While the Chicago Cubs have been much maligned for their inability to develop quality starting pitchers, they’ve built a solid relief corps through their minor league system. A few of those arms were on display in Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field as James Russell and Sean Marshall helped shut down the Astros to preserve the victory.
The Cubs bullpen currently features nine arms, seven of which were brought up through the Cubs system. Only veterans John Grabow and Ramon Ortiz didn’t spend the majority of their careers with the organization.
Neither Grabow nor Ortiz is expected to return next season and it’s possible the Cubs will replace them with internal candidates like the recently recalled John Gaub or the soon-to-be-called-up Rafael Dolis.
After being acquired in a trade for Mark DeRosa, Gaub had an outstanding 2009 season, recording a combined 80 strikeouts in 60 innings for Double-A Tennesee and Triple-A Iowa . One scout who watched him that season called him the best lefty relief prospect in the game. Gaub struggled mightily in Iowa in 2010 (his BB/9 jumped from 5.0 to 8.3), but bounced back with a strong 2011 campaign and looks to once again have a bright future in the big leagues as more than just a one-out lefty.
Dolis is a power pitcher and while hopes are high for him, he’s going to have to improve upon his 4.3 BB/9 if he’s going to be a relied on arm out of the bullpen.
The good news for both pitchers is that with the likes of Marshall and Jeff Samardzija around, Dolis and Gaub hopefully won’t be pressed into high pressure situations too soon.
Samardzija and Marshall, both of whom struggled when originally used as starters at the major league level, have thrived in their current roles. Marshall, who picked up the save on Saturday, has struck out 75 and walked only 17 in his 72 innings of work this season, becoming one of the best lefty set-up men in all of baseball. Samardzija is finally starting to live up to the high expectations that were heaped upon him when he was first drafted in 2006. He’s struck out 86 in 85 1/3 innings and while his 48 walks on the season are a tad high, it’s an area that he’s improved as the season has gone on.
Other arms that could help bolster the bullpen in the coming years include Jeff Beliveau (who, along with hot prospect Brett Jackson, will play for Team USA in the Pan-Am Games this spring), Chris Carpenter, and even further down the pipeline, Aaron Kurcz and Kevin Rhoderick.
It’s possible that Kerry Wood may not be re-upped for next season and Samardzija may fill a rotation spot. If that happens, at least young reliever will have to step up. Unless acquiring a dominant closer, it’s unwise to give high-paying long-term deals to a reliever; they rarely seem to work out. The Cubs have been bitten numerous times in the recent past by this strategy, with Bob Howry, Scott Eyre and, most recently, John Grabow, none of whom lived up to the multi-year deals they signed.
Of course, the main objective for a minor league system is to provide high-end starting pitching talent. Unfortunately, the Cubs have been unable to accomplish that recently, and once-highly-thought-of starters Jay Jackson and Trey McNutt are both having disappointing seasons. Jackson seems to have lost the velocity that scouts once raved about, but finished his season strong, compiling a 2.95 ERA with 32 strikeouts and only 11 walks in his last 7 starts.
Injuries have also played a big part in the Cubs’ attempt to develop starting pitchers. McNutt was hampered by blister issues and bruised ribs for much of the year and likely deserves a pass on his subpar 2011.
Andrew Cashner looked brilliant in his one start with the Cubs this season (one earned run in 5 1/3 innings) before exiting with shoulder pain. After a long rehab, Cashner is finally back and pitching out of the bullpen, but there is hope he’ll be a big part of next season’s starting rotation.
Even breakout prospect Robert Whitenack, who had a 1.73 ERA with 47 strikeouts and 14 walks in 11 starts at two levels in the minors, had his season cut short by Tommy John surgery.
While the starting pitching situation is hardly ideal, the Cubs have been able to effectively build a bullpen. With more promising arms on the horizon, the Cubs should only have to spend lightly on undervalued veteran bullpen arms. That way they’ll be able put their resources where they’re most needed, -- acquiring starting pitching, quality defenders and offensive players with the ability to get on base.