For Cubs, Marshall has the right stuff

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For Cubs, Marshall has the right stuff

Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011Posted: 3:30 p.m.

By PatrickMooney
CSNChicago.com CubsInsider Follow @CSNMooney
ST. LOUIS Sean Marshall isnt eccentric. He doesnt have a mohawk. He doesnt act like he just pounded four cans of Red Bull. Someday, somewhere, he still might have the right stuff to be a closer.

Nothing seems to surprise or bother Marshall, and thats important when you play for this team in this market.

Marshall has survived the boom-and-bust periods of Cubs baseball. Hes pitched for Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. Hes played with Greg Maddux and Mark Prior, Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano. Hes finished in last place and first place.

At the age of 29, nearing the end of his ninth season in the organization, Marshall has developed into an All-Star-caliber reliever, someone the young pitchers in the bullpen gravitate toward.

You got to have a level head, Marshall said. You cant let your surroundings effect the way you feel out there. As loud as the crowd is, then you just have to worry about making that pitch and not getting flustered, not getting rattled.

When those things happen, the game speeds up. Then you start rushing and leave pitches up in the strike zone.

With that sense of calm, the 6-foot-7-inch left-hander entered Sunday with a 0.91 ERA in his last 32 games. In 75 innings, he had 77 strikeouts and 17 walks. Overall, hes 6-6 with a 2.28 ERA in what could be a breakthrough season.

There isnt a closer controversy yet. But it will be a long winter and the next general manager will have to take a serious look at Carlos Marmol, how good hes been in the past and what went wrong in 2011.

Because the Cubs thought their rebuilt bullpen would be a game-changer this season. Their relievers began Sunday with a 3.52 ERA that was more than a run lower than their 4.55 ERA last season. Only the bullpens in Arizona (3.665.74) and Milwaukee (3.344.47) have shown greater improvement.

But while the Diamondbacks and Brewers have celebrated clinching division titles, the Cubs woke up on Sunday morning with a hangover from Marmols 10th blown save. It unraveled the day before with three straight walks and a wild pitch in a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals.

Its tough to watch, Marshall said. I want to be out there helping, but I know that hes been one of the best in the business for a couple years now. He knows what hes got to do.

Its just a matter of putting yourself back on track and finishing up the last couple games strong. (Its) keeping a nice, good mental approach into the offseason, to be ready to come back and redeem yourself next year.

Jim Hendry gave Marmol a three-year, 20 million contract at the start of spring training. The move was widely praised as a sensible way to buy out a year of free agency and reward a homegrown player.

To that point, Marmol had converted 49-of-54 save opportunities which translates to a 91 percent success rate since taking over as Cubs closer in August 2009. Of all the things that have happened during this lost season, no one saw a Marmol meltdown coming.

The better his command is, the better hell be, manager Mike Quade said. I dont think hell ever have lights-out command. But the ability to throw the fastball when he needs to for a strike and then do the same with the slider hes done that for several years and we just need to get it back to that.

His stuff can be so devastating. He needs hitters in swing mode. Thats why the value of the fastball for strikes and getting ahead of guys is so big. Because you put a strike on him and now theyve got to consider both pitches. Clubs are forcing him to prove to them that he can throw strikes consistently.

Marmol has gone 34-for-44 in save chances this season. His salary will escalate to 7 million next year and 9.8 million in 2013.

Marshall will earn 3.1 million next season and then be eligible to become a free agent. He loves Chicago and will spend the winter there in the suburban home hes settled into with his family. Hes interested to see what happens next.

I dont know what to expect, Marshall said. Theres going to be some changes. Im sure there will be some new faces up in the front office. But its a business and were employees in the business. They pay us a lot of money to go out and do the best that we can. Thats my plan, whatever job Im in next year, whether its the same or different.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

The billionaire owners and millionaire athletes wisely decided to not stop all that momentum after a World Series that beat the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” in head-to-head TV ratings, attracted more than 40 million viewers for Game 7 and turned the 2016 Cubs into legends.

