I understand that the bullpen is the last and easiest thing you should try and fix when you're rebuilding. I also understand trading Marshall for three possible future starters, trading Cashner for your future everyday first baseman in Anthony Rizzo, and moving Jeff Samardzija to the starting rotation. All of these could help the Cubs for many years beyond 2012.
Those moves, however, have left the bullpen decimated. With Kerry Wood already injured, the Cubs have been left with an unsteady closer in Carlos Marmol and a rag-tag team of unproven arms and aging "crafty" relievers.
The Cubs don't have a lot of options and you don't want to trade any long term assets for relievers, but the Cubs do have plenty of interchangeable role players off the bench. Manager Dale Sveum likes his bench with Jeff Baker, Blake DeWitt, and Reed Johnson (who can't be traded for a couple more months since he was signed as a FA), but none of them are part of this team's future. They may not have a ton of value, but they could be well worth a middle relief arm who can throw strikes. The Cubs have capable replacements in Iowa with the hot hitting Luis Valbuena and Adrian Cardenas. They also have a host of utility men with some MLB experience in Matt Tolbert, Alfredo Amezaga, or Edgar Gonzalez. All these players do not need further development and are ready to contribute now.
The other issue is Lendy Castillo. He does show some potential and I was encouraged by his improved velocity (93 mph) in his last start, but he's a liability in that pen in the short term. He hasn't worked a lot and loses velocity when he's used often and/or for multiple innings. He needs more time in the minors. Of course, the Cubs can't just send him down without offering him back to the Phillies, so they may want to see if they can work out some sort of deal. The option of trading DeWitt for Castillo is probably gone now that the Phillies have signed Mike Fontenot off the scrap heap.
Starters Marlon Byrd and Geovany Soto may also have limited futures with the teams. In both cases, the Cubs are likely trying to value them as starters at premium positions. That is still the case with Soto, despite his early season slump, so there's no way I would trade a starting MLB catcher for a relief pitcher. The answer isn't as clear cut anymore with Marlon Byrd. He hasn't been the same player he was in 2010. He lost his extra base power in 2011 and has yet to regain it in 2012. Byrd can still go get it in the OF, as evidenced by his great diving catch yesterday, but if he's hitting singles and offers no slugging or OBP, then he's essentially a 4th outfielder -- one who is being paid $6.5M this season. That's chump change for an above average starting CF'er as Byrd was in 2010 (4.4 WAR), but expensive for the player he has been of late.
So the question becomes, do you wait it out on Byrd and see if he can get hot and recoup a little value? At this point, I think there's little hope for that. I'm not sure a hot streak is going to convince anyone that Byrd will be the player he'll be in 2010 again. It could convince them that he'll be useful, but they probably already know that.
There are also internal options. While the Iowa starters have struggled, they do have some capable relief arms. Tennessee also has 2 or 3 interesting arms that could help now or a little later his season. So while I'm not going to speculate on what kind of relief arms the Cubs can get in exchange for someone like Byrd, Baker, or DeWitt, I can speculate on some of the arms the Cubs would consider bringing up from the minors.
- Scott Maine, LHP, Iowa: Maine is already on the 40 man roster so he wouldn't necessitate any maneuvering. He's also an older "prospect" in that he's already 27. This isn't a developing player the Cubs are in danger of bringing up too soon. Maine struggled with his control early on but has righted the ship recently. He has an acceptable walk rate of 2.84 versus a 7.11 strikeout rate. He has also put up a 4.50 G/F ratio and has allowed just 2 hits in 6 2/3 innings. All told it adds up to a 1.42 ERA and a miniscule 0.68 WHIP. It also helps that Maine is lefty with the Cubs only having James Russell in the pen. Russell has been the most reliable member of the bullpen and the Cubs may need him as more than just a lefty specialist.
- Blake Parker, RHP, Iowa: Parker has been perhaps better than Maine in that he has yet to allow a run and has a walk rate of just 1.69. He also has allowed fewer baserunners overall (o.56 WHIP). The problem with Parker is that he is not on the 40 man roster, he's also a RH pitcher, and he is very much a flyball pitcher, which may not play as well at Wrigley on days where the wind blows out.
- Jeff Beliveau, LHP, Iowa: Beliveau has many of the advantages that Maine does. He's on the 40 man, he's lefty, and he's been effective. Beliveau has a 1.29 ERA and has a better strikeout to walk ratio of 9.00/2.57. In short, he's the better pitcher right now and probably long term. But the fact that he's more likely to have a longer future with the team may work against him in that the Cubs will want him to get more work in against advanced hitters. He has yet to have a full season above A ball.
- Frankie De La Cruz, RHP, Iowa: De La Cruz was one of the last cuts in the spring and has had this best success with major league pitching coach Chris Bosio. He's currently not on the roster, which works to his disadvantage. He's pitched well in AAA with a 2.16 ERA, but a mediocre strikeout to walk ratio of 4.32/3.24 will probably hold him back for the time being. His improved control is encouraging. I've also wondered given his solid 4 inning relief effort yesterday if the Cubs might consider making him a starter again.
- Alberto Cabrera, RHP, Tennessee: The only AA pitcher on this list for now because he is currently on the 40 man roster. Of all the pitchers on this list, Cabrera has the best stuff, as shown by his 10.38 strikeout ratio. His control, however, is the least reliable of the candidates. Cabrera has improved his walk ratio to 4.05, but given the Cubs control issues out of the pen, it's still a little too high to make them comfortable. He has been effective limiting baserunners (just 3 hits allowed and a 0.90 WHIP) and has kept his ERA at a respectable 2.70. Cabrera still needs time to develop and become more consistent with the new grip on his fastball, which has produced 97 mph heat with wicked movement. I look at Cabrera and Beliveau as the two guys with the chance to have the biggest long term impact on the bullpen, although both probably won't be up until later in the season.
Other candidates include Esmalin Caridad (remember him?). Caridad has his fastball back in the mid 90s and has been gradually used in higher leverage situations in Iowa. He has yet to allow a hit this season, but has walked 4 batters in 6 innings, although 2 of them came in the same bad outing. Manny Corpas has big league, high leverage experience but he's struggled at Iowa with his control (5.14 walk ratio), though he has been decent overall (3.86 ERA). Kevin Rhoderick has one of the best sliders in the system and has a 9.53 K ratio vs. 0 walks so far this season. He has a 1.59 ERA. Both are longshots, however, since neither is currently on the 40 man roster.
I imagine the Cubs will continue to look at deals for Byrd and perhaps Baker to see if they can add some quality arms to the mix, but that may take some time. The Cubs bullpen is in need of some immediate repair, so perhaps they should consider calling up someone like Maine or Parker while they continue to search for external solutions.