The endgame for the Cubs and Marmol

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The endgame for the Cubs and Marmol

Brian Wilson has the big black beard, the tattoos, the Taco Bell commercials and more than 600,000 followers on Twitter. The San Francisco Giants won another World Series without him.

Losing an elite closer is nothing like the Bulls trying to replace Derrick Rose this season. While Wilson recovered from Tommy John surgery, the Giants leaned on a 28th-round pick, a good setup guy with his own sweet beard and fist-pumping routine.

Sergio Romo had saved only three games in his entire big-league career until this year. He closed out the Detroit Tigers three times during a four-game sweep, ending it when he froze Miguel Cabrera with an 89 mph fastball.

Ideally, thats how the Cubs would like to build their bullpen. Their next closer wont be a cult of personality. Theyd prefer to grow one organically, or buy one at a discount, rather than pay top dollar.

Carlos Marmol will earn 9.8 million in the final year of his contract, which makes him an expensive, short-term asset in an organization with a long-range vision. So from next weeks general manager meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., all the way to next summers deadline, his name could be all over MLBTradeRumors.com.

When asked, Theo Epstein said hes comfortable with Marmol as his 2013 Opening Day closer. But the team presidents answer to a hypothetical question Philosophically, how would you go about finding a closer if your roster didnt have one? sounded more revealing.

I would look at it as an opportunity to try to give someone an opportunity, Epstein said recently. Either internally a pitcher that we believed in and liked and exposed them to that role (so he) could maybe develop into that type of asset.

Or go outside the organization and try to buy low on a pitcher that we really liked and then build value by putting him in that role. (Thats) value for the Cubs, and then if our season doesnt turn out the way we want it to potential value in a trade.

It didnt quite work, but Epstein went with the bullpen-by-committee when he took over the Boston Red Sox. He also went year-to-year with Jonathan Papelbon in arbitration at a time when they were locking up other young core players with extensions.

The Cubs are trying to stockpile power arms through the draft and build their bullpen from within. In the future, its hard to see them matching the kind of four-year, 50 million contract the Philadelphia Phillies gave Papelbon almost 12 months ago. They arent going to buy a brand name.

Marmol briefly lost his job and spent time on the disabled list with a hamstring strain in May. By the time he got back on track, no one was really paying attention to the Cubs as they marched toward 101 losses.

When theres something extreme early in the season, it dictates the narrative for the whole season, Epstein said. I think it kind of went unnoticed nationally, just the extent to which this guy turned his year around and was really effective.

Marmol converted 19 straight save chances during one stretch and posted a 1.52 ERA after the All-Star break. Whether or not that will lower heart rates among Cubs fans, or suppress that feeling of "here we go again" after the next leadoff walk at Wrigley Field, or convince a rival executive, his final numbers wound up being pretty good: 3-3 with a 3.42 ERA, 20 saves and 72 strikeouts in 55.1 innings.

Marmol also bought into what the coaching staff kept preaching: Trust your fastball. He threw it 51 percent of the time, seeing his average velocity rise back up to 94 mph, according to the online database at FanGraphs.

Big punch-out rate, more strikes and then really significantly he did it in a completely different way, Epstein said. His fastball was really useable and really effective and that hasnt been seen around here from him, maybe ever. That was a great sign, because I think its more likely to be repeated next year.

Hes got two really viable pitches now. If he had just been a straight-out slider monster and happened to lock in his slider for a couple months and faced some aggressive hitters, I wouldnt be as optimistic about him as I am now, because hes got two weapons to go at hitters with again.

After 13 seasons in the organization, Marmol celebrated his 30th birthday this month. He planned to spend his offseason riding horses, working on his farm in the Dominican Republic and ignoring all the speculation about what the Cubs might do next.

Marmol also considers Chicago to be a second home. He has become acclimated to the pressures of pitching the ninth inning here. Win or lose, he always stands in front of his locker postgame.

