Last season, one of the principal reasons the Cubs won only 83 games was the failure of Kevin Gregg as closer. He allowed a nightmarish total of 13 HR in 68.2 innings, including a trio of walkoffs (from Ryan Raburn of the Tigers on June 23, Cody Ross of the Marlins on August 2 -- Ross' was the second of two HR Gregg allowed in that inning on consecutive pitches -- and a three-run job by Kyle Blanks on August 17).
After that last one, Gregg's sixth blown save of the year, even Lou woke up and noticed. Carlos Marmol replaced Gregg as closer, and though he wasn't the Marmol of old (walking 13 in 17.2 innings from August 21 to the end of the year), he also struck out 26, allowed only one HR, and reeled off 11 saves without blowing one in that six-week stretch.
So with Marmol established as closer, Angel Guzman likely his primary right-handed setup man, John Grabow re-signed to be the primary left-handed setup guy (and LOOGY at times), and Jeff Gray (acquired from Oakland) to take on the Aaron Heilman role (and hopefully do it better), the Cubs still need to fill three bullpen slots for 2010. Matt Capps, who they were interested in, signed instead with the Nationals.
Where to go, then, for those three additional arms? Many here have bemoaned Jim Hendry allegedly "doing nothing" (when, in fact, he did go after Capps, who likely signed with Washington because he could close there), and I'm sure Hendry is still working the cellphone inquiring about other relievers.
But what if the right thing here is to "do nothing"? I don't mean that literally, of course -- the Cubs will have a seven-man bullpen no matter what. What I mean is, they may have the right answers right under their noses. We have already seen what happens when the Cubs throw money at a player (Aaron Miles) who turned out to be a far worse performer than two players (Bobby Scales and Andres Blanco) who were already in the organization and who worked in 2009 for the minimum salary.
Follow me after the jump to find out who the candidates are for the three remaining slots, and why the Cubs should choose from among them rather than spend free-agent money on someone who might not be any better.
As I see it, there are at least nine candidates for the three remaining slots. They are, in no particular order: Sean Marshall, John Gaub, Jeff Stevens, Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, David Patton, Blake Parker, Tom Gorzelanny and Jeff Samardzija. There may be others once the Cubs release the non-roster-invite list; those nine are all on the 40-man roster.
Three of them -- Marshall, Gorzelanny and Samardzija -- are rotation candidates. Now, before you go all "NOWAYSIGNAFREEAGENTGETITDONEJIM!!1!" on me, one or more of those three might surprise us. I think Marshall has done a fine job in his various starting stints, including last year. His 5.24 ERA as a starter (nine starts) is skewed by this May 31 disaster vs. the Dodgers, in which he allowed seven earned runs in 4.1 innings. Take that out of the mix and in the other eight starts he went at least five innings in all of them and posted a 3.83 ERA, with only 12 walks in 40 innings.
Gorzelanny showed flashes of his 2007 form (when he went 14-10, 3.88 for the Pirates) in his two Cub months -- and also flashes of being awful. He deserves a shot at the rotation, but Lou has hinted the Gorz might also work in the pen, as might the Shark, who still needs to have a bigger repertoire. I have always felt that Samardzija was miscast as a starter and would be a better reliever, as he showed at the end of 2008.
But those guys aren't the best options, either. Both Caridad and Berg threw very well in limited action at the end of 2009. Caridad has a live arm and throws strikes -- only three walks in 19.1 innings with the Cubs, only 46 in 131 innings at Iowa (as a starter). Berg is a big guy who throws hard and also throws strikes -- only one walk in 12 major league innings last year. For a bullpen that often had trouble keeping the ball in the strike zone, these two would be a big help. I'd give slots to both of them.
That leaves one more open position for Stevens, Patton, Gaub or Parker. Gaub, who will be 25 in April, was put on the fast track when he was sent to the Arizona Fall League after an outstanding season at Iowa, although he didn't throw very well there (a 9.31 ERA in 10 relief appearances). He did strike out 40 in 31.1 innings at Iowa last year and allowed only one home run. Parker, also 25 next year (in June) was Iowa's closer for most of 2009. He posted 22 saves with a 3.00 ERA and a 1.235 WHIP. Stevens didn't impress me in his 11 major league appearances (eight walks in 12.2 innings) and is the oldest of this group, having turned 26 last September -- for comparison's sake, Stevens is two days younger than Matt Capps. Patton was a waste of a roster spot for the major league Cubs after being taken in the Rule 5 draft in December 2008. Pitching whenever Lou actually remembered he was on the team, he posted a 6.83 ERA and 1.807 WHIP in 20 appearances; mostly, he was stashed on the DL. Patton turns 26 in May and frankly, I don't really think he showed that much talent, even in spring training. I'd give the spot to Gaub, so the Cubs have another lefthander in the pen.
See how easy that is? The seven bullpen slots would be covered with performance at least as good as you'd get by signing [insert name of mediocre free-agent middle reliever here], and at least three of them (Gaub, Berg and Caridad) would be making the major league minimum, thus saving money for other needs. In the next post in this series, I'll look at some of those other needs and how they could be filled.