MIAMI – These aren’t Lou Piniella’s “Nasty Boys,” whose hard edge pushed the Cincinnati Reds to a World Series title in 1990. It’s not quite the closer-by-committee envisioned by sabermetrics pioneer Bill James, an experiment that once failed for the Boston Red Sox.
But Cubs manager Dale Sveum is going against convention and refusing to name a closer. No one reliever owns the ninth inning. Depending on matchups, who’s fresh and the game situations, it will be a combination of Carlos Marmol, Kevin Gregg and James Russell (when they need to neutralize left-handers).
It didn’t matter during Sunday’s 6-4 loss to the Miami Marlins in Little Havana. But 10 years after Theo Epstein tried the closer-by-committee at Fenway Park, the Cubs (9-15) could be using a similar blueprint at Wrigley Field.
“I think it could work, as long as you have the guys in the bullpen that can do it,” Sveum said. “The matchups (are) one way to use it. It’s just the mentality of those last three outs. (So) if you have three or four guys that are capable of doing that without panic setting in, then, yeah, it could work.”
Sveum will keep smirking and laughing at the beat writers’ closer questions, and it could go on like this indefinitely, even after Kyuji Fujikawa (strained right forearm) comes off the disabled list, perhaps sometime during the upcoming 10-day homestand.
The bullpen had entered Sunday with a 1.03 ERA in the last 10 games, guided by a manager who runs numbers, sifts through data and isn’t afraid of being second-guessed.
“I’m not going to really mess with anything right now in the bullpen,” Sveum said. “It’s just about as good as it can be.”
The 2013 Cubs don’t have the pressure of being a World Series contender and won’t feel the same weight of expectations. They operate in a much softer media market. Combined Marmol and Gregg have more than 260 career saves in the majors, while Fujikawa finished more than 200 games in Japan.
The 2003 Red Sox were five outs away from winning the American League pennant. Epstein had spread around their resources and tried to create a surplus with bullpen arms like Chad Fox, Alan Embree, Mike Timlin and Brandon Lyon. By late May, Boston’s general manager had to go outside the organization and acquire Byung-Hyun Kim from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Cubs president laid out the rationale last week in Boston at an event for his Foundation to be Named Later. WEEI.com quoted Epstein as saying: “It was bad execution because a few of the guys we got didn’t perform early, so it became a huge controversy. In hindsight, we were a little naive how big a story it was going to become and how it was going to take on a life of its own in a detrimental fashion.”
Sveum pulled Marmol in the ninth inning on Opening Day, and demoted him five games into the season, but has worked him back into high-leverage situations. Gregg notched the save in Saturday’s 3-2 win at Marlins Park, but Marmol got the biggest out, when shortstop Starlin Castro dove to his left and robbed Austin Kearns of an RBI single to end the eighth inning.
“I could see it keep on going (as a committee),” Sveum said. “(Let’s say) two guys in the lineup are coming up in the eighth and they’re not going to get up in the ninth. But this guy just owns him flat-out. So why save him for the next inning when this inning’s just as important?
“(Maybe) these guys can’t seem to touch Marmol or Gregg or there are three lefties (coming) up in the ninth, so I’m going to use Russell in that situation. There are all kinds of different scenarios of why it can work and why you would stick with it.”
Epstein wasn’t talking specifically about Sveum within the WEEI story, but it did give insight into why he hired this manager and how the two share a similar philosophy.
“Three or four guys struggled right out of the gate. That made it difficult,” Epstein said of the 2003 experience. “I think anyone in the manager’s chair, in today’s day and age, would feel most comfortable having a clear-cut closer, an eighth-inning guy, a good left-hander and right-hander in the seventh. It just flows easier. There’s less controversy, there’s less questions to answer and there’s less decisions to make.
“But I think it does show a lot of strength and conviction in the manager when he’s able to not be bound by those rules and conventions and able to make decisions that make sense over the course of these games even if it might lead to a few questions. I think winning the game is ultimately the important thing.”
Perhaps this is a window into the next phase of the rebuild at Clark and Addison. Before the home opener three weeks ago, a reporter asked Epstein about his gray hairs.
“Ten years in Boston will do that to you,” Epstein said. “Lots of blown saves. I remember my first trip with the Red Sox. We opened on the road in ’03. We blew a save Opening Day, blew another one in Baltimore, blew another (game) in Toronto. They might have sprouted back then. It’s not a new development.”