Jesse Rogers previews the Cubs by position in the days leading up to pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training on Sunday.
If the Chicago Cubs had a strength in 2012 it likely was their bullpen. They were used plenty -- not surprising for a 101-loss team -- but they didn't embarrass themselves and actually won their share of games.
As usual for any pen, it can be hit or miss. There are holdovers and newcomers and a question mark at the end of the game.
Carlos Marmol: He's still here despite a near offseason trade to the Los Angeles Angels which means the Cubs might not have the utmost confidence in the incumbent closer. They've said all the right things about his second half last season in which he pitched more confidently after some early struggles. But reading between the lines, it wouldn't be a shock if Marmol isn't the closer in September or in fact much sooner. The bottom line is he nibbles with his slider while newcomer Kyuji Fujikawa comes after hitters. The Cubs might prefer the latter.
Kyuji Fujikawa: At 32 he'll be an old rookie, but after 12 seasons in Japan as a closer, Fujikawa comes to the Cubs as a set-up man. At least for now. General manager Jed Hoyer praised his fastball and his style of going after hitters which is what the Cubs mostly want out of their bullpen pitchers. Can he handle closing games at Wrigley Field though? Maybe that's why he'll start his major league career in the seventh and eighth inning instead of the ninth. One of the few newcomers signed for more than a year, Fujikawa should be a major part of the bullpen.
James Russell: When a player goes 7-1 on a 101-loss team he stands out. Russell was as busy as any Cub, appearing in 77 games but Russell struggled on the road to the point of not being reliable. As a left-hander his numbers against lefties could be better. They hit .262 off him with three home runs while righties hit just .250 with two homers in 15 fewer innings. How his arm responds to his heavy workload last season will be something to keep an eye on as well. But a repeat of 2012 -- with some improvement on the road - would work just fine for the Cubs.
Shawn Camp: He tied for the major league lead in appearances (80) which says a lot about the Cubs starting rotation. Camp was reliable from the right side in the way Russell was from the left. It wasn't always pretty, as he gave up more hits than innings pitched. But he posted a 3.59 ERA with just 21 walks in 77 innings. Unlike Russell, he struggled at home but was lights out on the road. He might be more effective with a lighter workload in 2013.
Carlos Villanueva: Signed as a free agent after two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, Villanueva is more likely to see time in the bullpen and lighten the workload of Camp and Russell. His effectiveness in that role is much greater than as a starter. Opposing hitters batted just .211 against him out of the bullpen last season for Toronto. His numbers should improve pitching in the NL Central as opposed to the AL East.
Scott Feldman is another newcomer who looks better out of the bullpen than as a starter. And don't forget Rule 5 pick Hector Rondon. The Cubs claimed the former top prospect of the Cleveland Indians and if he is healthy he could be the sleeper of the staff. After trades and injuries late last year, the Cubs promoted some of their minor league pitchers but none earned a job for this season -- unless they do it in the spring.
OUTLOOK: An improved Cubs starting staff should help the effectiveness of the bullpen. The 'pen was overused last season -- for obvious reasons – but held its own. The back end of the 'pen will be the place to watch. How will Fujikawa react to his new surroundings and how long will Marmol be the closer? And will he finish the year with the Cubs? Overall a repeat of 2012 out of the bullpen wouldn't be the worst thing with Villanueva picking up a lot of the appearances and innings that Camp and Russell saw to lighten their workload.