In potentially elite Cubs bullpen, veteran Brian Duensing just wants to avoid being the weak link

In potentially elite Cubs bullpen, veteran Brian Duensing just wants to avoid being the weak link

MESA, Ariz. - The Cubs may very well have the best bullpen in baseball when it's all said and done, but there is one noticable weakness: Left-handed pitching.

Veteran Brian Duensing is hoping to fill that need.

If Brett Anderson can stay healthy in the rotation, southpaw Mike Montgomery will probably spend a lot of time working as a swingman out of the bullpen but beyond that, the Cubs don't have many experienced lefty options beyond Duensing, who is entering his ninth big-league season.

"I just want to be reliable," Duensing said. "I don't want Joe [Maddon] or [Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio] questioning whether or not I can get the job done. I want to be accountable and reliable and help these guys repeat again."

Duensing is battling Rule 5 kid Caleb Smith, former second-round pick Rob Zastryzny and Jack Leathersich among guys on the Cubs 40-man roster. But those three lefties have combined for just 27.2 innings in the majors and Smith has thrown only one game above Double-A.

Duensing, 34, signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Cubs over the winter after appearing in just 13.1 innings for the Baltimore Orioles last season due to an elbow injury. He was released by the Kansas City Royals in May.

The southpaw is currently nursing a minor lower back issue, but the Cubs said Sunday he has gone two straight days without pain and expects to get back into games soon.

Health was Duensing's No. 1 key as he approached spring training with the team and he was trying not to get caught up in numbers. 

In five spring outings, he has allowed five runs on 10 hits and two walks, including a rough outing Thursday in which he surrendered four runs on five hits and a walk while recording just one out before leaving with the back tightness.

"Make sure you get through spring healthy and give yourself a chance," Duensing said. "Having the benefit of being around, teams know what you can do and I think putting too much pressure on your results in spring is something that you can't focus on.

"It's just spring training. You're out here trying to get ready to go and if you push it too fast or you're trying to do too much, you can get hurt or create bad habits. Stuff like that could affect your season."

The former third round pick of the Minnesota Twins (2005) has worked in plenty of different roles throughout his career, appearing in 368 games and making 61 starts. He sports a career 4.13 ERA, but that mark drops to 3.65 as a reliever, including a 3.86 ERA in 2014 games over the last four years.

If Duensing can stay healthy and repeat his past performance, it will be key for a talented Cubs bullpen that is very right-handed heavy, though Koji Uehara, Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards Jr. are very adept at getting left-handed hitters out.

"I'll take the ball any day they want me to take it," he said. "I'm gonna be a level-headed guy. I'm just gonna go out and pitch when I need to and try and give you as many innings as I can."

The list of Cubs players eligible for the Hall of Fame this year will make you feel so old

The list of Cubs players eligible for the Hall of Fame this year will make you feel so old

This morning, Major League Baseball announced the 2019 Hall of Fame ballot, and that sound you hear is the overwhelming rush of Cubs fans nostalgia:

Juan Pierre! Ted Lilly! Pierre spent three of his 14 seasons in Chicago, spending one season (2006) with the Cubs and two (2010-2011) with the White Sox. Lilly pitched for the Cubs from 2007-2010. The two join Sammy Sosa, Fred McGrith (a stretch) and Manny Ramirez (a STRETCH) as the Cubs' representation on the ballot. 

Speaking of Ted Lilly, former Cubs GM Jim Hendry was recently on the Cubs Talk podcast, where he talked about signing Lily from his hospital bed. It's worth checking out! 

Jim Hendry recounts the time the Cubs nearly signed Jim Thome in free agency


Jim Hendry recounts the time the Cubs nearly signed Jim Thome in free agency

Could you imagine Jim Thome wearing a Cubs uniform?

What about Raul Ibanez? Pudge Rodriguez?

Former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry stopped by the CubsTalk Podcast recently with David Kaplan and Luke Stuckmeyer and the current New York Yankees executive dropped a couple of big names when asked who he wished he could've signed.

The most notable player was Jim Thome, a Hall of Famer revered by White Sox fans for his time on the South Side.

Thome was a free agent in the winter before the 2003 season and according to Hendry, the Cubs would've signed him if not for Hee Seop Choi.

"Oh yeah," Hendry said. "Well Jim and I were old friends — for how well you could be. I mean, he grew up in Illinois and I had gotten to know him over the years. Love Jim Thome. And Jim Thome, I'm convinced today, if we didn't have [Choi], would've been a Cub. ... I remember having a couple chats with Jim over the years and I know part of him would've really wanted to."

Hindsight is 20-20 so it's funny to look back and think Choi — a failed prospect who was out of the majors before his 27th birthday — was the reason the Cubs couldn't get one of the greatest sluggers of the decade. But at the time, Choi was looked at as a potential star — a 23-year-old ranked by Baseball America as the No. 22 prospect in the game.

And like Hendry said, neither Choi nor Thome could play anywhere else.

Thome ultimately signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and would've made a major difference on the 2003 Cubs (he led the NL with 47 homers and drove in 131 runs with a .958 OPS), but it all worked out pretty OK for the Cubs. The next offseason, Hendry traded Choi to the Marlins for Derrek Lee and the big first baseman wound up having a fantastic career with the Cubs.

"Obviously Derrek played great for us and if it weren't for Albert Pujols, Derrek would've been MVP once or twice," Hendry said. "But yeah, who wouldn't have wanted Jimmy? If it was an American League team, I would feel comfortable saying that could've happened."

Thome played for the Phillies for three years before being traded to the White Sox, where he became an instant fan favorite. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this year.

Among the other moves that he wished he could've pulled off, Hendry — who served as the Cubs GM from July 2002 until August 2011 (shortly before Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over) — threw out a 2008 trade for Raul Ibanez that fell through.

The veteran outfielder/DH was already 36 in 2008, but hit .293 with an .837 OPS, 23 homers and 110 RBI in 162 games for the Mariners. Part of the issue, Hendry said, was the crowded outfield the Cubs already had at the time — including Alfonso Soriano, Jim Edmonds and Kosuke Fukudome.

The Cubs led the league in runs scored that year en route to 97 wins but they failed to win a single postseason game, scoring only 6 runs against the Dodgers in a three-game NLDS sweep. L.A. needed only 7 pitchers in that series - all of whom were right-handed - while the Cubs' top 6 hitters were all right-handed as well, illustrating the major problem in Hendry's eyes.

Hendry also confirmed the Cubs were never close to signing Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez prior to the 2003 season, but did say the Hall of Fame catcher came to Wrigley Field for lunch and a meeting (though the two sides never even exchanged numbers).

Rodriguez ultimately signed with the Florida Marlins...who came within five outs of being eliminated by the Cubs in the NLCS only to rally back to win the series and then claim a championship over the Yankees.

But you knew that already...