The statheads arent going to want to hear about a closers mentality, or being able to do it on a big stage in front of 40,000 fans. But even manager Dale Sveum who uses all the data analysis to guide his decisions thinks theres something different about getting the last three outs. Sooner or later, the Cubs are going to find out if someone else has what it takes.

Preview: Cubs-Giants Thursday on CSN+

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Preview: Cubs-Giants Thursday on CSN+

The Cubs take on the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, and you can catch all the action on CSN+. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Thursday’s starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery vs. Jeff Samardzija

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ headline Cubs prospects ticketed for Arizona Fall League

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ headline Cubs prospects ticketed for Arizona Fall League

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ will headline the group of seven Cubs prospects ticketed for the Arizona Fall League.

As the Cubs project their next wave of talent, Jimenez is thought to be close to untouchable after a breakout performance at the All-Star Futures Game and a Midwest League MVP season at Class-A South Bend.

Jimenez – who originally signed out of the Dominican Republic and got a $2.8 million bonus in the summer of 2013 – is hitting .331 with 14 homers and 81 RBI through 111 games with the South Bend Cubs. At the age of 19, the dynamic outfielder reminds the Cubs a little bit of Kris Bryant during his freshman year at the University of San Diego with that 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and powerful right-handed swing.

Happ – the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft out of the University of Cincinnati – is a switch-hitter (.717 OPS at Double-A Tennessee) who has tried to increase his versatility by moving between second base and the outfield and become a Joe Maddon-type player.

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The Mesa Solar Sox roster unveiled Wednesday also includes Victor Caratini, an advanced defensive catcher who drew interest around the trade deadline and could be packaged in a bigger deal for pitching if Willson Contreras continues to develop behind the plate and Kyle Schwarber comes back healthy next season.

Cubs officials trying to build a pitching pipeline for Wrigley Field will also get a look at right-handers James Farris, Ryan McNeil, Stephen Perakslis and Duane Underwood Jr. in the showcase league.

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates out of Wrigley

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates out of Wrigley

Another quick hook left Jason Hammel seething over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, bringing back uncomfortable questions about how much manager Joe Maddon trusts him, and whether or not the Cubs would find a spot for him on a playoff roster.  

Four days later, Pearl Jam’s “Alive” blasted from the Wrigley Field sound system as Hammel warmed up before facing the Pittsburgh Pirates – with no guarantees about October or next season.     

Hammel responded with another quality start in Wednesday’s 6-5 win, completing a three-game sweep that left the Pirates staggering in the wild-card race and helped the Cubs cut their magic number to win the division down to 16.   

Outside of a few extreme lows that distorted the perception of his overall season – 10-run outings against the New York Mets and at Coors Field and the 39 pitches he called a side day at Dodger Stadium – Hammel has been an integral part of the elite rotation that pushed the Cubs to an 85-47 record and such a huge lead in the National League Central (now 15 games up on the St. Louis Cardinals). 

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Hammel (14-7, 3.14 ERA) shut down the Pirates for six innings, allowing only one run on three hits and showing the confidence that made him an All-Star-level performer in the first half. With the bases loaded, Hammel screamed and flexed his muscles after striking out Andrew McCutchen swinging to end the fifth inning.       

On a night when the crowd chanted “MVP,” Kris Bryant launched his 36th homer (in the first inning off Ryan Vogelsong) and made Gold Glove-caliber plays at third base to back Hammel, diving to his left to catch a Sean Rodriguez line drive and prevent a run at the end of the second inning, and leaning over the wall and into the stands to catch a Josh Bell pop-up at the beginning of the fourth inning.        

This could become the next awkward conversation: If John Lackey (shoulder) returns to full strength – and the rest of the rotation doesn’t experience any setbacks down the stretch – what are the chances of Hammel making a playoff start?

“Stay healthy and we’ll see what happens,” Maddon said. “I don’t bet on the come. Let’s get to the playoffs first, make sure everybody’s well, and at that point then you look at the group you have. And then maybe at that point you look at the group you may be playing. And then you try to formulate the best plan of attack from your personnel versus their personnel. 

“I’ve not even thought about a playoff moment once.”