For the first time since 1908, The Chicago Cubs will be entering the National League playoffs in back-to-back seasons. For the first time since 1984, the Chicago Cubs will enter the National League playoffs with home field advantage throughout. For the first time since 1945, the Chicago Cubs could be the National League representative in the World Series. However, if the Chicago Cubs want to win their first World Series in this millennium, the key to their postseason run will be the depth in their pitching staff.
The Chicago Cubs' pitching depth is greatly improved from the 2007 team that was swept out of the playoffs by the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. The fron three in the rotation last year consisted of Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill. This year, the club is led by 17 game winner Ryan Dempster, who was slated as the closer last season. The second starter is now Rich Harden, who despite his health issues, has been able to keep his ERA at 1.66 this season. Then, there is the issue of the third starter. Ted Lilly has won 16 games this season, whereas last year's staff ace, Zambrano, has had issues with longevity, going five innings or more just once in his last four starts. That was, of course, a no-hitter, but that lack of consistency will be a concern.
So, if there are any slip-ups from the starting rotation, the team will have to rely on the best bullpen in the NL (3.86 ERA, best in NL). Each guy in the bullpen will be key, but the combo of Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood is the tandem the Cubs hope carry them to the Series. However, the real key will be the pitchers that are the bridge between the starters and Wood. When you review the strengths and weaknesses of the big four bullpen pitchers, you will see why each pitcher will be vital to the team's success.
Strengths: Wood will be making his fourth postseason appearance in his career. He has experience pitching in big games, as he was the starter in game 5 of the clinching game against the Atlanta Braves in 2003 (the first postseason series win for the Cubs since 1908), as well as game 7 of the NLCS against the Florida Marlins. Now, as a closer, Wood has found a way to save his on-again off-again injury problems, as his 65.3 Innings Pitched this season is a four year high. The lack of strain on his arm along with his playoff experience should be a great asset, as when Wood has his fastball and slider working, he is unhittable, as he was fourth in the NL with 34 saves.
Weaknesses: Wood is a strikeout pitcher, and this is a great asset. He also is a pitcher with limited walks (83:12 Strikeout to Walk Ratio). His control can be a concern though, as he hit 7 batters this season, which is tied for the team lead. Also, Wood has been constantly viewed as part of the Cubs' losing mystique. From 2003 to 2006, Wood and Mark Prior were considered the 1-2 starting punch for the next decade. However, both guys were considered injury prone, and Mark Prior was waived and signed with the San Diego Padres. This leaves Wood as the poster child for the Cubs' failures, and he will need to fight this mystique in October.
Outlook: Wood is a major part of the Cubs' success. The switch of Dempster from closer to starter and Wood from starter to closer has been considered one of the main reasons the Cubs are the best team in the NL. Wood admittedly loves being a Chicago Cub, which is why he accepted a 1 year tender to stay with the Cubs rather than testing the free agent market. This could be a showcase for Wood in his free agent year, but it also could be the last chance for Wood to win the big one with his beloved Cubs. Expect the best from Wood in October.
Strengths: Marmol is a strikeout machine. His fastball/slider combo is the best in baseball, and there are times Marmol appears unhittable. Marmol led the bullpen with 114 SO (4th on team), and Marmol's 2.72 ERA is also the bullpen season leader. Marmol also only gave up 41 hits in 80 appearances for the Cubs this year. This is the lowest amount of hits per appearance of anyone in baseball.
Weaknesses: Marmol's amount of appearances can be a concern, as Marmol is not a big man (6'2", 180 pounds). Also, there are significant control issues, as Marmol led the Cubs' pen with 6 wild pitches and 41 walks. Marmol tends to get a little ahead of himself on the mound, which causes Marmol to lose focus on his mechanics. While Marmol usually is able to work himself through trouble, one bad inning in the postseason can costs the Cubs games.
Outlook: Marmol already has experienced the postseason, and while it was a bad experience, giving up a home run in the Cubs Game 1 loss against Arizona last season, Marmol will now be more ready to control his emotions on the mound and focus on the fundamentals. Plus, with Wood being a free agent, Marmol could be auditioning for the closer's role next season. A huge postseason will pretty much cement his spot.
Strengths: Samardzija is no stranger to the big stage, as Samardzija was the starting receiver for Notre Dame. Notre Dame's games were all broadcast on national TV every week (on NBC), thus that means every move of Samardzija's was scrutinized weekly. Plus, Samardzija has actually been impressive, sporting a 2.33 ERA since he arrived in late July.
Weaknesses: Samardzija will be pitching in his first postseason. Like players entering the NFL, the move up in competition for Samardzija could be problematic. Also, Samardzija has had some issues with left handed hitters, and guys like Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder or Carlos Beltran could give Samardzija issues in a tight game late.
Outlook: Samardzija has actually improved based on the level of competition. Samardzija was not that great in A ball early this year, but since he moved up to AA, Samardzija has better mixed his 95+ fastball with good breaking pitches. The idea that Samardzija will be intimidated by the stage seems unlikely, and manager Lou Piniella will know how to properly use Samardzija's skills.
Strengths: Howry has pitched for the Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants and last year's Cubs, and he has the most postseason experience of any pitcher on the Cubs' staff. When Howry is able to mix his slider with his two and four seam fastballs, Howry can be a major asset in the bullpen. The Cubs' plan was for Howry to be the 7th inning man to be the bridge to Marmol and Wood. While that has not occurred, Howry has had a very nice September, including a win in a 9-6 win over the Mets September 24.
Weaknesses: He did not get the name, "Home-Run" Howry for nothing. Howry led the bullpen, giving up 12 home runs in 69.3 innings. If the postseason is known for anything, it is dramatic home runs in late innings. The best pitchers have been victims to this ( Dennis Eckersley being the most memorable against Kurt Gibson). So, Howry, being a good journeyman reliever but not great, could be the victim of the next big postseason home run.
Outlook: Howry has had a strong finish to the 2008 campaign. This momentum should solidify Howry's spot back as the 7th inning bridge to Marmol and Wood. Based on the pitching depth, Piniella will not bring in Howry in situations where a home run will give up a lead. Likely, Howry will only be brought in to start an inning, as he seems this year to be more effective in this role.
Prognosis: No team in the NL has more pitching depth than the Cubs. All their starting pitchers are capable of shutting a team down, and as long as the Cubs get a game to the 8th inning with a lead, chances of a win seem almost certain. The Cubs are the clear NL favorite, and as long as the pitching stays healthy and the bullpen remains consistent, a World Series berth should be a given.