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Bullpen sparks Cubs' surge



Special to ESPN.com

June 12

The Cubs were in Pittsburgh on May 18, and at the time were 17-20 with a shredded bullpen. Ryan Dempster, who at the time had just gone back into the role as Cubs closer, was in the middle of a bases-loaded jam with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. He proceeded to induce Jack Wilson into a double-play grounder to end the game, giving the Cubs a 3-2 win over the Pirates.

Now, nearly a full month later, the Cubs have won 15 of 23 games and are within 1½ games of the NL wild-card leading Phillies ... without Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.

"That double play," says Dempster, "seemed to turn everything around."

Ryan Dempster
Ryan Dempster has become a reliable closer for the Cubs.

In that near-month span of time, Todd Wellemeyer, Michael Wuertz and Will Ohman had inherited a combined total of 40 runners through Saturday, and allowed seven to score. Dempster has been 7-for-7 in save opportunities, and LaTroy Hawkins is now pitching for the Giants.

"If I told you this was part of some master plan, I'd be full of it," says Cubs GM Jim Hendry. "Come on. I've been looking for bullpen help everywhere the last couple of years. If anyone tells you they've got this bullpen thing figured out, well ... good luck to them. He's smarter than I am."

Hendry resisted giving Troy Percival a two-year contract, which he got from the Tigers. He also resisted giving Armando Benitez a three-year, $21 million deal, which he got from the Giants. He didn't trade for Ugueth Urbina. He had Hawkins, who had been 9-3 with a 1.86 ERA for the Twins in 2003, but decided to move him after seeing that it probably wasn't going to work out for him with the Cubs. Joe Borowski entered this spring a serious injury risk. Thus, did Hendry think Dempster could close? Yes, he did.

But Wood and Prior went down in spring training. Mike Remlinger wasn't 100 percent healthy. Ohman was bad, so bad that manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Larry Rothschild figured they needed Glendon Rusch in the bullpen, so Dempster went into the rotation. And the bullpen imploded during the season's first month as Baker got second-guessed, which is what managers with samurai bullpens get. Hendry was ridiculed for not getting Percival, Urbina or Danny Kolb. Oops. Run back the Kolb video.

"We talked to the Brewers about him," says Hendry, "but they got the deal they wanted from the Braves, and may not have wanted to trade him within the division."

If Hendry wants Kolb, he can go get him right now. That's just the way it works.

One AL club did a study two years ago that showed that relievers are the most unpredictable commodity in the game on a year-by-year basis. "That is what makes in-season trades to repair a bullpen so difficult," says an AL GM. "The Angels rebuilt their pen after June 15 the year they won it [all in 2002], but what did they do? Brendan Donnelly, who was released a few times, came up at the end of June and Francisco Rodriguez was recalled on Sept. 16."

Then in 2003, the Red Sox tried their infamous "bullpen-by-committee," which when it turned into a disaster prompted GM Theo Epstein to take his 1B-3B-DH surplus and deal Shea Hillenbrand for Byung-Hyun Kim, a trade that throughout the industry was pronounced as a master stroke.

"Then when Theo went and got [Scott] Sauerbeck and [Scott] Williamson," says Hendry, "I thought he had made the deals to win it all." Williamson finished with a 6.20 ERA in Boston, although he had some moments. Sauerbeck had a 6.48 ERA, not as good as Todd Jones' 5.32. Actually, if the original Sauerbeck deal had stood -- Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez for Sauerbeck and Mike Gonzalez -- it would have been a brilliant trade, although Lyon was later part of the Curt Schilling deal. And the Red Sox still had a 5-2 lead with five outs to go in the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS.

Epstein then went ahead and prior to last season signed Keith Foulke, who along with Mike Timlin, Alan Embree and Mike Myers went on to pitch Boston to its first World Series championship since 1918.

Through Saturday, Boston's bullpen had a 5.37 ERA and allowed an OPS of .817 [worst in the AL]. Foulke had a 5.79 ERA and three losses. Embree's ERA was 7.00, and he had allowed seven gopher balls in 27 innings pitched. Matt Mantei had a 5.66 ERA, with 15 walks and three hit batsmen in 20 2/3 innings. "I thought with Mantei added to that bullpen, the Red Sox were set," says Hendry.

