The Last of the Optionless Cubs or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Crowded Bullpen

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The Last of the Optionless Cubs or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Crowded Bullpen

Chicago Cubs

Earlier in the off-season, the Cubs moved Felix Pie, Ronny Cedeno, and Michael Wuertz out of town – major league caliber players, for whom there was likely not a spot on the 2009 Chicago Cubs. And because they were out of minor league options (typically, a player has three “option years” in which the major league team can shuffle him back and forth to the minors), they had to go.

cut scene to a powerful and majestic sunset in the West

Standing at the crest of mountain like a proud Mohican, Angel Guzman remains. The last of his kind.

The last of the optionless Cubs.

Angel Guzman has had an absolutely tortured career with the Chicago Cubs. From can’t miss prospect to washed up never-was, Guzman has seen it all. And now he sees what may be his last chance to become a regular with the Chicago Cubs – before he’s unceremoniously shipped out of town like the others before him.

But why does Guzman remain?

Is he the tallest tree remaining in the optionless forest, or merely the least easily moved; the one whose value is least easily quantified? Guzman is blessed with once-in-an-organization type of stuff, but cursed with once-in-any-other-organization-except-the-Cubs type of injury problems. That kind of combination makes it really hard to value a guy.

Well, fine. He’s still here, his value is difficult to quantify, so why don’t the Cubs just keep him?

And thus is revealed the confluence of two prominent themes that have permeated the Cubs’ offseason, and will continue to do so throughout spring training: (1) the Cubs have (had) many players without options who must remain on the big league club, be dealt, or be lost for nothing at the end of spring training; (2) the Cubs have an incredibly crowded bullpen.

Even if the Chicago Cubs go with 12 pitchers – as manager Lou Piniella has said they will – it’s going to be hard to find a place for Guzman. A quick count reveals that, of the seven bullpen spots, no fewer than five are dutifully spoken for: Carlos Marmol, Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman (or Sean Marshall), Luis Vizcaino (too expensive to trade or release), and Neil Cotts (at present, the only lefty). Further, it’s very hard to imagine the Cubs moving or demoting Chad Gaudin.

Thus, with these assumptions, Guzman would battle it out with Jeff Samardzija – among a whole host of non-roster spring invitees, none of whom are expected to make the team – for that last bullpen spot. And that’s further assuming the Cubs do not add a LOOGY (a left-handed specialist to get lefty batters out – no, Neil Cotts is not this).

Samardzija, who showed flashes of brilliance out of the pen last year, can be sent to AAA Iowa to start, so he is not a lock to make the bullpen. But… what if he’s better than Guzman?

Yes, Guzman making the major league pen is the obvious solution here. But, hypothetically, what if Jeff Samardzija out-pitches Guzman in spring training? To what extent do you accept a slightly underperforming Guzman on the major league club in favor of a guy who might pitch slightly better, but still has options?

The point remains, whether or not the competition is Samardzija – indeed Jeff is just an example, used to make the point: what is that limit threshold where the better performance of mythical pitcher X overwhelms the desire to hold onto Guzman? These are the decisions that must be made.

Which brings me back to the crowded bullpen. Some three or four weeks ago, I thought it a burgeoning thorn in the Cubs’ foot. Who would fill out the rotation? Who would make the pen? Who would get dealt?

But upon reflection, and in the fullness of time – aka following several trades – I’m less concerned. In fact, I’ve learned to love it. Can you imagine the competition we’ll see in spring training? Of course, only so many decisions can be made on the basis of spring training – if Carlos Marmol stinks up the joint, it’s not as if Guzman is going to be taking his spot.

The worst case scenario in this crowded bullpen, though, ends up not being so bad: a group of guys pitch significantly better than Guzman, and he’s dealt for scraps or released. De facto, this means the Chicago Cubs bullpen is incredibly strong. Certainly, the depth that holding onto Guzman provides is enviable. But at a time when the Chicago Cubs are poised to succeed at such a high level, it can’t be worth taking any unnecessary risks.

If mythical pitcher X appears even slightly more likely to help the 2009 Chicago Cubs than Angel Guzman, then Guzman has got to go – he must follow Uncas right off the mountain. That is the sacrifice of success.

Unless, of course, the shouts that “this is the year” are to be hollow entreaties, giving way to some “next year” when a guy like Guzman might actually help the Chicago Cubs.

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Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.