Last spring training, I wrote an article on the likelihood of Starling Peralta making Arizona's roster. While he didn't break camp with them, I was impressed by the Diamondbacks' pen. They had seven veteran options, and a few guys ready to fill holes where needed. That is what a good bullpen is supposed to look like. Alas, the Cubs pen isn't there. It hasn't been, and won't be, until 2015 at the earliest. The improvement of the Cubs pen will be a key to the team's improvement in 2014. This is a loose look at the potential bullpen for next year's Cubs.
One of the Cubs' historical problems has been ignoring the likelihood of pitching injuries. The worst/best example was the year when Tom Gorzelanny was traded in January 2011, and the Cubs went to spring training that season with Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer as their sixth and seventh staters. That, as they say, did not end well. In other years, bullpen depth was so ignored that Rule 5 longshots made the final 25, though not necessarily by earning it. This season, Hector Rondon is sticking around. He hasn't even been disabled over a fever blister yet.
To be sure, before the Cubs can be a third-place team in the division, much less a playoff team, their bullpen has to be much better than it has been. The Cubs have rarely had a strong bullpen, as a bullpen is usually created through development and wise roster management. Neither have tended to be team strengths.
When Cubs fans usually talk bullpen, they start with a closer, mention two or three more non-horrible options, pump a minor league prospect or two, float a free agent-to-be's name, and, most of all, hope. That isn't my intent. I want to come up with a 14-man bullpen. (Al has a coronary.) No, not because that's how many will be needed. That's what will be needed to find seven good ones. And a good bullpen ought to have ten good options, some stowed in the minors. Here will be a partial list, fully confident the brass will add three or four major league options, and a similar amount on minor league deals to stow in Iowa. And purge a few from the list.
Who knows? Maybe the brass won't need to jump at every arm designated for assignment next season.
Before I start the list, some of these guys might profile as starters to you. This is a good thing. As Theo Epstein has shown a few times, he can guess fairly well on starting pitchers. I fully expect eight potential starters in spring training. Why so many? Some will get hurt. Some will be terrible. Some will be bumped to the bullpen. Some will go to Iowa's Triple-A team. This is how pitching staffs are built. Not through major off-season big-ticket purchases. I guess that works if you have a better TV deal than the Cubs do. Alas, that won't work here,
The 40-man roster will get whittled this off-season. If a player doesn't look ready to contribute in 2014 or 2015, I doubt they keep a spot on the roster. Which is more room for pitchers.
One final sideswipe. If the Cubs are 'improved, but not improved enough', I expect another sell-off next season. Players will start forming three lines very soon. In 2014, players will likely end up in one of three groups. Part of the solution. Part of the problem. Trade bait. Relievers are very unpredictable. If they were predictable, Mariano Rivera wouldn't be such a freak of historical expectations. Relievers usually float from good to bad without explanation. Nobody expected Kevin Gregg to be this good. He's probably surprised as well.
If the Cubs are four below .500, and 10 games out of the postseason at this time next year, that would be a huge step-up. That said, if a league GM is willing to overpay for a reliever next year, I expect Theo would accept the trade. Unless the team is within about five of the play-offs. Why? Relievers can be easily over-rated by playoff competitors. Gregg will fetch more than he should in the next three weeks. (Ironically, if Scott Hairston does well for the Nationals, he can help Gregg's value markedly.)
So here is a partial list of potential relievers next year. I fully expect about eight more to be added, as you can never have enough potentially good pitching.
Jake Arrieta, Now in Triple-A Iowa as a starter. Acquired in the Scott Feldman trade, Arrieta will be given a chance to start. Failing that, he could make for a nice leverage-reliever type. Or, he could bust. Either way, the big righty will be given a chance to show his abilities somewhere in Wrigley next season. And beyond that, if successful.
Michael Bowden. Riding the Iowa/Chicago Shuttle. Along with others in his situation, he will be being judged not only against his bullpen counterparts, but also against all potentially available free agents this off-season. If he has a good two-and-a-half months, he'll be back. If not, he will be designated for assignment, and someone with better perceived numbers will replace him.
Alberto Cabrera. Now in Double-A Tennessee as a starter. Cabrera had a mixed bag season in 2012. He was given one last chance to start this year, and has been very solid. Cabrera is out of options as of next year, so he figures to make the parent club.
