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An Outside the Box Solution to the Bullpen Problem

Here are some issues the Cubs currently face:

1.) Their bullpen has been an toxic disaster. In the NL, the Cubs pen ranks 11th in ERA and FIP, and 13th in their total WPA/LI (a stat that measures the rate at which a player improves the chances of the team winning a game). What's more, the Cubs haven't been scoring many runs, and this has placed more of a dependence on the bullpen. Their failures in close games has been driving Lou crazy, as most of his questionable decisions this year seem to stem from a lack of faith in the the pen.

2.) The Cubs have too many starters! This isn't a huge problem, but having too many guys pitching well from the rotation could lead to some chemistry issues. Carlos Zambrano seems much happier now that he's moving back to the rotation, and Tom Gorzelanny is apparently disappointed he's heading to the pen.

3.) The team's chances of making the postseason are plummeting, and are now less than 10% according to the Baseball Prospects rest of season simulations. Their season isn't over, but it may be time to start changing the focus to 2011 and beyond while still trying to win this year. That's tough to do.

4.) While the Cubs have some talented young arms, they need to be stretched out if they're going to end up in the rotation come 2011. Although the statistical evidence in support of the Verducci effect - which claims increasing a young pitcher's workload by 30 or more IP per season significantly increases their chance of getting hurt the following season - is inconclusive, many GM's are wary of dramatically increasing the IP of their young pitchers. That goes double for the Cubs, given their history of devastating injuries to outstanding young pitchers. Assuming for the moment the Cubs will try to avoid increasing workloads by more then 30 IP per season, they'll need to stretch both Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson out if want to have the option of having all those guys in the rotation for the 2011 season.

I have an outside the box solution to all these problems: a bullpen rotation. Follow me below the fold to see how it would work.

Step 0: Call up Andrew Cashner and move someone (Tom Gorzelanny?) to the pen. Move Carlos Zambrano to the rotation, and put someone (John Grabow?) on the DL. (This is step 0 because the Cubs have already done these things. So far, so good.)

Step 1: Set up a 3-man rotation in the bullpen of Tom Gorzelanny, Andrew Cashner, and Sean Marshall. Each guy would be the "default reliever" on a given day whenever the starting pitcher was gassed, assuming said pitcher couldn't get straight to Marmol for the 9th.

Step 2: Relax. First off, let the guy pitch more than one inning, even if he gasp gives up a run or if you have a propensity to LaRussa the bullpen (i.e. over-manage). Also, as you're doing this, keep in mind the bullpen rotation doesn't have to be set in stone. (Just like the starting rotation!) As long as a guy gets at least 2 days rest between appearances, he should be OK. Having two lefties and one righty in the pen rotation (and 4 righties/1 lefty in the starting rotation) will also make it so that on most days the team will be able to replace a right-handed SP with a left-handed reliever and vice versa.

Step 3: If these guys are pitching in a non-save situation, let them pitch through the end of the game or until they reach 3 IP (or, better yet, about 40-50 pitches). If they're pitching in a save situation, let them pitch until they reach the 9th or 3 IP.

Step 4: Continue to use Marmol as the closer. Utilize James Russell and Jeff Stevens as your LOOGY and ROOGY.

Step 5: You don't need a long-relief/mop-up man, because the bullpen rotation will essentially fill this role, the middle relief role, AND the setup role. This means you can DFA Bob Howry, and call up another hitter. That's right, I said another hitter. You should be able to have fewer bullpen arms because you'll get getting more innings out of the bullpen rotation than you do out of most bullpen guys. At the moment, Chad Tracy would make a good addition given Fontenot's promotion at 2B, Baker's lack of playing time, and Ramirez's injuries/struggles. (Al, I'm guessing you <3 step 5.)

Why do I like this? A lot of reasons. Gorzelanny will have a more important role in the pen than he would otherwise have. All 3 guys will be more stretched out in case of an injury to a Cubs starting pitcher, and all 3 will be accustomed to pitching in close/late situation in case Marmol is hurt. And Cashner will get the innings he needs to move into the pen while getting MLB experience. Cubs starters have averaged almost exactly 6 IP/game so far this year, and Marmol has appeared in 45% of the games to date. This leaves about 2.6 innings per game for the guys in the bullpen rotation. Assuming each guy pitches once every three games, that'll give Cashner about 94 more IP this season, in addition to the 57 he's already thrown in the minors this year, for a total of 151 IP. This is a little too much, as Cashner only threw 100 IP last season, but that sort of thing can be adjusted during the season, if need be. (For example, the team could send him back down to Iowa to have him pitch from the pen and call up Jay Jackson in his place. Alternatively, they could make it a 4-man bullpen rotation by throwing Jackson into the mix.) More than anything else, the Cubs will be leveraging their best pitchers and the depth in their long line of potential starters. They'll essentially have the 9 best pitchers in the organization throwing almost ALL their innings. This is a very good thing.

It's a little weird, but I think it just might work!