And rebuilding? "It's not easy, not in midseason," says Florida GM Larry Beinfest, who had reportedly tried to acquire Urbina from Detroit before the Phillies got him for Placido Polanco. In 2003, Beinfest traded for Urbina. That was good work. He also got lucky with Chad Fox, who'd been released. Last year, Beinfest also made a good deal by acquiring Guillermo Mota, although he struggled by compiling a 4.81 ERA in 26 appearances for the Marlins.

While the Phillies' acquisition for Urbina might give them a very strong bullpen in front of Billy Wagner, the Marlins are still looking. Ditto for Atlanta, Texas, the Angels, Dodgers and Arizona. And, yes, also Boston.

As his pen continued to unravel, Epstein this weekend vowed changes if things do not improve. Embree and Mantei may be on shaky ground. But getting rid of someone is the easy part. Replacing a pitcher isn't so easy.

Clearly, the Red Sox need Foulke to regain his complex delivery and go back to giving them two innings at the end of the game, with the tireless Timlin and Myers in front of him. What if Foulke doesn't straighten himself out, especially since he has 2½ years left on his contract? "We're in big trouble," admits one Sox official to that scenario.

The Sox drafted St. John's reliever Craig Hansen in the first round [26th overall pick], with many comparing him to Brad Lidge. They also have Cla Meredith settled down at Triple-A, Manny DelCarmen throwing very well in Double-A and Jon Papelbon [2.20 ERA, 1.90 batting average against, and a 65/18 SO/BB ratio], a former college closer, having a boffo season also at Double-A. All might end up helping Boston, but likely not before next year; Epstein believes in "the Earl Weaver approach of breaking young starters in as relievers, like with Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor," which is how Papelbon may get his feet wet.

Jose Mesa
Mesa

Danys Baez
Baez

But where do any of these teams go, now? Should they make a trade for any of the following: Danys Baez, Ricardo Rincon, Jeremy Affeldt, Jose Mesa, John Grabow, Bob Wickman, Scott Schoeneweis, Justin Speier or Ricky Bottalico?

Are any of them worth prospects? "So often with these guys you get in the middle are broken down," says one NL GM. Like, in 2003, with Mike Williams, Benitez, Sauerbeck, Williamson and Matt Herges. Octavio Dotel worked last year, but contenders also traded for Dave Burba, Jason Grimsley and Terry Adams. "You really need to have arms out of your organization to fill in," says a GM. Like the Cubs this year, and the Angels in 2002. This is what makes the Twins so appealing come September, with Jesse Crain setting up for closer Joe Nathan and the possibilities of utilizing J.D. Durbin and Francisco Liriano in mid-inning power roles.

If teams like the Yankees and Red Sox can develop some of their own power arms, they wouldn't have to spend $6 million a year for pitchers like Steve Karsay. It would also allow them to avoid a major problem: Do they know that even if a Mesa or Grabow performs in Pittsburgh that he can pitch in a pennant race in one of the tough cities? See Hawkins. Or the Jay Witasick/Mark Wohlers experiment in New York in 2002. Or Sauerbeck, Jones and Jeff Suppan in Boston in 2003. Or, for now, Kolb in Atlanta.

In the last week of spring training, Brewers coaches were desperate for relievers. Now more than two months into the regular season, pitching coach Mike Maddux has assembled one of the best relievers in Derrick Turnbow.

"Derrick Turnbow?" asks a GM. "Come on. The Angels released him. But do you believe if you took most of those guys and put them in Boston or Chicago in the race that they'd be the same guy?" Hey, in spring training of 2004, the Twins were worried that Nathan was throwing 86-88 mph and that they had no closer.

Mariano Rivera
Rivera

Dustin Hermanson
Hermanson

Dustin Hermanson has more saves than Mariano Rivera. Mota [6.51], Foulke and Kolb [7.04] have struggled. Dotel and Benitez, meanwhile, are hurt.

"Bullpens make teams," says Rothschild. "But they can break them, as well."

And you'll go crazy trying to predict them. Ask Hendry. Or Epstein. Or Beinfest.