The owners and the players’ union avoided a foolish labor war, crafting a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that should unleash teams that had been waiting to see the rules of engagement, spur the free-agent market, accelerate trade talks and ignite Major League Baseball’s signature offseason event.

The Cubs can go viral seemingly anywhere now – “Saturday Night Live,” Disney World, “The Tonight Show,” the Latin Grammys, an Indiana-North Carolina basketball game, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” – but don’t expect them to own the winter meetings this time.

As a $10 billion industry begins to descend upon National Harbor in Maryland on Sunday, Cubs officials won’t feel any of the urgency that fueled the spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million and helped end the 108-year drought.

“We said at the time that we did two offseasons worth of shopping in one offseason last year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We really liked the talent available to us last offseason. It was a very good free-agent market. We felt like building upon a 97-win team that got to the NLCS but was swept. We wanted to improve some of the deficiencies on that club and really push forward.

“We were really aggressive with what we did last offseason. We told everyone at the time that we felt like we were kind of shopping for two offseasons.

“So with that in mind, I don’t expect nearly the activity we had a year ago.”

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Sensing the pitching market might erupt at that point, the Cubs pushed to close John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million deal in early December, before the winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, and Zack Greinke’s anticipated decision between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Hours after the Lackey news broke, the Arizona Diamondbacks shocked the baseball world when word leaked out that Greinke had agreed to a six-year, $206 million megadeal.

The perfect storm brought Ben Zobrist to Chicago, once the Cubs finally engineered a Starlin Castro trade at the winter meetings, with the New York Yankees being the only team willing to absorb $38 million, give up a useful pitcher (Adam Warren) and take a chance on the former All-Star shortstop. Zobrist turned down $60 million guaranteed from the Giants and New York Mets, taking a four-year, $56 million deal and delivering a World Series MVP performance.

The opt-out clauses within Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million contract don’t seem so inviting anymore – and he said those weren’t important to him anyway – but he provided Gold Glove defense in right field, called that pivotal team meeting during the Game 7 rain delay in Cleveland and should rebound after the worst offensive season of his career.

The Cubs have no expectations that Dexter Fowler’s market will again crater to the point that he will accept a $13 million guarantee in spring training, moving on with a center-field timeshare between Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr.

“The bulk of our heavy lifting is done,” Hoyer said. “But I think that was done 12 months ago. It will be a quieter winter than last offseason.

“We’re always listening. If good ideas come to us – or we come up with good ideas – we’ll share them with other teams. But fans shouldn’t expect a flurry of things, because they got that 12 months ago.” 

Fans also won’t be getting crash courses on labor relations and lockout implications. A game that can be slow, boring and stuck in its ways can’t waste the energy and excitement that created crossover moments like LeBron James showing up at the United Center in a Cubs uniform.

“There’s no doubt that it was an amazing postseason all around,” Hoyer said. “Baseball really showed itself in the best possible light, ending with a Game 7 that we happened to win. But win or lose, that was one of the greatest games ever played. Baseball is certainly going to be on a high going into spring training.

“Baseball is definitely in a great place right now.”  

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

As the Cubs prepare for the winter meetings outside Washington, D.C., their messaging might as well be: It’s the pitching, stupid.

This is an arms race that will never end, the Cubs trying to defend their first World Series title in 108 years, build out a bullpen that looked pretty thin by November and target the kind of young starter who could help anchor their rotation for years to come, ensuring Wrigleyville remains baseball’s biggest party.

The Cubs signed Brian Duensing to a one-year, $2 million contract on Friday, placing a small bet on a lefty specialist who spent parts of last season on the Triple-A level but made a good enough impression during his 13-plus innings with the Baltimore Orioles.

As executives, scouts, agents and reporters begin to flood into National Harbor on Sunday, the Cubs will intensify their search for pitching, everything from headliners to insurance policies to prospects.

