Admittedly, it's tough to write this article. Tough, only because I'm afraid of two things: angering the baseball gods who've proven their wrath already with 100 years of futility, and also possibly jinxing their good intentions by even talking about the playoffs.
But here we are, a week away from what promises to be the wildest of rides for Chicago sports fans, a Cubs journey through the playoffs, and unfortunately that demands analysis. So today we'll focus on the Cubs' bullpen.
To begin with, there is the question of who will actually make the playoff roster, and whether Lou Piniella intends on taking 11 or 12 arms into the postseason.
Given the recent revelation that Sean Marshall pitched his way onto the roster with a solid start this week against the Mets, the question then becomes, one lefty or two? Neal Cotts has a stellar road ERA of 2.84, but has been a mess at home, so it could depend on who the Cubs face in the first round.
Assume that Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Jeff Smardzija, Sean Marshall, Chad Gaudin (his back permitting), and the top four starters are in. That leaves two to three spots available, and Cotts should get a nod to afford Piniella more situational flexibility.
The guess here is that Lou sticks with the old warhorse, Bob Howry, who's shown recent signs of life. This allows the final week to determine whether to keep someone from a group including Jason Marquis, Kevin Hart, or Randy Wells, or simply go with 11 pitchers.
One intriguing possibility is keeping Marquis on the playoff roster, if for nothing else than to allow for both an extra arm and an extra pinch hitter/runner off the bench. The question then becomes whether Marquis' abilities as an offensive pitcher outweigh his big-inning collapses on the mound.
Furthermore, with Harden's health always being an issue, Marquis provides another long man, while keeping Marshall available for late-inning situational calls.
With those decisions still to be made, there is a lot to be said for the pitchers the Cubs will definitely carry on the roster, specifically the lights-out trio of Wood, Marmol, and Smardzija.
Although "The Shark" has shown a few cracks lately, it's difficult to believe his combination of big-game experience at Notre Dame, along with the confidence the Cubs have already displayed by immediately moving him into a late-inning role, will be any cause for concern in a playoff atmosphere. Rick Ankiel under the bright lights this guy is not.
As for Marmol and Wood, there isn't much that hasn't already been said. Marmol, with the exception of immediately before the All-Star break, has been unhittable all season, and Piniella has been able to steal some rest for him down the stretch.
Much like Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels, Marmol's reputation at this point may outweigh his actual ability, although the league's most vicious slider plays a big role as well.
It's been proven time and again in the playoffs that a dominant young arm can carry a team, especially in a short series. The evidence goes all the way back to the 1996 Yankees with Mariano Rivera setting up for John Wetteland and carries on through K-Rod with the Angels, Johnathan Papelbon with the Red Sox, and Bobby Jenks of the White Sox.
And let's not forget about Wood, who was seemingly destined to be a closer from his first injury, and has not only responded beyond all expectations, but appears to become noticeably more comfortable each time he takes the mound. Wood still has the heat on the fastball, and has shown an increasing reliance on his old arsenal, including a biting slider and a knee-buckling curveball.
In a short series, and combined with the starting rotation which has ranged from solid to spectacular, the Cubs shouldn't have to rely on much more than those three guys to get the job done in close games.
If the two lefties can simply do their job and get the Carlos Delgados/Prince Fielders/Ryan Howards of the world out more often than not, and if Howry continues his modest resurgence (a 3.86 ERA in his past 10 appearances, with nine Ks in nine IP), the Cubs should have minimal concerns about their bullpen throughout a series.
Now, I can only hope the baseball gods agree.