Cubs bullpen likely set as season-opener draws near.
MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs reliever Steve Cishek knows all about the bullpen doubters out there still clamoring for the Cubs to sign Craig Kimbrel in the final days of spring training because they consider the relief corps the team's weak link.
And when Cishek catches a cold? And Pedro Strop strains a hamstring? And Brad Brach still looks to regain full strength after a winter bout with mono?
"Nothing you can do about it," said Cishek, last year's workhorse for the bullpen. "It's just one of those things where we're held under a microscope right now, so any little thing -- if we sneeze wrong people are going to be talking about the bullpen."
The bullpen has been a subject of speculation and depth questions since the mid-winter news of closer Brandon Morrow's "clean-out" surgery on his elbow in November. He has progressed on schedule this spring but still is expected to miss the first month of the season.
Meanwhile, the questions lingered throughout an offseason of budget restraint, with just a few low-profile additions -- Brach the highest profile among the new arms.
"But I think everything's actually going well now," said Cishek, who is scheduled to return to action today. "Stropy looks good. I watched Morrow throw some of his bullpen (Thursday). He looks really sharp.
"I can't wait to get this thing rolling."
Barring injuries, the only roster flux when camp opened was in the bullpen.
And even now it's not completely settled with the Cubs preparing to break camp Tuesday. "There's still a couple of little tweaks that are possible," manager Joe Maddon said.
"So it's not been nailed down yet. We're still discussing some stuff. Some guys have made really good impressions here, and of course we've got guys coming off of injury, too, that you have to be mindful of moving forward."
Strop, who threw an encouraging bullpen session Friday, is scheduled to get back in a game Monday and expects to be ready to start the season at full strength after that.
That would put right-handers Strop, Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Kintzler and Brach (assuming he's not held back) in the eight-man crew.
Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing would seem to be the lefties. But Duensing "is still not on top of his game" after being hampered by injuries last year, Maddon said. And Montgomery's wife is due just near the start of the season.
Tyler Chatwood, who lost his starting job last year because of historically bad control, might wind up taking the last spot in the bullpen if the Cubs aren't able to move him in a trade over the next few days.
Veteran nonroster right-hander Junichi Tazawa has earned raves from the staff and pitched himself into the discussion.
Team president Theo Epstein recently said he believes the bullpen depth is better than last year and deep enough to withstand some of the early issues.
"Guys are here because they have a history of being really good," Cishek said. "The front office knows what they're doing; they believe in us, and therefore we believe in each other.
"All these guys, we've been able to wipe the slate clean, and we're ready to get back to work this year. I think we're more motivated than ever.
* This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times. For more coverage check chicago.suntimes.com.