The Chicago Cubs’ bullpen was a mess in 2013. The collective 4.04 ERA posted by the relief corps ranked 25th in the Major Leagues, and only three teams fared worse in save opportunities than did the Cubs—who blew 26 of 65 total save chances. Despite a solid rookie showing from Blake Parker and the mid-season arrival of Pedro Strop, the overall relief work was a disaster.
James Russell was part of the problem. In 74 appearances, he only faced 214 batters, and pitched just 52.2 innings. He lost six games in relief. His 3.59 ERA was thoroughly unimpressive, especially given his fairly high-leverage, short-burst usage pattern, and he fanned only 37 of those 214 batters faced. That strikeout rate is just not good enough for a match-up reliever, and that’s what Russell became.
While his season was genuinely bad, though, Russell is still a solid pitcher, and I think his future is still fairly bright. He wasn’t at fault for his terrible season. The blame falls on Dale Sveum, the coaching staff and anyone else within the organization who helped decide that Russell should pitch on consecutive days so often.
Russell pitched without a day’s rest 25 times in 2013. Only Joe Nathan, Rafael Soriano, Kenley Jansen and Scott Rice did so more often. And Russell was terrible when pitching on consecutive days. In 87 plate appearances under those circumstances, batters hit .308/.368/.577, with just nine strikeouts and eight walks. That means that, with any rest at all, Russell faced 127 batters, whiffing 27, walking 10 and posting a 2.78 ERA.
This winter, the Cubs have fired Sveum, and brought in left-handed reliever Wesley Wright—a slightly better version of Russell, with a much stronger ground-ball tendency. Wright appeared in 17 games on no rest in 2013, and received a shellacking similar to Russell’s when he did. Again, Wright is slightly better than Russell, but he’s not truly here to push Russell aside—the two complement each other. With two solid lefties to get out tough lefties in the bullpen, the burden on each may well be a bit lighter, and the Cubs are more likely to get the best out of each pitcher. Moreover, with Sveum gone, the front office seems to have stacked the coaching staff a bit more with its own influence, and therefore, one would think the bullpen will be treated a bit better.
Now, the nightmare of the 2013 bullpen was a bit unexpected. Injury issues took Kyuji Fujikawa and Shawn Camp, on whom thew team had relied coming into the year. Carlos Marmol fully imploded within two weeks of Opening Day. Carrying a Rule 5 draftee made weathering those problems impossible. Maybe a similar set of unforeseen tragedies will befall Wright, Russell, Strop, Parker, Jose Veras and the rest of the prospective 2014 bullpen. It seems unlikely, though, and there’s no question that the Cubs have more depth and flexibility in the event of such a string of mishaps than they had last season. Expect positive regression from James Russell, and a middle-of-the-pack overall bullpen performance from the Cubs, in 2014.Next post: Last Licks: Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson Have to Impress to Survive in Cubs Camp
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