Two years ago, the Chicago Cubs made a bold decision. The one-time face of the franchise, the future of the starting rotation, the hope of the city of Chicago, Kerry Wood, was going to move to the bullpen.
The decision was partially made to give Wood a career. He had a longer laundry list of injuries and surgeries than he did pitching successes. But he always busted his tail to get back on the bump for the Cubs, so, out of respect for that, the team moved him into a role that would use his arm and shoulder more conservatively.
The decision to move Wood to the pen was also made because he had ridiculous stuff. Anyone who has seen just one of his 20 strikeouts saw the unbelievable ability of the phenom from Texas. Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were quoted almost a decade later saying that was the best pitching either had ever seen.
Wood was a pretty good closer for the Cubs in 2008, his first full season in the pen. He was able to take his 10-plus strikeout per nine inning abilities to the bullpen where he could pick and choose which sickening pitch he wanted to use to get just three guys out. He would only throw four, maybe five innings a week.
Fast forward to 2009. The Cubs let Wood go "out of respect" (they didn't want to pay him or respect the fans) and replaced him at the end of the bullpen with Kevin Gregg. Gregg has been a moderate failure, who hasn't been able to dominate the ninth inning the way the Cubs had hoped.
Carlos Marmol has similar stuff to Wood, featuring a slider that has a break that makes you wonder if gravity is using the same steroids as Barry Bonds. But he's lacked the maturity and control to slam the door on the seventh or eighth inning this year, showing that he's not ready for the ninth.
The Cubs need to do something to jack up their bullpen. Aaron Heilman isn't in New York any more because he developed an awful allergic reaction to clutch situations. Neal Cotts, the only lefty in the pen leaving Arizona, is in Iowa now, trying to remember how to avoid the bat with his pitches.
And the rest of the pen? It turns over more than bed sheets at a Holiday Inn. David Patton, Jason Waddell, Chad Fox, Jeff Samardzija... none of them has done much well this season.
The reality for the Cubs right now is that their only saving grace this year once their starters have left the mound has been an Angel... Guzman. The one-time top prospect has made the transition from being an injury-plagued starter in the minors to be a wonderful story out of the pen this year.
Before Wood was the ace of the bullpen, the Cubs had another formerly injury prone starter closing games: Ryan Dempster. Dempster was moderately wild and had his ups and downs, but was a good closer during his time in the pen. He has since turned himself into an overpaid yet effective starter for the Cubs.
So we've established a couple things. First, the Cubs bullpen is nowhere close to where it needs to be for them to compete for a championship. And, secondly, the Cubs have a proven track record of converting starting pitchers with great stuff and injury issues into effective closers.
Now let's look at one scenario that could actually open some options for the Cubs and answer some of the questions their pitching staff has right now.
My proposition to the Cubs is, when he's healthy enough to pitch again, Rich Harden should move to the end of the bullpen and replace Gregg as the team's closer.
Harden fills a couple of the apparent requirements to become a good closer for the Cubs this decade: he's got incredible stuff and a maddening inability to pitch for more than three weeks at a time.
Over his career, Harden has averaged better than nine strikeouts per nine innings pitched, well above the league average. His season averages have gone up every season since 2005, and he struck out nearly three times as many batters as he walked last year.
Harden's got top-tier stuff.
The problem with Harden is that he, like Wood, appears to be completely unable to stay on the field. He has only started 25 games or more twice in his career, and he's never thrown more than 189 innings in a season.
His ability to mix a good fastball with an exceptional change-up would make him an ideal pitcher to throw just one inning at a time; his strikeout ratios indicate he could do well.
Making the transition to the bullpen could also lengthen Harden's career. He's only 27 years old, but is already staring at a winter in which he's a free agent with no guarantees of finishing his next contract in one piece.
Harden's also usually his best early in games. In his first 30 pitches, he has held opposing batters to a .147 batting average during the past three years. He usually works himself into trouble in between the third and fifth innings. That would be avoided if he was throwing his average, around 14, pitches in just one inning of work.
Moving Harden to the pen also opens up some options for the Cubs. Rookie Randy Wells has thrown well enough to deserve a place in the Cubs' rotation, and the other top three starters the Cubs have (Dempster, Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano) are all good and have thrown well this season.
By moving Harden to the pen, it would allow for the Cubs to do one of two things. First, it would move the rest of the Cubs' bullpen pitchers up a spot. If Marmol stayed in the eighth inning as the setup man, Gregg would then be able to take the place of Heilman or Ascanio in the seventh. It would also give manager Lou Piniella more options to use Guzman in shorter situations.
Perhaps more importantly, by adding depth to the bullpen, it would allow the Cubs to make a decision about the end of their rotation. Right now, Sean Marshall has struggled at times in the rotation and there has been internal debate about moving him into the bullpen in the absence of Cotts. There are also possibilities that the Cubs add a starter (I have suggested Tom Glavine recently) to fill the rotation.
If the Cubs had a rotation of Zambrano, Lilly, Dempster, Wells and Glavine, they would have a nice mix of experience and youth with the entire spectrum of emotions covered. A bullpen of Marshall, Ascanio, Gregg, Guzman, Marmol, Harden would allow the Cubs to either cut or trade Heilman as well, getting the combustible lead-blower out of the way entirely.
It's a long shot that I doubt the Cubs would have the intestinal fortitude to entertain, but I think it's worth exploring.