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Cubs’ bullpen looking mightier

StarlCastro Tony Campancelebrate after Cubs’ 2-1 victory Saturday Wrigley Field. | Jim Prisching~AP

Starlin Castro and Tony Campana celebrate after the Cubs’ 2-1 victory Saturday at Wrigley Field. | Jim Prisching~AP

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Updated: November 24, 2011 12:25AM

At the top of the to-do list for the next Cubs general manager will be reshaping a pitching staff that sits at the bottom of the National League with a 4.41 ERA.

The task will focus most on the rotation, where Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Randy Wells appear to be the only starters penciled in for 2012. The replacements for Carlos Zambrano and a collection of would-be fifth starters could come from a trade or from within the organization — perhaps Andrew Cashner or Jeff Samardzija or a better version of Casey Coleman.

But the brighter side of the pitching picture should be the bullpen, where a corps of arms has done remarkably well in an otherwise woeful season.

Cubs relievers have combined to post a 3.57 ERA through 4811/3 innings, compared to the starters at 4.88 in 8661/3 innings.

And no one has been more consistent than left-hander Sean Marshall, whose 6-6 record, 2.38 ERA, club-record 31 holds and five saves have made him one of the National League’s premier setup men.

Marshall survived a shaky ninth inning Saturday, giving up a single, double and intentional walk, but he escaped with the help of an infield fly, strikeout and ground out as the Cubs beat the Houston Astros 2-1 at Wrigley Field.

The former starter and closer candidate has been one of the most reliable components of the bullpen.

“If he was just a situational lefty, you would think about him becoming a starter again,’’ said Cubs manager Mike Quade. “But he’s way more than that. He’s an eighth-inning guy, and he’s got great numbers against even some of the tougher right-handed hitters, too.’’

Marshall, 29, has come to embrace his role, not always a common sentiment among young pitchers and former starters.

“It’s been really nice,’’ said Marshall, who was a starter in 2006 and 2007 before moving to the bullpen. “I think they realize I’ve had some success in this role and I’m comfortable now. Part of the reason is because I wasn’t changing roles [as he did in 2008 and 2009]. When I was able to settle in and keep a routine and know what I’d have to do, I can keep my arm fresh.’’

Marshall seemed to turn a corner last year when he stayed in the bullpen. He made 80 appearances and pitched 742/3 innings with 90 strikeouts and 25 walks. His ERA was a sparkling 2.65 with a 7-5 record, 22 holds and one save.

This year, he has set a single-season record for holds and ranks third in the league in that category and second among all lefties. His 63 career holds are the most for a Cubs lefty.

Since 2008, when he became predominantly a relief pitcher, he has compiled a 16-14 record, seven saves and a 2.76 ERA in 212 innings.

The notion of returning to starting no longer is paramount, although Marshall admits it was “tough’’ to see the rotation struggle early when injuries took Cashner and Wells out of the rotation.

“When you looked at the team and that it might need starting pitching, and I wanted to help — but at the same time now, I don’t want to mess up a good thing,’’ he said.

Marshall sees the Cubs’ bullpen as a good thing overall, though pitchers such as Cashner and Samardzija might be eyed for the rotation next season.

“Jeff has been pitching great and found a good spot to pitch in,’’ he said. “He’s pitched a lot and his confidence is back up and his arm strength is great. He’s really learned how to pitch. And now we have Cashner back, and [lefty John] Gaub is here to learn. We have veteran guys like [Kerry] Woody [Kerry Wood] and [John] Grabow who have done it before, and [Gaub] can definitely pull things from guys like that.

“We had some stressful times early this season because we had to pick up innings [when the starters struggled], but we got through it. There are definitely bright spots.’’

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