Season preview: Bullpen

Carlos Marmol set a major league record with 15.99 strikeouts per nine innings last season. AP Photo/Matt York

The strength of the Chicago Cubs might be in their veteran bullpen led by closer Carlos Marmol. At 28, Marmol is one of the elite bullpen pitchers in the game. The difference for the Cubs this season in the pen may be the addition of Kerry Wood and the return to health of left-hander John Grabow.

Left-hander Sean Marshall has quietly become one of the most reliable setup men in baseball after a breakout 2010 season. The Cubs would like to emulate the 2010 San Diego Padres who were able to dominate games from the seventh inning on with Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson and Heath Bell.

Marmol was the most dominant reliever in baseball last season, averaging a major league-record 15.99 strikeouts per nine innings and established a new Cubs record by striking out 138 hitters [in 77 1/3 innings]. Marmol also saved 38 games which was more than half of the Cubs' 75 wins.

The only downside for Marmol has been his propensity to walk hitters. He has two dominant pitches: an unhittable slider and a 95-mph four-seam fastball.

Marshall's ability to get out left- and right-handed hitters was a major reason the Cubs were able to get to Marmol in the ninth inning last season. Marshall led the Cubs with 80 appearances last season, posting a 2.65 ERA in 74 2/3 innings.

Grabow spent most of the season on the disabled list with a left knee sprain but is expected to return to form when he was one of the top setup men in the game with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He pitched well in spring training after recovering from shoulder tendinitis.

Wood will be the lynch pin of the group, going back to the setup role after closing for the Cubs and Cleveland Indians from 2008 through July of 2010. Wood was almost unhittable as Mariano Rivera's setup man [0.88 ERA, two earned runs in 26 innings] after he was traded to the Yankees. Wood's leadership ability and clubhouse presence should also be an important factor for the young pitchers on the staff as well as the rest of the roster.

One concern with Wood will be the added workload that will be expected of him as a setup man. Injuries have always plagued Wood, who has had disabled list stints every season of his career except for 2002, 2002 and 2009.

The rest of the pen includes lefty James Russell, Jeff Samardzija and Marcos Mateo. All three will be used in innings 5-7. With three lefties, Russell can be used as a specialist to get one or two left-handed hitters out early in games. Samardzija and Mateo will be the long men to start the season.

3 keys to bullpen success

  • Grabow and Wood remain healthy and at the top of their games, allowing Marmol and Marshall to have a reduced workload.

  • Marmol continues the dominance that has made him one of the most unhittable pitchers in baseball.

  • Manager Mike Quade counts on the three lefties to help negate the division's top power hitters such as Prince Fielder and Joey Votto.