Spring Training Battles: Closer

The Cubs are a little over two weeks into spring training with about three weeks before Opening Day. It's time to check in on the yearly ritual of spring training battles. What's the fun of spring training without a little competition? The Cubs have a few spots up for grabs and today I take a look at the competition for the fabled closer role between Bob Howry, Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood. It's the final piece in the series and I know you will all miss my Wrestlemania-inspired graphic.

The closer battle is probably the least crucial of the spring training battles this year, for two reasons. First, the closer role is generally overrated. The closer protects more three-run leads with nobody on than he does one-run leads with the go-ahead run coming up. Set-up men are often asked to wiggle out of more difficult jams than closers, who are usually brought in just to start the ninth inning with a clean slate. Second, all three candidates can do the job just fine, so Lou really can't lose on this one. Sure, you'd like to pick the best, but those outs in the seventh and eighth are just as crucial; and the two "losers" will slide into the set-up men roles. Plus, if the winner out of spring training can't hack it, the Cubs have two ready-made options ready to fill-in, possibly three if Ryan Dempster isn't cutting it as a a starter. As they say in the old country, it's a good problem to have.

Let's take a closer look after the jump....

Bob Howry

2008 PECOTA PROJECTION: 62 IP, 3.55 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 1.9 WXRL

2007 STATS: 81.3 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 3.1 WXRL, 1.64 WPA

Howry entered camp as the favorite to win the closer job based on past experience and past performance. He was the closer for the White Sox early in his career, with a career high 28 saves in 1999. He also filled-in last year for the Cubs when Ryan Dempster was out with an oblique injury, saving seven of eight chances, although with a bloated 4.97 ERA in 12.2 IP.

Entering the final year of his contract, Howry certainly has the financial motivation to earn the closers spot, as the job title earns a premium compared to other relievers.But I guess Howry just isn't about the money, because his performance so far in Mesa has been downright dreadful. In seven games and 5.1 IP, he's given up seven runs with an 11.81 ERA, 12 hits, a home run....well you get the point, it's been ugly. I'll keep him in the discussion just to see if anyone votes for him.

Carlos Marmol

2008 PECOTA PROJECTION: 50 IP, 3.84 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 1.4 WXRL

2007 STATS: 69.3 IP, 1.43 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 3.7 WXRL, 2.77 WPA

Dubbed the Cubs MVP of 2007 by many, Marmol showed up in May and the Cubs immediately went on a tear...wait, check that, the Cubs lost 5 of the first 6 games he pitched in - but right after that the team went nuts. Marmol did throw up an incredible 1.23 ERA through June, an ERA that never rose above two the entire season. He coupled that with 16 holds, a 12.46 K/9 rate and stranding 87.8% of inherited runners. He also gave up the go-ahead home run in the Game 1 of the NLDS (go away pessimism, go away).

Despite all that mostly wonderful good pitching, the projection systems all say he's due to bounce back this year with guesses ranging from a 3.75 ERA to 4.54. We'll see if he bounces back that much, but it's certainly reasonable to expect that he won't be sporting a sub 1.50 ERA this season.

Marmol warmed up for the spring training competition by taking over closing duties for the Licey Tigres in the Dominican Winter League and Caribbean World Series, which Licey ended up winning. He's had a solid spring with six innings of work and no runs allowed, although he's suffered from fits of wildness.

I have little doubts that Marmol could handle the closer job and do it well. But if Lou is still willing to use him for more than just one inning, his best role is probably that of a set-up man that can get the team out of jam. Of course, that's a bit of a double-edged sword that I hope Lou and Marmol don't fall on. It seems to me he's thrown a lot of innings between last season and the Winter Leagues for a converted catcher that's only been pitching for a few seasons. A trip to the disabled list is certainly a concern.

Kerry Wood

2008 PECOTA PROJECTION: 39.7 IP, 4.37 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 0.8 WXRL

2007 STATS: 24.3 IP, 3.33 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 0 WXRL, -0.21 WPA

Even the most casual of Cubs fan knows about Kerry Wood and his struggles with injury; and subsequent miraculous recovery last season. His triumphant return wasn't all that triumphant at first, as his ERA ballooned to 5.55 at one point. But he finished the season strong with 8.2 IP of scoreless ball and maintained his normally lofty strikeout rate with 13 K's during that time. A free agent this past off-season, teams were still skeptical of his injury woes and Wood decided to re-up with the Cubs on an incentive-laden one year deal.

