seasons), has been, well, Marmol-esque. In today’s game vs the Houston Astros, Guzman came in in the 7th inning with a 4-run lead following Randy Wells’ second-consecutive scoreless performance, and retired the side 1-2-3 with one strikeout. Next up: Marmol in the 8th. Astros go down 1-2-3 on strikeouts. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Ball goes to the closer in the 9th, who hasn’t given up an ER since May 1, with a non-save situation.

And the ninth goes like this: Lance Berkman homers to left. Carlos Lee homers to left. Miguel Tejada singles. Hunter Pence singles, Tejada to 3rd. Blum hit-by-pitch. Suddenly it’s 4-2 with the bases loaded and no outs. My heart is starting to pound. Fear rushes through my body. No way can the Cubs’ bullpen blow 8 scoreless innings and cost Randy Wells his first win AGAIN (after already blowing his first chance 5 days ago). It just can’t happen, right?

So Gregg gets pulled and in comes Heilman. And he immediately gives up a 2-run single to Pudge Rodriguez to blow the save. Heilman gets the next two batters to fly out to right before he walks Michael Bourn and loads the bases again. And up comes… Lance Berkman, who we remember led off the inning so long ago with a HR vs Gregg. So Heilman leaves and in comes Sean Marshall (yep, the same Sean Marshall who is our 5th starter). Berkman grounds out and we go to the bottom of the ninth, where the Cubs execute perfectly: a walk by Bobby Scales, sacrifice bunt by Miles, RBI single by Soriano for the walk-off win. 

Cubs win 5-4, woohoo, 5 straight wins, 7 games above .500 and we’ve pulled ahead of St Louis and only a half game behind Milwaukee.

But there’s still a problem and it’s a pretty big one. The bullpen needs a serious overhaul. Gregg may not have pitched for a few days, but as a veteran and as a closer he needs to nail down a win with a four-run lead in the ninth. It’s really inexcusable how he could face five batters, give up 2 home runs, and not record an out. His ERA is 6.06. If he’s hiding an injury he needs to reveal it. I understand that any pitcher can have a bad outing or two, but Gregg so far has had more bad outings than good ones. Marmol, on the other hand, has had a few bad outings but more good ones and has a history of being the shut-down guy. It’s time to make the switch. If Gregg can’t improve as the setup man, move him down to 6th or 7th and move Guzman up to setup if he continues to perform as well. I have a feeling that Gregg will improve, but with the media and the fans and the pressure in Chicago, the closer role is not for him. It’s for Marmol, who, again, THRIVES on pressure.

But the biggest change on my mind has to do with the left-handed specialist. Here’s where the second half of the double switch has become necessary. Neil Cotts is just not it. He can’t get lefties out, and that’s his job. He has had a lot of chances to shape up, but he just hasn’t been able to. They need to ship him out. And if they do, that leaves a hole for a lefty reliever, which Sean Marshall needs to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sean Marshall as a starter and think he has a really good future in the rotation. He clearly won the job during spring training and has pitched very well, his 2 losses coming on hard-luck blown chances by the bullpen or lack of Cubs offense. But what the Cubs need right now is a solid lefty in the ‘pen, and Marshall has proven in the past that he is that guy. A move to the bullpen would be in no way a demotion for Marshall, but acknowledgement that this is what is best for the team right now. If the Cubs pick up a lefty in trade before the deadline this year, great, but they need to address the issue now. Confidence in Cotts is so low that we’re basically down a reliever.

So if Marshall goes to the ‘pen, who is the 5th starter? That should be Randy Wells. I know he’s a rookie, but for a fifth starter take a look at the kid. 16.1 scoreless innings dating back to last season. 0.00 ERA. 9 strikeouts, 5 walks in two starts against division rivals (Milwakuee and Houston). He’s filling in for Zambrano and pitching as well as, if not better than, Big Z. He’s gotten into a few jams but gotten out of them. The Cubs can’t ask for much better from a spot starter. Lou is talking about putting him in the pen when Zambrano comes off the DL next week, which could be fine if he continues to perform as well there as he has in the rotation. But that would probably mean Ascanio would be sent down, despite his only pitched 2 innings so far. He did give up 1 run, but not a key one and has had 3 strikeouts. He looks to stabilize the shaky bullpen the way Guzman has. The problem is Rule-5er Patton, who the Cubs must keep on the 25-man roster all year long if they want to keep him in the organization.

So do the Cubs take a chance on losing Patton to get a good lefty into the bullpen, keep a solid fifth starter, and give Ascanio a chance to stay at the major league level? I think they should.

That way the only problem that remains is Heilman, and he has enough experience under his belt to grind this thing out, shake off his BB flu and his propensity to let the first batter he faces reach, and still be a decent pickup for the Cubs in the long run.

Agree? Disagree? Comments welcome.

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