There was a time when Carlos Marmol seemed like the Cubs' closer of the future. After all, Marmol has electric stuff, reliever-type stuff -- a searing fastball and a slider that rips impossibly away from right-handed hitters and buckles left-handed hitters at their knees -- he's young, and he's cheap for a few more years. All the symptoms are there.
What's happened instead is the Cubs have done almost everything in their power to delay Marmol's ascension to the closer. (It should probably be noted here that there are a good amount of sabermetric studies that suggest having a designated "closer" is silly -- the best relief pitchers should come in during the highest-leverage situations no matter the inning. But that's a discussion for another time.) First they switched the perennially injured Kerry Wood into the role, where Wood excelled in 2008; then, after Wood's departure, they signed former Marlins closer Kevin Gregg to compete with Marmol for the spot in 2009.
Gregg won out in spring training, but he's seen diminishing returns since, a decline that was capped by a pair of blown saves in the Cubs' three-game weekend series in Florida. Sunday's was a doozie: Gregg gave up back-to-back home runs -- one to tie the game and one to lose it -- in the bottom of the ninth. Cubs fans were understandably, um, upset.
Now Piniella is talking about how he's going to stick with Gregg despite the protests of so many Cubs fans. (Gregg took last night's game off thanks to what Piniella called a "tired arm.") But the bottom line is that even if Piniella wanted to go in a different direction with his closer, he can't: Carlos Marmol is the only successor, and he's been just as erratic as Gregg.
One number kind of says it all: 1.50. That's Marmol's WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), and it is startlingly high for someone who is dead set on being a shutdown closer. Shutdown closers don't have the sort of control issues Marmol's dealt with this year. He's struggled to find his slider, meaning his best out pitch more often comes across the plate for a ball; it's not close enough or sharp enough to fool hitters like it used to.
Kevin Gregg isn't ideal, and in a perfect world he'd be relieving in the seventh and eighth innings. But this isn't a perfect world. The Cubs are not a perfect team. And for now, until Marmol gets his head fully around his stuff again, Piniella has little option other than to keep riding the Kevin Gregg wave. Hold on to your wire-rimmed glasses.
Eamonn Brennan is a Chicago-based writer, editor and blogger. You can also read him at Yahoo! Sports, Mouthpiece Sports Blog, and Inside The Hall, or at his personal site, eamonnbrennan.com. Follow him on Twitter.