Wright, Russell head Cubs relief corps
The Cubs used a franchise record 56 players last season. It just seemed that most of them were middle relievers.
They had a relief pitcher who appeared in only one game: Alex Burnett. They had a relief pitcher who was on the roster but appeared in no games: Daniel Bard.
If you blinked, you would have missed Bard and Burnett. You also might have forgotten about Kameron Loe, Matt Guerrier, Hisanori Takahashi, Eduardo Sanchez, Chang-Yong Lim and Zach Putnam.
And then there was poor old Michael Bowden, a West suburban kid whose high-school class probably should have voted him most likely to be designated for assignment. The Cubs did that twice to Bowden in 2013 and once in 2012.
One of the Cubs' starting pitchers was one of their best relievers. Carlos Villanueva went 6-1 as a reliever with a 3.03 ERA and a tidy WHIP of 1.13. He also won his last five decisions of the season coming out of the bullpen.
The toughest part of a baseball game often is the bridge between the starting pitcher and the closer. The Cubs likely will go with a seven-man bullpen again this season, and six of those guys will be charged with getting the ball to new closer Jose Veras.
Cubs management made one move this off-season to help the setup part of the pen. Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer signed left-hander Wesley Wright, who finished last year in the postseason with Tampa Bay after coming from Houston, where he pitched since 2008.
The 29-year-old Wright appeared in 70 games between the two clubs last year, putting up a 3.69 ERA and a WHIP of 1.36.
More important for the Cubs, Wright will give them a second left-handed setup man to go alongside James Russell, who has had his arm nearly pitched off the last two seasons.
Russell worked in 74 games last year after appearing in 77 the previous season. Even with a rough patch or two, he still managed respectable numbers despite a 1-6 record. His ERA was 3.59 and his WHIP was a career-best 1.22. Russell's numbers shot up in June and July. The Cubs gave him a week off in early September and shut him down for good after Sept. 22.
A rejuvenated Russell should help a Cubs bullpen that figures to be busy again this year. The most interesting reliever to watch might be Pedro Strop. Obtained from Baltimore in the July trade for starter Scott Feldman, Strop has been mentioned as an eventual closer.
The 28-year-old Strop got into 37 games for the Cubs last year, putting up an ERA of 2.83 and a minuscule WHIP of 0.94. He struck out 42 in 35 innings and notched 1 save.
Longtime organization guy Blake Parker pitched creditably in 49 games with the big club last year, getting his first career save. Rule 5 pick Hector Rondon did better than most guys taken in that draft. Righty Alberto Cabrera has a live arm, and the Cubs hope he can harness his stuff. Zach Rosscup also is in the mix.
As far as long relief, Villanueva again could fill that role along with the spot start. Justin Grimm, who came over from Texas in the Matt Garza trade, may start down the line, but the Cubs consider him a reliever for now.
It's not certain whether the long-awaited return to pitching of Arodys Vizcaino will begin in the bullpen at Wrigley Field or in Iowa. The Cubs obtained the 23-year-old Vizcaino from Atlanta in the July 2012 trade that sent lefty Paul Maholm to the Braves.
However, Vizcaino has not pitched since 2011 because of Tommy John surgery, a procedure from which he's been slow to recover.
The Cubs figure to ease him in to any role this spring. Baseball Prospectus had this to say of the once highly touted prospect: "Before his injury woes Vizcaino could unleash a moving mid-90s heater and a big-breaking curve, but suffered from occasional lack of command. Given his size and injury history his future likely lies in the bullpen, and if his stuff returns he might grow into the dominant closer Pedro Strop isn't."