MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs have been saying it: Jose Veras is our closer.
It’s too early for a ninth-inning controversy, though a National League scout covering the Cubs mentioned how Veras hasn’t looked like closer material this spring, giving up seven runs and 11 hits in eight innings, walking two batters and hitting three more.
And remember how Dale Sveum pulled Carlos Marmol in the ninth inning on Opening Day last year? The Cubs will be back at PNC Park on March 31 with a new manager and a new closer. If Rick Renteria needs someone to get the last three outs, it’s going to be Veras staring down the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I’m not concerned,” Renteria said. “He’s got one or two more outings maybe left here this spring to kind of zone in. And then when the lights turn on, sometimes with those guys it’s a different ballgame.”
Theo Epstein’s front office and Renteria’s staff are putting the finishing touches on their roster now, with Mike Olt looking much sharper at third base during Tuesday’s 8-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels in front of another record-setting crowd at Cubs Park (15,276).
Stay tuned to see if that will be enough to get Olt off the bubble. Or if the Cubs will decide to give his right shoulder more time to heal and allow him to work on those defensive issues in a lower-pressure environment like Triple-A Iowa.
Either way, utility guy Ryan Roberts could make infielder Donnie Murphy expendable. Renteria has given rambling answers about Darwin Barney’s role, not really defining how he plans to use the Gold Glove second baseman, and there are contending teams looking for middle-infield help.
Emilio Bonifacio has also emerged as change-of-pace player and a potential leadoff guy, if not a true alternative to Barney at second base, where elite prospect Javier Baez could be coming this summer.
There's a good chance outfielder Ryan Kalish will make the club. Backup catcher George Kottaras hasn’t locked up a job, which would open a spot for John Baker or Eli Whiteside. The fifth-starter decision is down to swingman Carlos Villanueva or 27-year-old lefty Chris Rusin, who will follow Jeff Samardzija during Wednesday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Scottsdale.
The endgame in 2014 will be about Veras, who’s supposed to make fans forget about the Marmol meltdowns, at least for a few months.
Veras saved 19 games for the Houston Astros last season before getting traded to the Detroit Tigers. The Cubs had that idea in mind when they signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal that contains a $5.5 million option for 2015, plus incentives.
Veras is 33 years old and spent four seasons with the great Mariano Rivera at Yankee Stadium, so he should be a calming veteran presence at the back end of the bullpen. The Cubs are hoping Veras will feel the adrenaline rush in the ninth inning when the games matter.
“V knows how to get himself ready,” Renteria said. “I think if you’ve seen most closers during the spring, they don’t typically have the best outings.”