It's only been a week, but six games into the season, the Chicago Cubs' Achilles heel thus far has unquestionably been the bullpen.
Going into 2009, there were many question marks for Chicago, including the durability of key players such as Milton Bradley and Alfonso Soriano, infield depth, and, of course, the bullpen.
The current problem with the bullpen situation is that it's not just one or two guys who are underachieving, it's virtually everyone.
Despite being only one week into the season, Kevin Gregg has already proved Lou Piniella's decision to make Gregg the closer over Carlos Marmol a mistake.
Gregg has allowed a run in all of his appearances except one, and has an ERA of 9.00, in comparison to Marmol's 0.00 ERA. Furthermore, it is obvious that Gregg doesn't have closer stuff. Gregg's WHIP of 2.75 is abysmal, as is his opponent's batting average of .458.
Gregg isn't the only one struggling, however, as both Neal Cotts and Aaron Heilman have struggled immensely with their command and have walked far too many hitters. And don't kid yourself, based on his history, Heilman has no chance of shaping up anytime soon. Just ask Mets fans.
But hey, at least Lou puts them in the game. So far, Piniella has seemed willing to go to any lengths to avoid having to use Rule-5 man David Patton, and has seemed even less confident in Luis Vizcaino.
With the bullpen already having blown several leads and a closer giving up runs like free candy, it's time for the Cubs to consider their best option: Jeff Samardzija.
Samardzija was dominant for the Cubs in '08, posting an ERA of 2.28 in 26 games and limiting opponents to a .226 batting average against.
Furthermore, Samardzija thrived in the setup role for Marmol last year. With Marmol currently as the only consistent reliever in the pen, Samardzija would provided much-needed bullpen depth. Samardzija would be even more essential in the setup role—if Marmol were to be moved to the closer role.
For those readers who are thinking that it is too early to worry or to make such major changes, take a look at the past several seasons.
In 2008, Bob Howry was supposed to be the eighth inning man before Lou moved him out of the role after several weeks, giving the setup duties to Carlos Marmol.
In 2007, Ryan Dempster was first named the closer, then a starter, then the closer again in a matter of days. Likewise, Scott Eyre was originally intended to be the setup man first and then the closer later in 2007, and Eyre ultimately ended up being a middle-of-the-road reliever.
Both years, the Cubs sorted out the bullpen situation early on and had successful relievers for the majority of the seasons.
Having established that the Cubs desperately need both a switch at closer and an additional reliable reliever, Samardzija is the perfect candidate.
The Notre Dame grad is currently undergoing a track similar to Tampa's David Price—starting the season in AAA, but with clear expectations that he will be a major contributor to the major league club later in the year.
The Cubs should make this move sooner rather than later. With Samardzija in the rotation, the Cubs could spare the pains of having to scramble and use all of their bullpen pitchers in one game, as they almost had to do against the Astros. The move would ideally complement the promotion of Marmol to closer with Kevin Gregg as a setup option, in order to put the best pitchers in the best roles.
Unfortunately, Samardzija in the bullpen would negate the organization's efforts to stretch him out into a starting pitcher in AAA. Samardzija will likely be needed down the road if and when the injury-prone Rich Harden goes down.
Either way, Samardzija's presence will become more and more essential for the pitching-thin Cubs. Samardzija could be utilized the same way Sean Marshall is now—pitching out of the bullpen in long relief and setup until needed as a starter. Since Marshall will most likely make his first start soon, Samardzija could replace Marshall in this role.
No matter how you spin it, the numbers don't lie. The Cubs bullpen needs help, and Jeff Samardzija is the perfect man for the job. Furthermore, Samardzija's competitive fire and will to win are essential attributes for a pitcher, and will no doubt influence other players as well.
The Cubs look shaky in the late innings now, but with a couple moves the club come immediately see significant improvements.
Maybe all they need is some Irish blood.