When establishing a bullpen at the beginning of the season, a manager has to evaluate which pitchers to put into the rotation, and which pitchers are to head to the bullpen. It’s what Spring Training is for–so the manager can get a good look at all of the franchise’s major league-ready talent, and establish roles on how best to use the players in certain situations.
One of the many poor decisions Cubs manager Mike Quade has made was to insert James Russell as the Cubs’ primary spot starter. Russell had started in the minors, but he hasn’t been a full time minor league starter since 2008. Typically, a full-time Triple-A starter or a washed-up veteran is used for the spot starter role, such as Rodrigo Lopez and Doug Davis.
Just for fun, let’s compare two radically different pitchers:
Pitcher A: 9.33 ERA – 2.0 K/BB – .372 opponent BA
Pitcher B: 1.39 ERA – 3.33 K/BB – .197 opponent BA
Who are these pitchers of completely different ability?
Pitcher A is James Russell the starter, while Pitcher B is James Russell the reliever.
On May 25th, Russell was moved to the pen permanently, and has emerged as a capable left-handed specialist. However, one has to wonder, what took so long?
Russell has employed a slider-first approach against lefties, and he’s essentially destroying southpaws to the tune of a 9.00 K/BB (!) ratio. Russell’s fastball velocity (88 mph) isn’t what you would like out an ace reliever, it’s more than capable for a left-handed specialist, especially when his slider comes in a mere 7 mph slower.
This isn’t the first time a Cubbie spot starter moved to the bullpen full time and found success.
Setup man Sean Marshall posted a 4.86 ERA as he bounced back and forth from the rotation to the pen between 2006 and 2009. He moved into the bullpen in 2010, and posted a sparkling 2.65 ERA, and has become one of the game’s more successful setup men since.
Could a similar fate lie with James Russell? At the very least, Russell could provide the team with a solid option as a left handed specialist at a very affordable price, essentially eliminating the need for players providing negative value such as John Grabow.
As a 25 year-old in only his second season in the majors, Russell certainly stands to build upon his successes moving forward in the second half of the season.