Shawn Camp. Not pitching at present. No, I'm not advocating bringing Camp back. That said, the Cubs will bring numerous scratch-and-dent options to camp in February as non-roster invitees. For most, an assignment to Iowa would be fine. Others may have a date where they can opt for free agency if they aren't rostered. Every team will roll the dice on some doubtfuls like this. One or two will hit. For the price of an NRI/minor-league deal to show your kid pitchers another veteran presence, it's a solid gamble.
Casey Coleman. Relieving in Triple-A Iowa. After Gregg is dealt, Coleman may get called up for one last shot. While 'middle reliever' figures to be his ceiling, if he does well in August and September, bring him to spring training.
Rafael Dolis. Drives the Iowa/Chicago shuttle bus. Dolis may never figure out how to consistently get big league hitters out. Or, he may after the Cubs release him. Each of Dolis' options will likely be burned in trying to find out which is the case.
Kevin Gregg. Is due to be traded in the next few weeks. A few wannabes will replace him for spring training.
Matt Guerrier. Relieving in Chicago, and is not getting booed yet. Whether the Cubs bring back Guerrier or not isn't horribly important. If he likes the team, the fans, the front office, and is willing to come back on the cheap, why not? If he finishes the season well, and isn't expensive, I'm good with a sequel.
Kyle Hendricks. Now in Double-A as a starter. I'm pre-emptively putting Hendricks here. He won't be in the Cubs April bullpen. Why not? He needn't be added to the 40 Man next season. He is 40 Man exempt until November of 2014. Hendricks will start for Iowa next year. He might get a late call-up. Or not.
Blake Parker. Readying to close in Chicago. He is a home-grown option that will be inexpensive to keep. However, it appears he can torpedo being sent back to Iowa, so there's that. He will be in competition for a job in March.
Zach Putnam. Rehabbing an injury. He has plenty of options left. He may want to explore housing options in Des Moines.
Brooks Raley. Riding the Iowa/Chicago shuttle. He might be a LH relief option for the future. Or, he might get designated in the off-season. Or, it could be both. He would be benefited by a good August/September.
Hector Rondon. Pitching once a week in Chicago. Congrats for surviving your Rule 5 season. Next year, all bets will be off. There will be a batch of pitchers, like you, without options remaining. There won't be a guarantee you make the roster in April. Your season this year will guarantee you a shot in the spring, but not much more.
Henry Rodriguez. Pitching once a week in Wrigley. At some point, Dale Sveum might be well-served seeing if Rodriguez belongs or not.
Chris Rusin. Riding the Iowa/Chicago shuttle. Rusin ought to, at worst, be in Iowa's rotation next year. He will have one option left in 2014. His performance will predict his future.
James Russell. Pitching up to three nights in a row in Sveum's bullpen. Russell will be back in 2014, with more help. Unless he is traded.
Pedro Strop. Relieving in Chicago. He has been good so far, though replacing Shawn Camp in 2013 lowers the expectations.
Carlos Villanueva. Pitching as a starter, since the Feldman trade. Hopefully, a winter of not managing games reveals to Sveum how to use Villanueva in the pen.
Arodys Vizcaino. Rehabbing from surgery-related complications. If healthy, he figures to be a leverage reliever in 2014.
I have added no new names. As the rebuild advances, the desire to sign every other DFA-from-another-team option dwindles. Why? Because in-house options are better. The goal will be to have a plethora of starting and relieving options in Arizona in February and March. Many will be Alex Hinshaw-forgettable. A few will stick in Wrigley. Hopefully, a few minor league signings will stick around in Iowa. It's a misnomer to refer to a big league staff as 12 pitchers. In an ideal year, many teams will use at least 20.
The quality of bullpen we want the Cubs to have will approach what most of us want only when half of the Triple-A staff in Iowa is palatable at the major league level. Until then, the bullpen rebuild will continue. Fortunately, the upper-levels of the minor league affiliates are quietly getting better. And from what I hear, the Cubs are contemplating another trade or two.
While the return may be a pitcher in A-Ball, most every quality pitcher in big league history toiled in A-Ball for a spell. While you're certainly permitted to think the parent club will get better before they have improved talent in the pipeline, it rarely works that way. To have as good a pen as the Diamondbacks or Reds, it makes sense to have nice, cheap, quality options throughout the system. Even in A-Ball.