Wednesday, March 01, 2006

2006 cubs: relief pitching

to continue with the preview of the 2006 cubs, this page will now examine the relief corps.

this much maligned unit has taken a disproportionate share of the blame for the failures of 2005. in truth, while that squad began with many question marks of inexperience, the bullpen in spring camp last year included hawkins, remlinger and borowski -- a reasonable core of a bullpen if not enough to allow aspirations to the top flight of league bullpens. borowski's injury in late spring set the stage for hawkins' sacrifice on the altar of miscasting; remlinger and a recovering borowski were subsequently packed off later in the year, and the cubs had divested themselves of three of their best relievers in the process of finishing in the middle of the nl relief pack.

there were hopes in the aftermath that those losses would be addressed in the offseason by general manager jim hendry and some work might be done toward constructing a superlative bullpen. those hopes were subsequently dashed.

ryan dempster himself understands that he pitched over his head in 2005. the previous words of this page still represent its opinion.

it seems to this page that the appropriate people to compare dempster with are not wagner and ryan but mesa, walker, baez, fran cordero and batista. that group marked 159 saves in 195 opportunities -- an 80% success rate. does that fill you with confidence? it does not this page. dempster was exceptionally lucky to close 33 of 35. while it is certainly possible for dempster to have found a new and more successful home in the bullpen, without a track record sufficient to say so, one must conclude that 2005's success in closing was an aberration. however much this page hopes otherwise, it's only rational to expect him to revert to something between francisco cordero and jose mesa pretty quickly in 2006.

the determination of what is aberrance and what is trend about dempster's 2005 relief output will be the story of the year in the bullpen, but this page sees little reason for optimism. that performance came over just 58 relief innings, a sample too small to have any real predictive power. no one can say he's a good reliever based on this any more than they could have said he was a great starter based on his output in july 2001. given his previous thousand innings of pathetic work, that is indeed a very precarious position to take.

while it might be agreed that some exigencies do matter, this writer doesn't consider the exigency of moving from starting to relieving a large one -- particularly for a pitcher that has long struggled through the first 30 pitches. rather than comparing apples to oranges, the difference may be more like (to stretch a metaphor) comparing yellow delicious to macintosh. both are clearly apples -- same ball, same bat, same batters, same park, same game, and same man on the mound -- but of a slightly different flavor. it's impossible for this page to consider the move to the bullpen allows one to toss out a thousand innings of terrible performances on those grounds alone. and that bodes ill for dempster, advocating a return to something nearer his career mean in 2006.

the primary setup men in bob howry and scott eyre are to meet very high expectations among many cub fans. but this page, while applauding those signings to some degree -- indeed considering the failure of jim hendry to be primarily that he didn't make more of them -- would argue temperance to anyone believing them to be a large improvement over last year's model.

since opening day 2002, these players compare thus:

howry: 188 ip, 3.41 era, 1.15 whip
hawkins: 295 ip, 2.53 era, 1.12 whip

eyre: 252 ip, 3.65 era, 1.38 whip
remlinger: 212 ip, 3.64 era, 1.32 whip

seen in the light of statistical evidence, it becomes clear that nothing has been done to improve the cub bullpen from april 2005 to this stage; in fact, if anything, the cubs have actually gotten weaker in going from hawkins to howry and remlinger to eyre.

that opinion, if controversial, remains as evidenciary as ever and the opinion of this writer. one finds a great deal of reason to be suspect of eyre's prospects particularly, as his 2005 output -- on the basis of which he was signed and so many expectations have formed -- was a statistical outlier. eyre's earned run average was fully two runs under his career figure and a run and a half below his previous season; his 2005 whip was likewise a 40% reduction from his career number and by 20% a new career low. the chances of this performance being repeated in 2006 seem slight indeed.

it is perhaps fortunate, then, that the cubs have a second lefty in the pen in will ohman. his injury-tortured path to the majors was redeemed in a wonderful 2005, during the course of which he became the team's go-to loogy. it is indeed difficult to know how ohman will respond after making 69 appearances, but with little record to go on one can but hope for the best. despite control problems, this page would not at all be surprised to see ohman again defy the expectations of management and supplant eyre as the team's primary lefthanded option.

if there is a large positive difference in the quality of the bullpen overall from last season, it is embodied in scott williamson. his return odyssey from multiple elbow surgeries leaves large question marks around the level of his performance. will he be able to return to the form that saw him win the 1999 rookie of the year award and lead cincinnati's pitching staff from the bullpen? or was the weakened arm cub fans witnessed toward the end of last year what remains after the subtractions of injury? if the travails of dempster aren't the lead story from the cub bullpen in 2006, the qualities of williamson's rehabilitation surely would be.

make no mistake -- largely because of what's left to talk about, this cub bullpen, even with a rejuvenated williamson, is not of the highest caliber; but without his return to form, prospects are grim for an improvement on last year's placement of 9th in the national league in relief era. this makes rumors of williamson's possible trade utterly mystifying. if true, it would confirm the worst suspicions this page holds about jim hendry and his ill-considered conceptions of team construction.

beyond williamson, the cub bullpen quickly becomes a bleak and barren waste. this page was incredulous upon reading that the team had refused to trade todd wellemeyer to the rockies in the offseason -- being out of options and certainly a small loss, a move for some kind of value made far more sense than hoping to put his career 6.19 era in the bullpen yet again. and yet his name is surfacing again in the mix in mesa along with similar control-plagued pitchers roberto novoa and michael wuertz. to say that wuertz is the best of the class with a career 3.96 era and 1.33 whip is to say everything about the lack of true quality depth in the bullpen -- on a better pitching staff, novoa and wellemeyer would be unquestionably minor-league material.

injury and variance will of course play a role again this season as it has before -- in 2004, it was farnsworth's meltdown; in 2003, it was the alfonseca meltdown, the juan cruz meltdown; 2002 is was jeff fassero's meltdown and another farnsworth meltdown. some such occurrence is sure to afflict some key contributor to the 2006 bullpen, though we cannot know whom. it's an indication of volatility in small samples. most any relief pitcher (with very few if any exceptions) is going to have a bad year now and again. we can only hope that, this time around, it isn't howry or dempster.

in summary, then, with the major moves being lateral and the planned dependency on a questionable closer, this page sees little enough reason to think that the cub bullpen will be radically improved upon 2005. should dempster defy a reversion to the mean and williamson both remain with the club and rehabilitate to something like his former glory, some improvement could perhaps be expected. but too large a role remains to be played by marginal actors like wuertz and novoa for expectations to run vastly higher than what was seen last year.

part 1: payroll and expectation
part 2: the outfield
part 3: relief pitching
part 4: the infield
part 5: starting pitching

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