We are twelve games into the 2010 season, and the Cubs already have four blown saves in seven opportunities. (Things Could Always Be Worse Department: that's not even the worst in the NL -- the Brewers have five and the Diamondbacks have six.)
And the problem hasn't even been with the inexperienced members of the pen -- well, except for Esmailin Caridad, who is now on the DL. (I don't count Jeff Samardzija as "inexperienced", because he had 46 major league appearances prior to this year.) James Russell and Justin Berg have actually done a decent to good job.
No, half the blown saves belong to John Grabow and Carlos Marmol, who were supposed to be two of the anchors of this year's pen. And I grant you, not all the problems with the Cubs so far are bullpen-related. Scoring more runs would help, obviously, although if you have a strong bullpen, games like yesterday's ought to be winnable.
I'm going to suggest three possible fixes for the bullpen that I believe would solidify it and give the Cubs a better chance to stay close until the offense gets untracked. There aren't any dominant teams in the NL except the Phillies; I believe the Cubs can compete with the Cardinals, but they need relief help. Note: by no means are these the only possible solutions, and I reserve the right to change my mind later on.
Guessing about one of my ideas was pretty easy, given the photo I chose to accompany this post. I never wanted Kerry Wood to leave Chicago in the first place, and neither did he, considering he had spent 14 years (1995-2008) in the Cubs organization, married a woman from the Chicago area, and makes a home here. There is no doubt in my mind that comfort factors are important for a player's success -- not the only reason, but definitely a factor. Wood went to a bad team, rarely even got save opps last year, but still got through the season healthy, and in the second half posted a 2.96 ERA in 24 appearances, with a decent 1.31 WHIP and only 1 HR allowed in 24.1 innings.
Now, Wood is still on the DL, so you can't (nor would you want to) make a deal for him now. However, he appears to be fairly close to returning, and the issue wasn't in his arm, but a back problem. The remainder of the issue with Wood is his contract. He is due $10.5 million this year -- so, most likely, trading for him couldn't happen before midseason, when you'd owe him less money. Also, if he has 55 games finished (meaning he's the last pitcher on the mound, not 55 saves), his 2011 option ($11 million) vests, which you wouldn't want, either.
So a Wood deal would have to happen midseason (unless Cleveland would be willing to eat some of the money), and he'd become a setup man for Marmol. I doubt he'd have a problem with that, in exchange for a return to Chicago.
If you're looking to replace Marmol as closer (I'm not), your second choice might be Heath Bell. Bell is making a much more reasonable $4 million -- "reasonable" from a Cub payroll standpoint, but I suspect the Padres would be willing to move him for the right price. I doubt Bell would want to move back to the setup role he had under Trevor Hoffman, though, so you'd only do this later in the year if Marmol fails.
What to give up for either of these pitchers? I think it's time to cut bait on Josh Vitters. He's off to a slow start at Daytona -- and therein lies some of the problem; a player drafted as high as Vitters, with supposedly as much upside as he had, shouldn't be spending his second year at Daytona at age 20. I realize at 20, he's still young and might have a career ahead of him, but the Cubs don't really need him. In today's economy, I can't see Aramis Ramirez opting out of his deal after this year, so Vitters would be blocked at 3B until at least 2013. Sure, he could be moved to the outfield, but the Cubs already have young outfielders (Tyler Colvin, and in a year or two, Brett Jackson). Vitters along with a pitching prospect would probably do it.
My third bullpen choice can be done without giving up a single player from the system, but would Lou have the guts to do it?
Move Carlos Zambrano to closer.
We have debated here over and over the definition of "ace", and whether Z fills that definition -- he really doesn't. But mentally, that appears to have worn on him, and his last start, where he threw a ridiculous 121 pitches in five innings, has become all too common for him over the last couple of years.
But think about the kind of man and pitcher Z is -- outwardly passionate, putting everything he can into every pitch, and often zipping through the first inning of games with no trouble at all.
Isn't that the perfect definition of a closer? Couldn't you see Z pointing to the sky after closing out the ninth inning? Z is making (approximately) $18 million for at least the next three years, so you wouldn't shift him to setup -- he'd have to close. I can't imagine Marmol objecting to moving back to the setup role he did so well in 2007 and 2008, if Carlos Zambrano were the one replacing him.
Ted Lilly is likely returning from the DL on Saturday in Milwaukee. This means either Carlos Silva or Tom Gorzelanny has to move to the bullpen. Silva's pitched too well for him to be the one, and do the Cubs really want four lefthanders in the pen?
Z for closer. Worth a thought, anyway. Let's hear yours.