By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) — Collectively, the young Cubs bullpen has struggled all year to establish itself as a solid group. As individuals, there are high hopes for a number of the big-time arms coming through an embryo-like ascent from the minor leagues to the big leagues.
Looking at one of the poorest bullpens by save percentage in baseball (third worst with 57.7 percent success rate), the young group has made some nice strides as maturing arms while flashing some big-time upside. Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez and Hector Rondon all heat up the radar gun at 96 mph-plus.
“There have been a lot of good individual performances out here,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Wednesday. “That is certainly an area we want to focus on in the offseason. We carried 13 pitchers for a lot of the season, and that is probably not something we want to do all the time in the future.”
Like many teams, the Cubs look at bullpen work as a nice way to get experience for young arms. At some point, it’s then decided if some of those power arms are better suited for bullpen or starting roles.
“At a point we have to focus on durability and have a (better) mix of young guys and veterans,” Hoyer said. “Individually there have been a lot of good things (happen) down there. As a unit we have to get toward seven relievers and get that mix right.”
In 2013 and 2014, the Cubs went through veteran closers who both failed to get the job done and dealt with injuries. Carlos Marmol was a train wreck for the 2012 club, losing his job to Japanese veteran Kyuji Fujikawa, who quickly went down with Tommy John surgery. This year journeyman Jose Veres failed to get the job done and was released. After that debacle, Strop, Rondon and Ramirez took turns in the closer’s role.
“Potentially any of our young pitches can close,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “Yes, I am comfortable to say on any given day we could close with four or five of our bullpen guys.”
Letting arms develop and find the proper role is an inexact science for coaching staffs and front office types. One man’s potential closer is another baseball executive’s third rotation type.
“These guys have matured as major league pitchers in front of our very eyes,” Bosio said. “To see the confidence now of Rondon compared to last year or even early this season is unimaginable. We treat all our guys as professionals, but we also ride them pretty hard to get them to toughen up. There is a message there for of our guys. You have to be tough, you have to be able to throw any pitch at any time, you have to be able to respond in any position we put you in. A lot of it is between the ears. You have to have that mental toughness out there in these games, so you’re not afraid of any situation when the game is on the line.”
The Cubs have converted just 23 of 40 save opportunities in 2014. Rondon leads the team with 15 saves and one hold.
The Cubs have added former starter Jacob Turner (via trade from Miami) to the bullpen and could add Felix Doubront (traded from Boston), who started at Triple-A on Tuesday evening, in the near future.
“It is always possible to do that (switch starting and bullpen roles),” Cubs manager Rickey Renteria said. “We have not had any extensive conversations about that, but it has been known to happen, starting as relievers getting experience and moving into the rotation.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.