Tuesday, March 22, 2005

the kids in the pen

some people may think i'm nuts for talking up a shot at billy koch -- hell, i kinda wonder about it -- but i still think he'll cost next to nothing and has upside potential. more importantly, i really think the cubs are going to need the help. badly enough to make a chance on koch sound reasonable.

how can that be? after all, this team saw the flowering of jon leicester and michael wuertz last season, did they not? this team is giving wunderkind sergio mitre a long look in hohokam. this team has glendon rusch and ryan dempster to fall back upon. what's to worry?

in short: PLENTY.

let me say first that hawkins and remlinger have my unmitigated respect. these two are fine relief pitchers, and i have few worries about them. but they will only account for at best 150 innings of the 480 or so one must expect from the bullpen. so who else is pitching out there?

last season is was mercker, farnsworth, rusch, leicester and beltran. three of these five (mercker, sleepy and beltran) are gone, with beltran on the 60-day DL after elbow surgery, leaving 154.2 innings to be filled.

in writing last night, my next paragraph went:

enter joe borowski, who will likely end up the linchpin for the bullpen. he is the hopeful closer at this point, and it is no exaggeration to say that the cubs are depending on his arm for 70 quality innings, which would be seventy more than last year. barring that, if he could simply fill farnsworth's innings, that would help immensely. but even if jobo comes through with that big year, there's still 260 unaccounted innings.
well, what a difference a day makes! the 'linchpin' of the pen is down for six weeks -- meaning that there's something like 280 innings still unaccounted for, even if borowski heals right.

maybe 60 are eaten up by the callups and the end of the bench in meaningless mop-up. with rusch presumably in the rotation to replace clement, 220 innings -- essentially the same innings pitched by mercker, farnsworth, leicester and beltran last year plus some extra work -- are to be split between dempster, randolph, leicester, wuertz, fox, wellemeyer and mitre. let's examine these pitchers.

fox is a veteran and a good pitcher -- the cubs are even trying him on for closer this spring -- but he's averaged about 31 innings a year over his career, including 43.1 in 2003 and 10.2 last year before succumbing to elbow pain. this is a recurrence of the pain that aborted his 1999 and 2001 seasons. fox could be a factor -- but the cubs must fear becoming reliant on him, given his difficult history.

dempster put a decent run together in relief for the cubs last year after august 1 -- but it was only 20 innings, after all. dempster's career numbers say all there really is to know about the guy. he struggles with control, can have a problem keeping the ball in the park, has occasionally been benched. could he eat innings for the cubs? probably. would they be innings you want him out there for? that's another question entirely, and quality issues will come back to keep dempster's role smaller than most seem to want to acknowledge, i think.

randolph would presumably be the second lefty as a means of filling mercker's role. problem is, randolph isn't mercker, who was brilliant in 2004 again. while posessing good stuff, randolph exhibits little control, walking 55 in 39 relief appearances for arizona in 2004. if he pitches as many as mercker's 53 innings of last year, the cubs will suffer for it.

this leads to the cubs young arms and the hopes of many. mitre has done nothing in the majors to merit discussion, despite his hype and wonderful minor league career. counting on a flowering right now seems to be asking a bit much for a player who gave up 71 hits and 20 free passes in 51 late-season innings last year. similarly, wellemeyer too must do something before he becomes anything more than a mop-up man. anything can happen, but more than 30 innings out of either of these two probably indicates problems for the cubs.

leicester wowed many in his rookie 2004, but a closer look at his splits indicates potential trouble ahead. a scintillating june and july gave way in august to a good old-fashioned beating, presumably as leicester began to become a known commodity. his post-ASB numbers -- 4.50 ERA/1.57 WHIP -- are probably in the range of what fans should expect this year.

wuertz has pitched only 29 innings in the majors, so it's hard to say what one should expect -- except that 50 innings of high-caliber performance is asking a lot. his splits reveal a very light workload spread throughout the season, which left him well-rested for his surprising semptember contribution. a greater role in the pen would be an end to that kind of rest and, possibly, performance.

all in all, the young cub arms in the bullpen are likely to prove troublesome and undependable. that's not a surprise, really -- very few first- and second-year relief pitchers are really strong contributors. the problem for the cubs, however, is that they appear to be in a position where they have to rely on them for something. remlinger, hawkins and borowski may be a good late-inning combination, but those three alone will not be enough. the 2003 squad saw jobo, farnsworth and remlinger contribute 70+ good innings -- and got near-perfect health in the rotation all year, a shining 43 innings from mark guthrie and 724 runs of offensive support, a 41-run surplus -- all to manage 88 wins. the 2001 version got rock-solid 75+ innings of work from farnsworth, fassero and van poppel -- and again near-perfect health in the rotation, a brilliant tom gordon and 76 net runs scored -- all for the same 88 wins.

looking around the league at the really solid teams, most go five-deep in really strong relief performers, with sub-4 (indeed, sub-3 for top squads like the cardinals and braves) ERAs over a minimum of 45 innings. given the possible offensive challenges of 2005, the cubs will probably need at least one of their kids to step into that role this year for any chance of significantly exceeding the .500 mark.

and what are the chances of that?

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