OK, so we all know by now that Lou Piniella has named Carlos Marmol as the Cubs closer for 2010, so why are the Cubs interested in Heath Bell (remember that the Cubs also showed interest in Takashi Saito, before he signed with the Braves)? Does Piniella want to create another Spring Training competition for the closer role, like he did with Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol? Piniella says "We're set with Marmol as closer. We're very happy with him." So, what gives?
Well, it may be a case of Piniella wanting two (or more) closer caliber pitchers at the back of his bullpen and it may not be the best pitcher that ends up as the closer.
Going back to Piniella's 1990 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds, he was blessed with the "nasty boys" threesome of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers. Myers was the primary closer that year with 59 GF and 31 saves to go along with a 2.08 ERA, 1.12 whip and 98 K's in 86.2 IP. However, Dibble was nastiest pitcher that year, posting a 1.74 ERA, 0.98 whip and 136 K's in 98 IP, but only had 11 saves to show for it.
Flashforward to the 1995 AL West champion Seattle Mariners. Again, Piniella had 3 good relievers at the back of his pen in Bobby Ayala, Norm Charlton and Jeff Nelson. Ayala ended up being the primary closer, finishing 50 games and garnering 19 saves, but he compiled a 4.44 ERA and a 1.45 whip. In the meantime, Charlton was still showing off his "nasty boy" stuff with a 1.51 ERA, 0.82 whip and 58 K's in 47.2 IP, but only finished 22 games and had just 14 saves. Nelson was just as dominant, posting a 2.17 ERA, 1.08 whip and 96 K's in 78.2 IP, but only had 2 saves to show for it.
Finally, in Seattle's best year in 2001, when the team won 116 games, Piniella again had a 3-headed beast in the bullpen with Kazuhiro Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes and Jeff Nelson. Sasaki was the primary closer with 45 saves, while posting an ERA of 3.24, a whip of 0.89 and 62 K's in 66.2 IP. However, Rhodes was the more dominant reliever, posting a 1.72 ERA, 0.85 whip and 83 K's in 68 IP, but had just 3 saves. Nelson also had an excellent year, with a 2.76 ERA , 1.13 whip and 88 K's in 65.1 IP, but had just 4 saves.
So, what do all of these bullpens have in common? In each instance, Piniella did not use his most effective or dominant pitcher in the closer role. He instead would use that pitcher in a setup role, where he can bring him in a close or tied game or to get out of a jam, and then bring in his "closer" to finish off the game.
This is not a new concept, Bill James has long been an opponent of closers as they are currently used, concluding that it "overrates the abilities of that pitcher" and "uses him in suboptimal circumstances". James argued for using the team's best pitcher (or relief ace) "as early as the 7th inning when the outcome of a ballgame is often decided".
This may explain why Piniella elected to use Kevin Gregg as his closer in 2009, even though everyone thought that Marmol was the better choice. Or why Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood were both used as closer over Marmol in 2007 and 2008, even though Marmol was more effective as a reliever.
So, why is Marmol finally getting his chance in 2010? As strange as it may sound, Piniella may be making Marmol his closer because he has lost confidence in him. With his control issues in 2009, Piniella may not trust Marmol anymore to get the Cubs out of a jam and instead wants to use him in the 9th inning, where his control issues will do less damage.
So, all you fantasy baseball owners who have diligently held onto Carlos Marmol in hopes that he would finally close games. Fear not, as it appears that Piniella may finally allow Marmol to do just that.