The closer role is up for grabs for the second straight season in Chicago Cubs spring camp this 2009. At least that is what Lou Piniella might have you believe. We know Lou likes competition in Spring Training, and why not, it seems to work. But it all begs the question of whether the closers role is really up for grabs or not?
The "Closer's" role is a fairly new specialization in major league baseball, dating back to the 1970's. The idea of taking a lead into the 9th and winning the game is what makes the closer title and the closer role seem to be one of the most flashy and the most important roles in Major League Baseball. The salaries of successful closers certainly resemble this thought process. But how important is the role of closer? How do you place more value or more importance on the last three outs of a game than any other three outs in a game? Is it just the thought of taking a lead into the 9th that makes the idea of having an unstopable closer seem so necessary? Last season the New York Yankees lead by one of baseball's best and future hall of fame closers saved 82% of their save opprtunities in total, Toronto saved 80%, Tampa Bay and Philidelphia (the World Series teams) each saved 76%. Down near the middle of the pack is the National League's best regular season team, The Cubs, with 65%. Kerry Wood saved 34/40 for a respectable save percentage of 85%. One way of explaining this might be that the rest of the bullpen let the Cubs down. But the truth is that you won't have your closer available for every save opportunity. Sometimes a closer has to get the bottom of the order out, sometimes the top, or the middle of the order. Sometimes a closer has the maximum three run lead and sometimes the minimum one run lead. All of these factors do effect average save percentages considerably. Yet the Chicago Cubs ranked 6th in baseball in 2008 in Save Opportunities with 68.
Based on the numbers above it looks like a couple of statements would hold true. The better the starting pitching, and the team, offense included, the more save ops you will see. In some cases teams with high save percentages had good seasons, the world series teams included, but in other cases The Kansas City Royals, saved 73%, good for 7th in baseball, were never in contention.
Carlos Marmol has shined the past two seasons as the Cubs utility pitcher. This is a role Jerry Crasnick of ESPN believes may cause him to be over used despite his value. With a solid option at Closer in 2008 in Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol was the perfect guy to get him the ball, whether that meant strikeout the side with the bases loaded in the 6th or pitching a 1-2-3 eigth inning. He has been Lou Piniella's trouble shooter.
If during this spring it comes down to who's the better pitcher in the closer race, we know Carlos Marmol has already won. But what will the Cubs record look like without Marmol to come in whenever we need him? Is this a role somebody like a healthy Angel Guzman could fill in Marmol's abscense? Big shoes to fill. But perhaps Jerry Crasnick is right, the best way to protect Marmol's health is to make him closer, even if it is not the best thing for the Cubs. The closer role does seem slightly overrated in terms of its importance, but then that really seems to depend on the game. The best the Cubs and their fans can hope for is many more healthy seasons of Carlos Marmol anchoring the bull pen in whatever role he has been assigned.