Those incentives are mostly for finishing games, so we know the financial motivation will be there. Wood's struggled a bit this spring, with a 5.40 ERA in five innings pitched which sure doesn't mean much. The diminutive two strikeouts though in that time period is a little worrisome, but from what I've seen on television, his fastball isn't lacking any zip. The closer role looks like it's his for taking, with Howry struggling and Lou most likely hoping to keep Marmol in a set-up role where he can be used for longer than an inning at a time. Of course, there's nothing stopping Lou from using his closer for more than an inning at a time, but apparently that breaks all sort of unwritten baseball rules.



FYI - in case anyone hasn't seen this yet, Sutcliffe has cancer:


No doubt Cubster can detail his treatment options in a more professional manner, but I can tell you that this won't be a walk in the park by any means for The Red Baron. I went through extensive chemo and a stem cell transplant for Non - Hodgkins Lymphoma (Stage 4) almost four years ago, and it was an event to remember. But I do understand that unless this is in an advanced stage, his prospects for a full recovery are good.

Supposedly Wood is throwing harder than he has since 1998, which is quite exciting.

He is still my pick for the closer role, assuming that he shows that he can pitch on back-to-back days. He has the best stuff, he has a fierce competitive mentality, and (a really big) if he can stay healthy, he will be one of the top closers in baseball.

Marmol is really, really good. And I like him in the role of putting out fires. And one day he will be an excellent closer. Maybe even this year. But I would just rather see Wood in the role.

Howry is also really, really good, but for some reason think he will pitch better in a set-up role than a closer role, especially considering his tendency to get off to a slow start.

I picked Zeus, but the more I think about it, the more I think Wood would be fine closing and let Zeus do exactly what he did last year. Marmol was huge in those games where the starter would start to lose it in the 6th and 7th and put a few guys on base. Zeus would come in and rack up some easy Ks.

I agree no matter what happens Howry is a setup guy.

Marmol setting up Wood. Doesn't this just remind you so much of Rivera setting up Wettland and K-Rod setting up Percival?

I think it turned out pretty well for those teams.

Has Wood pitched on back to back days at all this spring? Has anyone for that matter or is that something they don't do til later in the spring? I guess I've never paid much attention to how much work the relievers get in the spring.

i really like the idea of having Marmol spending one more year as a set up man. Plus it looks like the back end of the bullpen should be one of the best in the league and make most games a 6 inning affair.



From MSNBC.COM: "The Chicago Cubs have sold more than 2,775,000 tickets and had just 500,000 remaining at the start of the week."


The business of scalping has never been more profitable.

Especially when the team's ticket department suggest you do it.

Red Sox fan having hard time to get Red Sox vs Reds tickets, must buy for 3 other games also-

I think I made more money this year, but less of a percentage profit. But either way it is really nice and making the playoffs would make it spectacular, espeically with the parking passes.

That includes tix bought by Wrigley Field Premium Tickets, I presume... the fuckers.

it's fantastic to see Mel Rojas has more supporters than Bob Howry right now....

Seriously though folks, you guys had the most confidence in Jon Lieber as your starter?

I know I will be in the minority here for saying it. Ryan Dempster is the best candidate to close on this roster. He went 28/31 in save opps last year. He has demonstrated that he has the stones to close (Anti-LaTroy). And he seems the least suited to come in and put out fires in the middle of innings. To me it diminishes the strength of our pen to not have Wood,Howry and Marmol to save the game in the middle innings. Dempster loses style points with his ugly appearances sometimes. However you can't discount his success % at closing games when he gets consistent work closing games.

Good Doctor-

A few more stats to round out the Dempster profile:

2-7 record, ERA of 4.73 in 2007. Both of which were improvements versus 2006, when he was 1-9 with a 4.80 ERA. I realize wins are tough for a closer to get, but still...

So, for 2 years, he is 3-16 with an ERA of 4.75 in 141 IP (not a small sample size).

No thanks.

However, I agree with the other comnents about Wood -- those who assume Kerry will be healthy are lining up to play 3-card Monty on a street corner somewhere.

