The most important man in the Cubs' bullpen this year might not be closer Carlos Marmol.
It might be James Russell.
As important as closers are in today's game, they can't pile up the saves unless somebody gets them the ball safely.
From the right side, Kerry Wood will handle the setup job for the Cubs again.
But from the left the Cubs have a huge hole to fill with December's trade of Sean Marshall to the Cincinnati Reds. Marshall is acknowledged by many to be the best left-handed setup man in the National League.
If the Cubs are serious about winning in 2012, which they say they are, Russell and others will have to step up.
"I want to be that guy," Russell said this winter.
If nothing else, the Cubs have a good mix of homegrown relievers vying for the six bullpen spots, not including Marmol's closing role.
Russell is one of those homegrown products. Technically, Wood is too, as he was drafted by the Cubs in 1995. Others who have worked their way up the system or are working their way up include Jeff Samardzija and Rafael Dolis.
Lets look at how the Cubs are trying to get some relief.
From the left:
Russell suffered through a disastrous go of it as an emergency starter last year, but all the while he kept his poise in the bullpen. In 59 relief appearances, he was 1-1 with a 2.19 ERA. Over his final 18 appearances at Wrigley Field, dating to June 29, he had an 0.69 ERA.
Whereas Marshall was death on both right-handed and left-handed batters, Russell is much better against left-handers, holding them to a .250 average while right-handers hit .312 against him.
Either way, Russell said he wants the ball.
"Not a doubt in my mind I can do that," he said or Marshall's old job. "It's whether or not they want me to be that guy or they want me to be a 2-inning guy. Whatever. I want the ball, and I want them to have faith in me and to put me out there in tough situations."
Earlier this spring, I asked manager Dale Sveum how many lefties he'd like in his bullpen.
"In a perfect world, you'd like to have two, one specialist and one guy that can go 2 innings and get right-handers out," Sveum said. "So in a perfect world, you'd like two, but that doesn't always happen."
The Cubs have other lefties in camp. Scott Maine has been up for short stints in 2010 and last year. Veteran Trever Miller, 38, is in camp as a nonroster man.
Miller has 694 games of major-league experience, all but 5 as a reliever. He will be getting a World Series ring from the St. Louis Cardinals after pitching in 39 games for them last year before being traded to Toronto.
Miller finished with Boston and would have made the Red Sox' playoff roster had they not collapsed down the stretch.
"I had to change my perception after last season," Miller said. "I did a lot of work in the off-season to prepare for that. I'm back in shape. It's my goal to make this team, first and foremost. That'll go into Phase 2 of my plan for having a great year."
From the right:
Believe it or not, Kerry Wood will turn 35 in June. He was 3-5 with a 3.35 ERA and 1 save last year in his "homecoming" season. Wood struck out 57 in 51 innings. He will provide a veteran presence in a bullpen that could contain a few kids.
Other important considerations concerning the right side of the bullpen:
•Jeff Samardzija, who had a breakout season last year in the pen, is competing for a spot in the rotation. If Samardzija starts, that leaves an opening. If he goes back to the pen, the Cubs could be looking good with right-handed relief.
On Sunday, however, Sveum told reporters in Las Vegas that Samardzija is a good bet to make the rotation.
•Lendy Castillo, 22, is in camp after having been selected from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Rule 5 draft. Castillo also has looked good, and the Cubs must either keep him on the major-league roster all year or risk losing him on waivers.
•Veteran Manny Corpas, who helped the Colorado Rockies reach the 2007 World Series, is in camp as a nonroster man. He will need to do some convincing to make the team. The Cubs also have youngsters Marcos Mateo and hard-throwing Rafael Dolis from the right side.
If the Cubs are looking for a long reliever, Casey Coleman is in camp, as is veteran Andy Sonnanstine. But whomever Samardzija supplants also could head to the pen.