Esmailin Caridad, Justin Berg, James Russell: Three Rookies in the Cubs Bullpen

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Esmailin Caridad, Justin Berg, James Russell: Three Rookies in the Cubs Bullpen
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With just over a week remaining until opening day, the prospects of another long season for Cubs fans is finally starting to settle in.

Spring training helped clear up some minor position battles and lineup tweaks, such as Ryan Theriot serving as the full-time leadoff hitter and Mike Fontenot appearing to be the front-runner at second base. But lots of questions remain in arguably the most overlooked aspect of any ballclub: the bullpen.

The Cubs are not going to be featured on MLB Network’s new reality television show The Club (that honor goes to the White Sox), but if the Northsiders were on the air, it would be hard to keep up with all the shuffling I am anticipating in the bullpen for the 2010 season.

The Cubs are planning on breaking camp with three rookies in their bullpen: Esmailin Caridad, Justin Berg, and James Russell. That should be enough to make any Cubs fan quiver.

Even Jeff Samardzija, who, by the way, will be taking his $10 million signing bonus into the bullpen, is a seasoned veteran compared to the young crop of arms Lou Piniella will be counting on, especially during the first-plus month while starting pitcher Ted Lilly is recovering from shoulder and knee injuries.

For fans dreaming of a World Series, ask yourself: When was the last time a team won the Fall Classic with three rookies in the bullpen? I am thinking you may have to go back a ways to find that answer.

Sean Marshall returns to duties as the long reliever, and his spot in the pen might be the least questionable and non-daunting for Piniella. If fourth or fifth starters Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva falter in the early going, Marshall may have to jump back into a starter’s role. As a swing man, Marshall should step in just fine, but you would have hoped the Cubs had found a defined role for the lefty by now.

John Grabow, the prized jewel of the Pirates pen a season ago, brings his current 5.19 ERA and 13 hits in 8 2/3 innings of spring training work back into the setup role for the Cubs. Allowing more than two runners on base per spring outing and striking out less than one per inning, it is hard to get excited about Grabow handing over the ball to the closer, Carlos Marmol, with packed base paths.

Marmol does have an uncanny knack for getting himself into trouble and then finding a way out, but Larry Rothschild and company should not expect him to get out of trouble that other pitchers set up. It is true that closers are required from time to time to pitch in more than just the ninth, but Marmol’s circumstance is not the same as other elite closers. It is no secret that he will get wild and will need to rely on the strikeout.

And then you have to take Piniella into consideration, the craftsman and brains of the bullpen. Out of all the areas in player management, relief pitchers by far evade Sweet Lou’s expertise the most.

Consider Piniella’s tenure as Cubs manager. Two seasons ago, Piniella singled out now-Oakland Athletics pitcher Michael Wuertz as one of the main problems in a battered pen. Once Wuertz was exiled from the team after the ’08 season, he went on to be one of the league’s most productive setup men in ‘09, going 6-1 with a 2.63 ERA and striking out 102 batters in 78 2/3 innings. Simply astounding.

Scott Eyre was another one of Piniella’s dogs in the pen, and all Eyre did was help the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen in their championship season in ’08.

The Cubs bullpen should be the key to a hot start or a chilly April. Given the current pen, Lou needs to prove he is capable of mentoring young pitchers and at least show some patience with the rookies.

The late innings are not always going to be pretty, but the fate of the season may depend on one or two of the pen's young arms.

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