That's exactly why I want him starting the 9th as opposed to comming into the middle of the 7th and 8th. With regular closer work he is 33/35 and 28/31 in save opps over 2 years. He admittedly looks shaky in some of his outings. But you cannot argue with how effective he is in converting the chances that he gets.

Bob Howry as a closer in "true" save situations in 2007 (not including "blown saves" in 6th, 7th, ot 8th innings, which shouldn't even be called blown saves):

9 save opportunies

8 saves

1 BS (Cubs came back to win in bottom of 9th)

8 IP

5 H

3 R (3 ER)

1 BB

12 K

3.38 ERA

.172 OBA

In seven of his nine "true" save opps, he retired the side 1-2-3 (no hits and no walks) and struck out 11.

In one of his save opps he gave up three hits (including sa three-run HR) and had one K. And in the other save opp he gave up two hits but no runs.

Not perfect, but he throws strikes and doesn't mess around.

Personally, I don't have a problem with Howry as a closer.

Carlos Marmol and Michael Wuertz were two of the best relievers in the league in '07 as far as stranding inherited runners, so I believe both would help the Cubs best coming into an inning with men on base.

Marmol is also effective without men on base, so he can pitch 1+ innings when he enters a game in the middle of any inning, including part of the 8th and then the 9th, but when he does that, you probably don't want him to pitch two days in a row. Wuertz is best used to just get out of an inning, but you can use him that way just about every day.

Until more can be learned about Kerry Wood's ability to bounce-back and pitch two or three days in a row, I would use him as a one or two-inning reliever, but always starting an inning, just like he would have done as a starter, and with at least a day off between outings. Since he wouldn't be used every day, he could pitch two innings when he is used (depending on how many pitches he throws of course), including even the 8th and 9th innings (for the "old school" two inning save).

Scott Eyre is only good for garbage work, but Kevin Hart certainly has the stuff to pitch quality and meaningful innings out of the pen.

The 7th bullpen slot is still TBD. As things stand right now, it would have to be the loser in the starting rotation derby (either Dempster, Lieber, or Marquis), but if a trade solves that problem, Piniella will probably want a second lefty in the pen "just because," and right now that means either Neal Cotts or Carmen Pignatiello.

Piniella has shown with the "Nasty Boys" (Myers, Charlton, and Dibble) that he almost prefers to have multiple closer alternatives. 

He's back

Actually Charlton wasn't a closer in 1990. He was a swing man who got one save where he pitched the 8th the team gave him a bigger lead and he was allowed to stay in on May 6, then got one more three inning save and finished the year in the rotation.

In 1991 they moved Myers into the rotation.

The legend of the 'Nasty Boys' is a one of those things that get's a little foggy in hindsight.

With Lou's best team, the 2001 Mariners, he had settled on the '1 guy' Kazuhiro Sasaki who had 45 saves and Rhodes, Nelson and Charlton (all left handers..) set him up.

I suspect he's going to try to keep roles as set as possible. Marmol, Howry, Wood with Weurtz and the lefties to bail guys out of jams, maybe Marmol doing it occasionally to stay sharp and if Weurtz loses his feel on the slider.

Jeff Nelson is right handed.

To finish the World Series off Pinella used: Dibble and Myers in Game 1, Charlton and Dibble in Game 2, Dibble and Myers in Game 3, and Myers in Game 4. All total the three pitched 8 2/3 innings, 6 hits, 1 walk, 7 Ks, no runs. I'd be happy with that.


That reduces the roster to 41.

The NRI's still in camp are:
Alex Cintron
Micah Hoffpauir
Casey McGehee
Josh Kroeger
Koyie Hill
Chad Fox
Les Walrond

Everyone on the 40-man roster is still in camp EXCEPT:
Jake Fox
Jeff Samardzija
Adam Harben
Juan Mateo
Billy Petrick

Submitted by The Real Neal on Fri, 03/14/2008 - 1:51pm.

The legend of the 'Nasty Boys' is a one of those things that get's a little foggy in hindsight


REAL NEAL: I know I'm senile and I hate to nit-pick a nit-picker, but didn't Charlton and Dibble both have 25+ saves in the SAME season one year for Lou Piniella when Uncle Lou was managing in Cincinnati?

Indeed, AZ Phil...


And, how is that working for us right now?

He's (Ascanio) had some nice implosions for us this ST.

We traded our crap to Detroit, and then Infante and Oh-Man! to Atlanta, for their crap.

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