Chicago Cubs bullpen looks strong, but count on change

The most maddening aspect to constructing any baseball team has to be the bullpen.

Bullpens are fickle. Bullpens are finicky. And just because something worked last season doesn't mean it will work this season.

Here's something else about bullpens: The six or seven relievers to start the season are never the same six or seven that end the season with the team.

Last year at this time, the names of Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard weren't on the minds of Cubs fans, and Travis Wood was in the starting rotation.

The Cubs obtained Cahill and Richard during the season. Wood lost his starting job and went to the pen. Before the season and postseason were over, all three pitchers were important members of a solid bullpen.

So how does it look this spring? See above.

The Cubs again have the makings of a decent bullpen, but injuries, overachievement and underachievement have a way of changing things.

It will be a veteran crew setting up closer Hector Rondon once the season starts.

Right-hander Pedro Strop had 3 saves last year, and at one time he was thought to be a closer of the future. However, his best work has come as a setup man.

Strop struck out 81 in 68 innings last year and had a WHIP of 1.00. Strop's put-away pitch is his slider, which he threw almost half the time last year. He worked a career-high 76 games in 2015.

The other main right-handed setup man is Justin Grimm, who had a 1.99 ERA and a WHIP of 1.15 last year. Like Strop, he had more strikeouts than innings pitched, 67 to 49 ⅔. Control will be a key with Grimm.

Cahill, a former starter, came to the Cubs in August after being released by the Braves. He quickly established himself as one of manager Joe Maddon's trusted go-to guys. He is being “stretched out” to start this spring, but with the rotation nearly set, it appears Cahill will head back to the pen, giving the Cubs some depth from the sixth and seventh innings on. Wood could have balked at his demotion, but the left-hander took it in stride and ended up being a pleasant surprise out of the pen.

As a starter, he went 2-2 with a 5.06 ERA. In relief, he was 3-2 with a 2.95 ERA and the first 4 saves of his major-league career.

Lefty Richard was another pitcher picked up during the season, and when he finally stuck, he excelled in relief.

The Cubs had thought another lefty, Rex Brothers, could grab a spot, but they released him after a rocky to start in the Cactus League.

With the rotation being full, Adam Warren figures to fill a long- to middle-relief role. The Cubs obtained him in December trade that sent Starlin Castro to the Yankees. A right-hander who has started and relieved, Warren was 7-7 with a 3.29 ERA for the Yankees last season. He could fill a spot-starting role for the Cubs.

The Cubs are hoping for good health for Neil Ramirez, a hard-throwing right-hander who got into only 19 games last year after working in 50 the previous year. Ramirez has struggled a bit this spring. Entering Thursday, he had given up 7 hits and 7 runs in 4 innings.

Shoulder and abdominal injuries kept him on the disabled list last year for long stretches, and the Cubs will monitor his velocity as the spring winds down.

Wiry right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. has been sent to the minor leagues, but he figures to see major-league action this year after getting his first taste in 2015.

Some others to watch, even if they start the season in the minor leagues, are veteran Manny Parra, Spencer Patton and Jean Machi.

Another thing to watch is how Maddon uses his relievers. He's a big believer in “reverse splits,” which means he'll use left-handed relievers against right-handed hitter and right-handed relievers against lefty batters if the numbers suggest a favorable matchup.

Hammel's off-season work paying off

Cubs' Hendricks enjoying a strong spring

Rondon not worried about his results this spring

Travis Wood, here warming up for a spring training baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, is expected to be a solid contributor to the Chicago Cubs bullpen this season. Associated Press
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