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2014 Cubs And MLB Bullpens: How Many Relievers Is Right?

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The Cubs have used an eight-man bullpen most of 2014. Is this a trend?

Jonathan Daniel

A question was asked of me in a recent BCB recap -- and you'll forgive me if I don't credit you if it was yours, because I can't find it right now -- about the Cubs' eight-man bullpen and how it compares to other major-league teams.

So, I went and checked every team's current 25-man roster and depth chart, and here's what I found:

Teams with five starters and eight relievers

Cubs
Diamondbacks
Yankees
Royals
Twins
Angels
Mariners
Rangers

Teams with five starters and seven relievers

Reds
Cardinals
Pirates
Brewers
Nationals
Marlins
Mets
Phillies
Padres
Dodgers
Giants
Rockies
Red Sox
Orioles
Blue Jays
Rays
Indians
Tigers
Athletics
Astros
Braves
White Sox

What does this all mean? I had thought the Cubs were alone in having an eight-man bullpen, but it turns out there are seven other teams doing it. Six of those seven are American League teams, and I think you can see how an A.L. team, using the designated hitter, would be able to get along with fewer bench players, not needing to pinch-hit for pitchers.

Why are the Diamondbacks doing this? Looking at their active roster, it appears they have quite a number of inexperienced relievers. This is the reason given for the Cubs' use of an eight-man bullpen -- supposedly, because of the large number of Cubs relievers who are only in their first or second season, management wanted to go easy on them.

This would make sense if Rick Renteria actually used his pen that way, but he doesn't. Cubs relievers were overworked in the 16-inning win over the Rockies, so Chris Rusin was recalled from Iowa, supposedly to give some of the other guys a break. Rusin has yet to pitch since his recall, even though there were opportunities to do so -- in the 12-inning game Saturday, or to throw an inning or two once the Cubs went ahead by four runs Sunday. Instead, Pedro Strop, who had thrown an inning Saturday, was called on and wound up giving back one of the runs.

Despite the fact that the Cubs currently have several players who can play multiple positions (Luis Valbuena, Chris Valaika, Arismendy Alcantara), having just four bench players, one of whom is your other catcher who shouldn't be used in normal pinch-hitting situations, really limits the manager's choices, in my view. This has resulted in Travis Wood being used as a pinch-hitter six times this year (1-for-4, one sacrifice bunt). Though Wood is a decent hitter for a pitcher, if you had a bench position player who had lifetime batting splits of .196/.213/.360 with 82 strikeouts in 225 at-bats, you'd replace him. Despite Wood's game-winning pinch-double in the 13th inning June 16 in Miami, you don't really want to have to be forced to go to him except in extreme situations like that one (long extra-inning game).

I can't recall a team going this long -- almost the entire season -- with a 13-man pitching staff. I'm not sure how long the Diamondbacks have done it, but this is surely a first in Cubs history, and not a good one in my view. Four weeks from now when rosters expand, this won't be an issue for the Cubs, as they'll be able to add at least a couple more position players.

But in general, I would like to see them stick to a seven-man bullpen in the future and have five bench players available. It's conceivable that in the future, MLB might expand rosters to 26 players, which would presumably solve the problem, although some teams might use that opportunity to go to a nine-man bullpen. Which would, in the case of the Cubs, probably lead to two pitchers not being used, instead of one. Let's hope that never happens.