It's worth repeating: Hermanson has more saves then Rivera, and the Boston bullpen that carried them over the Yankees and to a World Series title last season has the worst OPS against in the American League.

Draft system a mess
By now, it should be obvious that the baseball draft doesn't serve its intended purpose, not when the world champions get six picks between the first- and second-round selections of the Devil Rays. Or when the A's get a sandwich pick and a high second-round pick for Milwaukee's signing of Damian Miller, while the Cubs got one at the end of the third round for Boston's signing of Matt Clement. Or when the Royals have to start drafting senior signs by the fifth round, and the Yankees can draft Denton, Texas center fielder/point guard Austin Jackson, pay him $1 million and buy him out of his basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech, and Boston and Anaheim each signing pitchers out of the teen rounds last year for $700,000-$1.5 million.

A committee of general managers will revisit recommendations on changing the draft, including the elimination of compensation picks [which tend to help richer clubs that lose free agents], working out a slotting system with the players' association [which the players themselves want], delaying the draft until mid-July and setting a signing deadline for around Labor Day.

"I look at what Scott Boras was able to do with his three top pitchers and while I tip my hat to him, he got them to the three teams that could afford to meet his price," says one GM. He is referring to Boras telling teams that it would take a major league contract to sign the following pitchers: Wichita State's Mike Pelfrey, Craig Hansen of St. John's and Tennessee's Luke Hochaver and got them to the Mets, Red Sox and Dodgers, respectively. "I have no idea how the Yankees can give Jason Giambi six or seven years, then pass on Hansen because they don't want to give [him] a big-league deal," says another GM. "We couldn't afford him, but Hansen has the best arm, the highest upside and is the quickest to the big leagues of anyone in the draft. And the Yankees let him go to the Red Sox?"

That's why Brian Cashman and Gene Michael should have more control over drafting and development.

A few notes from the draft:

Justin Upton
Upton

• Justin Upton will get a contract done in time, and Arizona stocked its system with college pitchers with subsequent choices like UMass right-hander Matt Torra with the 31st pick. The most interesting pick for the Diamondbacks was Georgia Tech's Jason Neighborgall in the third round. Neighborgall has had problems throwing strikes [in the super regionals his first four pitches were 99, 98, 98, 99, followed by an unhittable slider ... then he threw seven straight balls].

Incidentally, if current Arizona GM Joe Garagiola beats out current Mets assistant GM Jim Duquette for the job of replacing Sandy Alderson as MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, why wouldn't the Diamondbacks make Mike Rizzo, one of the best pure baseball men in the business and the workhorse on their winter deals, the GM?

• Oakland got a lot of notice for drafting high school players after the first couple of rounds. Why is this surprising? The college pitching got taken early. And "Moneyball" isn't about college vs. high school, it's about finding value, and high school players in this draft had more value after the first 2-3 rounds because so many teams (20 of 30 in the first round) went with college players early. A's GM Billy Beane first went with on-base percentage players, then so did most everyone else, and those players got too expensive for one of the four lowest payrolls. Then he turned to defense, which was undervalued [Boston did so last July 31, and won the World Series].

• There is some feeling in the Astros camp that Koby Clemens wants to sign, and they believe he is not a courtesy draft, but a far better prospect than some teams realize. Koby comes with the genes, a strong family background with tremendous two-parent support and potential power. It wouldn't surprise some people if Koby were a non-roster catching invitee next spring, where he would catch his father.

• Note that the first player signed was the Cubs' No. 1 pick, left-handed high school pitcher Mark Pawelek, who is represented by Boras.

• As a Cape Cod League junkie, I point out that last year's Falmouth Commodores had three first-round picks [shortstop Cliff Pennington, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and left-handed pitcher Brian Bogusevic], two in the second round (outfielders Daniel Carte and Bryan Harvey) and one in the third round [RHP Jensen Lewis, who can join his old Vanderbilt roommate Jeremy Sowers in the Indians organization]. And two more members of last year's Falmouth team will likely go in the first round next year, Oregon State RHP Dallas Buck -- the No. 1 pick? -- and Wake Forest 3B Matt Antonelli.

