Lou Piniella's bullpen will have a different look when pitchers report on Friday.
With Kerry Wood in Cleveland and Bobby Howry with the Giants, the back end of the bullpen has two holes to fill.
Carlos Marmol is the odds-on favorite to become the Cubs' closer, but Piniella has repeatedly said that Kevin Gregg is also an option at closer. Considering that Marmol is pitching for the Dominican Republic in the WBC, should there be a competition?
Moreover, what is Jeff Samardzija's role in this bullpen. Will he be a starter? Will he end up in Iowa? Or could he fill the 7th inning spot vacated by Howry?
On the eve of pitchers and catchers reporting to Fitch Park, here is a look at the candidates for Pinella's bullpen.
The Cubs have several young quality arms that must show improvement this year. Piniella has little-to patience for relievers that do not throw strikes. Pinella's impatience could lead to wholesale changes and tinkering throughout the year.
When the season starts, the Cubs will reportedly carry 12 pitchers. With many of the pitching staff filled, this spring's competition comes down to the fifth starter and the final spot in the pen.
Many are projecting the following staff:
- Carlos Zambrano
- Ryan Dempster
- Ted Lilly
- Rich Harden
- Sean Marshall
- Chad Gaudin
- Angel Guzman
- Aaron Heilman
- Luis Vizcaino
- Neal Cotts
- Kevin Gregg
- Carlos Marmol
Carlos Marmol's first full season in the big leagues was tremendous. Marmol struck out 114 batters in 87 1/3 innings while walking only 41. In the process, he became one of the premier setup men in the league.
Marmol has been groomed to be the Cubs' closer, but he can impact the game in the 7th and 8th innings as well. Would Marmol help the Cubs win more games if he remained in his familiar setup role?
"Senor Nasty" recorded several huge outs in crucial situations last year. Often, Marmol retired the heart of the other team's order in the seventh and eight innings. This gave the Cubs' offense a chance to enlarge their lead.
Marmol has publicly stated his desire to close, but it might be hard for Piniella to save his best reliever for the ninth inning with the game on the line in the seventh.
Kevin Gregg gives his new skipper another hard thrower at the back end of his bullpen. He has also closed out 61 games over the past two seasons.
Gregg has a tendency to lose his command, throw a high number of balls, and wild pitches. His 1.28 WHIP last season is concerning.
But the biggest question mark surrounding Kevin Gregg is how will he respond to the pressure that comes with pitching for the Chicago Cubs?
Gregg is coming off surgery in late October on his left knee, so the Cubs will monitor his health throughout camp.
Gregg has the tools, but the Cubs have seen his inconsistency first-hand. The key to his success will be getting off to a good start. This gives the home crowd no reason to turn on him early on.
If Sean Marshall is named a starter, Neal Cotts could be the Cubs' only lefthanded reliever on Opening Day.
Cotts has been inconsistent at best in his first two seasons with the Cubs. As a result, he spent much of his time at Triple-A Iowa. Cotts is out of options. Unless he is traded, he will finish spring training on the 25-man roster.
Cotts's biggest problem is throwing strikes, and he has not come close to the success he had on the White Sox in 2005. Cotts walked 13 batters and gave up 38 hits in 35 2/3 innings last year (50 games) while posting a 4.29 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.
Last year, Cotts improved by the end of the season. Due to being in a contract year, Cotts should work hard to build off his improvement.
However, if Cotts struggles in Arizona, he could force Jim Hendry to look for other options.
Chad Gaudin will reportedly compete for the fifth spot in the rotation, but he might serve the Cubs better as a long reliever or a spot starter.
Gaudin has shown glimpses of his former self, a pitcher that posted a 5-3 record in 26 games, a 3.59 ERA, and a 1.28 WHIP with the A's.
But a mysterious late season injury derailed his year and cost him a spot on the Cubs postseason roster.
There was talk in November that the Cubs could "non-tender" Gaudin. He is out of options and, like Cotts, will make the team unless he is traded.
For years, the Cubs have waited for Angel Guzman to pitch to his potential. Injuries have kept Guzman from reaching this potential. The former top pitching prospect in the organization has yet to pick up his first big league victory (0-7 in 33 games, 14 starts, a 6.00 ERA, and a 1.67 WHIP).
Reportedly, Guzman is fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery that cost him most of the 2008 season.
Guzman was a September call-up and pitched in six games. His only start came on the final game of the year against the Brewers. He threw two shutout innings, allowed just one hit, and struck out four batters without a walk. It was one of the best outings of his career.
Guzman is out of options, and, if healthy, will make the 25-man roster out of spring training.
The Cubs need Guzman to stay healthy and pitch like his did in his final two outings of 2008 (no runs in four innings with seven strikeouts, three walks, and only one hit allowed).
If Aaron Heilman is not named a starter, he will likely fill the 7th inning role for Piniella. Heilman has been a successful big league reliever. As a result, Jim Hendry has coveted him for many years.
In 2007, Heilman posted a 7-7 record, a 3.03 ERA, and a 1.07 WHIP in 81 games. He struggled down the stretch in 2007, and many Mets fans felt that he aided the Mets' collapse.
The fans in New York did not forget and booed him when he took the mound for the first time in 2008. Heilman finished the year with a 3-8 record, a 5.21 ERA, and a 1.59 WHIP in 78 games (76 innings). This was the first season his ERA had not been under 3.75 and the first time his WHIP had not been under 1.16 since 2004.
It is up Pinella to find a way for Heilman to successfully contribute to the Cubs.
Sean Marshall is a very valuable piece to the Cubs puzzle. Marshall has proved that he is willing to switch roles. His willingness and versatility could end up costing him a spot in the rotation.
Marshall pitched well out of the bullpen last season. He posted a 2-1 record, a 3.42 ERA, and a 1.25 WHIP in 27 games (26 1/3 innings).
As a starter, he had 1-4 record in seven games, a 4.15 ERA, and a 1.28 WHIP. Depending on how Neal Cotts performs, Marshall could end up in the bullpen by default. In this situation, he would only fill in as a starter for Rich Harden.
Jeff Samardzija could end up caught in a numbers game. Samardzija has options left and, barring injury, will likely start the season in Iowa's rotation.
There is no denying Samardzija's success in the late innings last season. He recorded several big outs and even notched his first big league save.
In December, David Patton was selected by the Reds in the Rule 5 Draft from the Rockies. He was then traded to the Cubs for cash in a prearranged agreement.
Patton is a long shot at best to make the Cubs team. However, without Michael Wuertz, Patton can make the team.
Patton posted a 4-5 record last season, a 3.54 ERA, and a 1.38 WHIP in 50 games with the Modesto Nuts (High Class A). He struck out 87 batters in 73 2/3 innings.
Jeff Stevens was acquired in the Mark DeRosa trade and could make an impact for the Cubs in 2009. Stevens put together a solid 2008 campaign in Double-A and Triple A. Stevens had combined 5-4, a 3.24 ERA, and six saves.
Stevens will likely start the year in Iowa.
The Cubs traded one bad contract for another when they acquired Luis Vizcaino from the Rockies for Jason Marquis. At the time, many Cubs fans though Vizcaino would be traded to another team before the season started.
Yet, Vizcaino remains on the Cubs roster.
To say he needs a bounce-back season would be an understatement. Vizcaino has shown success before. In 2006, he had 8-2 record, a 4.30 ERA, and a 1.45 WHIP in 77 games with the Yankees.
Lefties pounded Vizcaino last year, although he was effective against right-handed hitters.
Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio, and Randy Wells should begin the year in Iowa's rotation.
Coming Soon: Storylines of the Spring...The Other Arms and the Catching Corp