The Cubs are in the middle of a major rebuild, and that includes the bullpen. The club doesn’t have an obvious long-term closer or any other relievers that make you think they’ll be part of the next great Cubs team without a big step forward. That doesn’t make it a bad bullpen unit though, nor does it mean they lack fantasy-relevant arms. In fact, Chicago has several interesting relievers (and potential starters who may wind up relievers) worth having on your roster. The new front office regime stockpiled some nice arms this past offseason.
It feels like it’s only a matter of time before the Cubs trade the 30-year-old Marmol, who is due to become a free agent after the season. His high-wire act is the same as it always was, with a monster strikeout rate (11.71 K/9 and 29.2 K% in 2012) offsetting an equally scary walk rate (7.32 BB/9 and 18.2 BB%). Marmol’s swinging strike rate has declined in recent years and he’s become a tad more hittable, meaning his once steady WHIP has begun to climb into the danger zone. If you ask me, I think he’s got future Detroit Tigers written all over him. Until them, Marmol will scoop up a handful of saves and a pile of strikeouts while making Cubs fans (and fantasy owners) nervous every time out.
Fujikawa, 32, is Marmol’s primary competition for save opportunities. The long-time Hanshin Tiger has an insane track record in NPB, pitching to a 1.36 ERA with 12.4 K/9 (36.7 K%) and 2.3 BB/9 (6.6 BB%) in 369.2 innings over the last six years. Relievers tend to have a little more success transitioning from NPB to MLB than their rotation counterparts, and Fujikawa has a nasty put-away splitter going for him. The Cubs gave him a nice contract (two years, $9.5M) and will count on him in the late innings right away. If he manages to come close to his NPB performance this year, he’ll be one of the few setup men worth owning in standard 5×5 scoring leagues.
The 37-year-old Camp enjoyed a strong season on Chicago’s north side in 2012, but isn’t terribly useful in fantasy. His strikeout rate (6.26 K/9 and 16.5 K%) is mediocre and he has a history of being a little homer prone, not something that will plays well with Wrigley Field. Camp didn’t see many save opportunities last summer and doesn’t figure to see many in 2013 barring trade/injury to Marmol and Fujikawa.
Russell, 27, is the one to watch here now that he’s done as a starter and a full-time reliever. His changeup makes him more than a standard lefty specialist, meaning more innings and opportunity going forward. Russell has never been much of a strikeout pitcher (7.14 K/9 and 18.8 K%) even coming up through the minors, so his fantasy value is limited. He is poised to climb up the bullpen pecking order and is more of a strong holds candidate heading into the season than a saves sleeper.
Bowden, 26, and Dolis, 25, are both out of minor league options, meaning they may have a leg up on everyone else going into the season. The 25-year-old Rondon is a) a Rule 5 Draft pick who has to stick on the active 25-man roster all season or be offered back to his original team (the Indians), and b) coming off several elbow injuries, including Tommy John surgery and a fracture. Dolis had a short and forgettable stint as closer last year, but Rondon interests me the most of this group. He’s healthy and throwing well in spring, and he had a track record of missing a ton of bats and limiting walks before the injuries set in. I like him as a holds sleeper in deep leagues, but let’s see if he makes the team first.
Matt Garza is going to miss the start of the season and Scott Baker seems likely to as well, meaning all three of these guys are likely to open the year in the rotation alongside Edwin Jackson and Jeff Samardzija. Once those two get healthy though, these guys are going to start losing their spots one by one and the minor leagues aren’t an option (Wood is out of options and the other two can refuse assignments thanks to their service time).
The 29-year-old Villanueva has plenty of swingman experience but could force his way into a more prominent late-inning role if he loses his rotation spot. He missed a ton of bats last year (8.76 K/9 and 23.4 K%) but doesn’t have a super long track record with that kind of strikeout rate, so it might not be permanent. Neither of the two guys offers much strikeout potential and I look for whiffs when targeting non-closing relievers.