Cubs

Cubs bullpen: As good as it gets?

415634.jpg

Cubs bullpen: As good as it gets?

Saturday, March 19, 2011Posted: 2:40 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Kerry Wood has lived so long in the spotlight that he might be one of the few players who could move to New York and find it relaxing. But he wasnt the face of the franchise anymore, and got to watch the great Mariano Rivera up close.

Wood lasted less than three months there, but the trade deadline deal that brought him to Yankee Stadium revitalized his career. When he left Cleveland with a 6.30 ERA, baseball wasnt much fun anymore. He had to reinvent himself.

Woods now working on a cutter, the signature pitch that has made Rivera the games greatest closer. But what Wood really took away was the feel of the place, the way you should do your job.

There was never any panic over there when the phone rang in the bullpen, Wood said. Everybody was real calm and Im sure Mariano has quite a bit to do with that. That helped me more than anything. Theres no rush to jump up and panic and you dont get ready properly. Then you go into the game and your adrenalines taking over and you cant calm down.

Wood is supposed to be that steadying influence for a bullpen the Cubs hope will be as good as it gets. They have the elite closer in Carlos Marmol, two accomplished setup men in Wood and Sean Marshall and an expectation that John Grabow will again be healthy and effective.

On paper, we look pretty good, Marshall said. Its what we do on the field that really matters. You can come in and say, Were the best bullpen, the best pitching staff in the league. But its what you do when it counts.

You can say it all you want in spring training, but its really April 1 and on when you make your money.

Over the winter, the Cubs invested in Marshall, rewarding the left-handed reliever with a two-year, 4.7 million deal. He might have been the teams most valuable player last season, posting a 2.65 ERA in 80 games.

The Cubs also made a commitment to Marmol, buying out a year of free agency with a three-year, 20 million contract. Since taking over as the Cubs closer in August 2009, hes converted 91 percent of his save opportunities (49-for-54).

Marmol has pitched six innings this spring, walking six and striking out nine while giving up only one run. He doesnt stress over the money, or runners on base, or how he pitched the night before. He has the perfect personality to close in Chicago.

Im not worried about walks, Marmol said. I worry about striking out people. So you walk (a guy), you dont have to worry about (him) anymore.

The bullpen will have to be good because the Cubs played 54 one-run games last season, and lost 32, the most in the majors. Eighty-three of their 162 games were decided by two runs or less, and they went 37-46 in those situations. These are the margins this team will be working with.

The X-factor could be Grabow, who was once good enough to be chosen to pitch for Team USA in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He says he feels strong again knee, shoulder, arm and wont resemble the reliever who was shut down with a 7.36 ERA last summer.

It took Grabow only five words to summarize the bullpen philosophy.

Get the ball to Marmol, he said. Thats our key somehow, someway throw up zeroes and keep us in the game and get the ball to him.

The Cubs need Grabow and Jeff Samardzija, who is out of minor-league options, to stabilize the bridge to Marmol. Left-handers Scott Maine and James Russell could also be in the mix. Andrew Cashner thrived as a reliever late last season and is guaranteed a spot on the major-league roster, but ideally the Cubs would like to develop him as a starter.

That the Cubs can talk about their relievers with such confidence represents a huge change from last year. They used 12 rookie pitchers in 2010 and finished second-to-last in the National League with a 4.72 ERA out of the bullpen.

Relievers are notoriously hard to project from one year to the next. If they were that reliable, they probably would have been remained starters.

But Marshall and Marmol are just 28 and figure to get better. Wood seems like hes been around forever, but hes still only 33. Bullpens are unpredictable, but right now the Cubs begin 2011 looking at the endgame without any anxiety.

Its a nice feeling to have as a starter, Ryan Dempster said. Weve got a bunch of guys down there with a lot of confidence and experience that you trust to hand the ball over to.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Jason Kipnis comes home looking to write one final chapter of his career

kipnis-1030.jpg
USA Today

Jason Kipnis comes home looking to write one final chapter of his career

Jason Kipnis, who’s potentially the Cubs’ new second baseman but indisputably the pride of Northbrook, said there’s one major reason why his possible reunion with Wrigley Field is so exciting.

“Now I don’t have to hate the 'Go Cubs Go' song,” he quipped.

Kipnis was a late addition to the Cubs’ roster, and still not even a guaranteed one at that. After almost a decade spent being one of the Cleveland Indians’ cornerstones, Kipnis arrived in Mesa on a minor league contract, looking to win a job. Ironically, being with his hometown team is unfamiliar territory for the two-time All-Star. 

“[Leaving Cleveland] was hard at first,” he said. “You get used to the same place for 9-10 years, and I think it’s a little hard right now coming in and being the new guy and being lost and not knowing where to go. But it’ll be fun. It’s exciting. It’s kind of out of the comfort zone again, which is kind of what you want right now – to be uncomfortable. I don’t know, I’ve missed this feeling a little bit, so it’ll be good.”

It was a slow offseason for the second baseman, but the second baseman said that he was weighing offers from several teams. Opportunity and organizational direction dictated most of his decision-making, but Kipnis admitted that the forces around him were all, rather unsubtly, pulling him in one direction.

“They were telling me to take a deal, take a cut, whatever. Just get here,” he joked. “... It made sense, it really did. I think I didn't fully understand it until it was announced and my phone started blowing up and I realized just how many people this impacted around my life. Friends and family still live in Chicago, so it’s going to be exciting.”

The theme of renewed motivation has hung around Sloan Park like an early-morning Arizona chill, and Kipnis said part of the reason he feels the Cubs brought him in is to set a fire under some guys. He talked with Anthony Rizzo during the offseason, who talked about how the Cubs had struggled at times to put an appropriate emphasis on each of the 162 games in a regular season. That’s not a new problem in baseball, and it struck a chord with Kipnis, who himself was on plenty of talented Cleveland teams that never got over the hump. 

“They got a good core here. I’m well aware of that, they’re well aware of that, too,” he said. “I texted him and called him and asked him what happened last year, because I look at rosters, I look at St. Louis’, I look at all that, and I’m like, ‘I still would take your guys roster.’” 

As for his direct competition, Kipnis said he hasn’t had a chance to really get to know Nico Hoerner yet, but doesn’t feel like the battle for second base has to be a contentious one by any means. At 32, Kipnis has been around long enough to understand the dynamics an aging veteran vs. a top prospect, and doesn't feel like it’s a situation where only one of them will end up benefiting. 

“I know he came up and had a pretty good success, so I think [it’s] going to be a competition, but at the same time, I’m not going to try to put him down,” he said. “I’d like to work with him, kind of teach him what I know too and hopefully both of us become better from it.” 

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over and over again, it’s always been framed in relatively vague terms. Perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager who is still well-liked within the clubhouse, specifics were always avoided. It was just a change that was needed.

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why such a talented team has fallen short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” Baez said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Related: What to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

The star shortstop's comments certainly track. Maddon is widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that's clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality... until it isn't. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he said. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also promised that this year would be far more organized and rigid. They will stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that may have slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only saying that negotiations were “up and down.” He’d like to play his whole career here and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is on recapturing some of that 2016 drive and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.