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....
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.
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.
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.