Cubs look to improve pitching staff

Cubs look to improve pitching staff

CHICAGO -- Larry Rothschild was a roving Minor League instructor for the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 1990 season when he met with Lou Piniella at Mickey Mantle's restaurant in New York.

Piniella was set to manage the Reds that year for the first time after three seasons at the helm of the New York Yankees. The two talked pitching, and Piniella offered Rothschild a spot on his Major League staff. They won a World Series that season with the Reds, propelled by the "Nasty Boys" bullpen of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton.

Rothschild and Piniella are together again with the Cubs. The 2007 season will be Piniella's first in Chicago, and Rothschild's sixth as the team's pitching coach.

"I know they've had some injuries here," Piniella said when introduced as the Cubs manager on Oct. 17. "You can't blame the pitching coach for that. That's going to happen anywhere. I'm really pleased to work with a guy who I have tremendous respect for and who I know has done a good job for me. A pitching coach is one of the most important hires on the staff."

The Cubs are coming off a disappointing 66-96 season. The team used 15 different starting pitchers, including eight rookies, and they combined for a 5.19 ERA. In more than 80 games, the starting pitcher was unable to finish the sixth inning, and only three starters -- Carlos Zambrano, Sean Marshall and Greg Maddux -- totaled at least 100 innings.

"I thought quite a few of the pitchers made progress," Rothschild said in a recent phone interview. "Really, the callups were more of an emergency. It wasn't that you have to get these guys to the big leagues, because they were ready to pitch, it was who was the closest at the time. You've got to fill out a roster and have enough guys to start."

At times, it was last minute. Ryan O'Malley was driven from Round Rock, Texas, where the Triple-A Iowa team was playing, to Houston in time to start on Aug. 16 against the Astros, and the rookie had the game of his life, throwing eight shutout innings.

The Cubs were forced to play catch up because they had counted on having Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in the rotation at some point. The two starters combined for 13 starts and ended the season on the disabled list.

"I think if we lost Mark or Woody, we could've withstood it better," Rothschild said, "but losing both of them was crushing. We traded some of the pitchers who would've been the next callups in the [Juan] Pierre deal, which is understandable. But when we needed guys, we had to go that much deeper."

Pitchers like Carlos Marmol and Juan Mateo are among those who should benefit from the experience.

"They need to learn from the mistakes they made and the good things they did," Rothschild said, "and use those things to their advantage."

He also believes Ryan Dempster can rebound from a rough sophomore season as closer. In 2005, Dempster led the National League in save percentage. This season, he had a 1-9 record and was 24-for-33 in save situations.

"I think Demp is capable of coming back and throwing the ball the way he did two years ago," Rothschild said. "There's no injury or soreness that caused a lack of velocity. I think he'll learn from the experience."

Anyone speculating that Wood will recover from a partial tear in his right rotator cuff and return as the closer next season is jumping the gun.

"I don't know that anybody can say what he'll be until he can throw the ball," Rothschild said of the right-hander, who is rehabbing in Arizona. "It'd be kind of foolish to say that [Wood will be the closer]. We have to see him get back to releasing the ball the way he's capable of and anything beyond that is getting ahead of yourself."

If Dempster can't save games, the Cubs might turn to Bob Howry and solve the problem from within.

What about Prior? The right-hander has looseness in his right shoulder, and will spend the winter focusing on strengthening it.

"Some of what we're finding out now is the combination of him having the laxity and that collision [in 2003 with Marcus Giles] internally did some things that weren't great, but weren't going to show up," Rothschild said. "He'd done all the exercises and everything he could to prevent it. They showed up with more innings, which is not unusual.

"I think the biggest thing with Mark," Rothschild said, "is it looked like he was coming back and throwing well, and then he gets hit with the line drive [in May 2005], has a fracture in his elbow. ... I think that impacted him more than anything."

Rothschild will work with Prior on his mechanics this offseason to overcome some of the struggles Prior has had to deal with.

But if Piniella were to ask Rothschild what the Cubs rotation looks like for 2007, there are really only two names set in Zambrano and Hill.

"Rich showed a lot of promise at the end of the year," Rothschild said. "I think he's a guy who's ready to make the team. As long as he throws the way he's capable of in Spring Training, there's no reason why he shouldn't.

"Not unlike a lot of teams, there's holes in the rotation," Rothschild said. "I know Jim [Hendry, Cubs general manager] and Lou are committed to getting new pitchers here."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.