“That’s been the significant bulk of our efforts,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “It’s definitely not going to be through lack of trying on our part to make that kind of deal. That’s now. That’s at the deadline.”  

The Cubs are preparing for Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta will probably be in a different uniform after signing his megadeal, John Lackey might be kicking back in Texas and enjoying retirement and Jon Lester will be 34 years old with maybe 2,300 innings on his odometer. 

The Cubs have unwavering faith in their pitching infrastructure at the major-league level, from the scouting and analytic perspectives that identified the right sign-and-flip deals during the rebuilding years to the coaching staff that helped mold Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist and a World Series Game 7 starter.

Mike Montgomery notched the final out against the Cleveland Indians and the Cubs see him as their next big project. The lefty checks so many of their boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to pedigree (former first-round pick/top prospect) to the change-of-scenery confidence boost/mental reset.

Forget about the White Sox trading Chris Sale to the North Side and don’t just think about obvious names or trade partners. Maybe it’s making a deal for a guy you never heard of before and sifting through the non-tender bin. (As expected, the Cubs offered contracts to arbitration-eligible pitchers Arrieta, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm before Friday’s deadline. Their 40-man roster stands at 35 after non-tendering lefties Gerardo Concepcion and Zac Rosscup, right-hander Conor Mullee and infielder Christian Villanueva.)

Remember how team president Theo Epstein framed the Montgomery trade with the Seattle Mariners this summer – comparing him to All-Star reliever Andrew Miller – and that gives you an idea of how they can address their pitching deficit this winter. 

“If your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you’re willing to take a shot – sometimes there’s a big payoff at the end,” Epstein said.   

While the Cubs did Jason Hammel a favor by cutting him loose and allowing him to explore the market as one of the best pitchers in an extremely weak class of free agents, Montgomery has only 23 big-league starts on his resume. 

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The Cubs had five starters make at least 29 starts this year, while four starters accounted for 30-plus starts in 2015, a remarkable run that led to 200 wins.

“As we’ve talked about so many times,” Hoyer said, “we do have an imbalance in our organization – hitting vs. pitching – and we’re trying to make sure we can accumulate as much pitching depth as possible. 

“We were very healthy this year, which was wonderful and a big part of why we won the World Series. I don’t think you can always count on that kind of health every single year. Building up a reservoir of depth – preferably guys you can option (to the minors) – is something (we’re trying) to accomplish.”  

The Cubs have Jorge Soler stuck in a crowded outfield plus the types of interesting prospects who appear to be blocked – catcher Victor Caratini, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, infielder/outfielder Ian Happ – to make relatively painless trades for pitching (if not the kind of blockbuster deal that dominates coverage of the winter meetings).

Lefty reliever Brett Cecil getting a four-year, $30.5 million deal and no-trade protection from the St. Louis Cardinals became another sign of how shallow this free-agent pool is for starting pitchers and a reflection of a postseason where the bullpen became a major storyline.

The idea of Kenley Jansen intrigues the Cubs – and Aroldis Chapman made a favorable impression during his three-plus months with the team – but Epstein’s front office already made the major upgrades for 2017 by spending nearly $290 million on free agents after the 2015 playoff run. Philosophically, the Cubs also see smarter long-term investments than trying to win a bidding war for a guy who might throw 70 innings a year. 

With that in mind, the Cubs could get creative and have looked at free agent Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer with the Kansas City Royals who didn’t pitch this year after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.  

Remember that Chapman left the New York Yankees and joined a team that had a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. If Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. can’t handle the late shifts, then the Cubs could always go out and trade for another closer in the middle of a pennant race.    

The Cubs have the luxuries of time, zero pressure from ownership, their fan base or the Chicago media and a stacked, American League-style lineup. 

“Right now, we could go play from an offensive standpoint and feel very good about our group,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to still continue to look to improve the depth in our bullpen, improve the depth in our starting rotation. Those are things that probably never go away. You probably never stop trying to build that depth.”