Knowing the deal
Orioles GM Mike Flanagan believes "one of the most difficult things for anyone in the American League East in trading for pitching is judging who can pitch in that division. It really is different, especially with the Red Sox and Yankees, who grind pitchers to death. We're getting like that, and the Blue Jays are much better. That's why Mike Mussina was such a great signing; the Yankees knew he could win here. Pedro Martinez(who had a 4.10 ERA against the Yankees, Orioles and Blue Jays in 2002-04 looks like he's the happiest man in the world to be out of there."

In case you were wondering, here are the starters on the four AL East contenders and their record against divisional opponents:

Pitcher, team W-L ERA
Ponson, Bal. 22-36 4.89
Lopez, Bal. 21-14 5.04
Chen, Bal. 6-3 4.49
Bedard, Bal. 6-5 5.31
Cabrera, Bal. 3-5 7.53
Wells, Bos. 72-62 4.32
Wakefield, Bos. 46-29 4.06
Schilling, Bos. 14-20 5.16
Arroyo, Bos. 5-4 5.31
Clement, Bos. 7-0 4.10
Mussina, N.Y. 75-47 3.43
Johnson, N.Y. 55-42 4.01
Brown, N.Y. 54-40 4.07
Pavano, N.Y. 7-9 5.35
Halladay, Tor. 28-17 3.95
Lilly, Tor. 12-9 4.83
Towers, Tor. 13-13 5.40
Chacin, Tor. 4-2 4.30
(Source: Elias Sports Bureau.)

Inside the numbers
It helps to pitch for the best team in the National League: Mark Mulder vs. Danny Haren, through Saturday.

Mulder   Haren
7-4 W-L 4-7
13 GS 13
83.2 IP 80
89 H 77
25/50 BB/SO 29/59
4.30 ERA 4.28
1.36 WHIP 1.33

This and that
• The biggest contrast between Wrigley Field and Fenway Park -- other than the fact that all the seats at Wrigley face home plate, contrary to Fenway -- is that the Cubs play 24 home night games, the Red Sox 60. The Tribune Corp. says it loses no luxury box revenues by playing in the day, and estimates that it would have only $1.5 million to $2 million in revenues if they had the major league average of 54 home nights.

• One reason the Cubs haven't gone out and tried to make a major move for a much-needed leadoff hitter is that they think Felix Pie, who who has a .353 OBP, .914 OPS and 32 extra-base hits in 56 games at Double-A, may get his toes in the water in September and possibly be ready to play next year. "He is still a little raw, but he has great athletic talent," says one Cubs official. "The fact that he's played a lot of winter ball has sped up his development."

Barry Larkin
Larkin

• Nationals GM Jim Bowden is still hoping that his special assistant Barry Larkin will play in the second half of the season.

• Angels manager Mike Scioscia says it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Cuban refugee Kendry Morales can help the Angels as a DH later this season. "Our scouting and development people say he can really hit," says Scioscia of Morales, who batted .360 in his first two weeks of play in the Class A California League, "particularly against left-handed pitching." Which is just what the Angels could use.

• Speaking of Cuban refugees, the Braves drafted Yunel Escobar, who demonstrated big-time tools in predraft workouts. But some clubs are worried that Escobar is closer to 25 than his stated 21, and in four full seasons in Cuba he batted .270 with six homers; he was demoted out of the Super Liga [the Top 125 players] in 2003. "Can he hit?" asks one club executive. "Is he 24? Can he run? We couldn't get enough answers to those questions to take him high."

Ryan Drese
Drese

• The Rangers decided to release Ryan Drese because they couldn't wait for him to regain the command that he demonstrated last season. Drese once had Steve Blass Disease in the Cleveland organization.

• For those who detest on-base percentage, the top five scoring AL teams are all in the top five in OBP. To quote Mick Jagger, "surprise, surprise."

• Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace accompanied Keith Foulke on his visit to Birmingham, Ala., where Foulke's mechanics were evaluated by Dr. Glen Fleisig. "They do phenomenal work," says Wallace. "But I remember more than 20 years ago Sandy Koufax had drawn out an entire program of stick figures breaking down proper pitching mechanics." Why is it that so much of what American Sports Medicine Institute [ASMI] and Athletes Peformance Institute teach was understood by Ted Williams and Koufax 65 and 40 years ago, respectively?






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