The Cubs couldn’t make it through Opening Day without a closer controversy. In the middle of PNC Park, manager Dale Sveum took the ball from Carlos Marmol and used James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa to get the final two outs and win the game.
Almost six full months later, the Pittsburgh Pirates came into Wrigley Field on Monday night and clinched their first playoff spot since 1992. They got to that point with a dominant bullpen that had nicknamed itself “The Shark Tank.”
The celebration started with Jason Grilli pumping his fist and running from behind home plate to hug catcher Russell Martin, who had tagged Nate Schierholtz and somersaulted after the bang-bang play. Game over. Raise the Jolly Roger. Pirates win 2-1.
The Cubs made a run at Grilli last winter before the journeyman reliever grabbed a two-year, $6.75 million deal to re-sign with the Pirates. At the age of 36 – and even with missing six weeks because of a forearm strain – Grilli emerged as an All-Star and notched his 32nd save.
In an offseason where team president Theo Epstein expects to be able to sign only one high-profile free agent, the Cubs could be working from a similar blueprint.
“I’m a believer that closers come from a lot of different places,” Epstein said. “If you can find a guy who has some swing-and-miss stuff, some courage and effectiveness earlier in the game, you should try him in the ninth inning. Because if he’s got enough (guts) and he’s got enough stuff, there’s a chance he can handle it.”
The Cubs planned to look inside and outside the organization for their 2014 closer – even before Kevin Gregg ripped the front office last week and had to apologize to Epstein and Sveum. Gregg walked all the way up to the Wrigley Field press box to explain his misunderstanding – he wasn’t losing his job if Pedro Strop got a save opportunity or two in late September.
[RELATED: Epstein accepts Gregg's apology]
Sveum told Gregg before Monday’s game that he would be the closer. In the ninth inning of a tie game, Starling Marte hammered Gregg’s slider into the left-field bleachers. The Cubs now have a 20-33 record in one-run games to go with 26 blown saves.
While the Pirates found an endgame formula – their relievers had a 2.93 ERA that ranked second in the National League – the Cubs had to blow up their bullpen.
Nothing went according to plan after that ninth-inning scene on April 1. Marmol lost the closer’s job by the weekend, got booed out of Chicago and wound up with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fujikawa’s right elbow had been “barking” in spring training and would need Tommy John surgery. Gregg (2-6, 3.54 ERA, 32 saves) would be released from the Dodgers on April 3 and sign a minor-league deal with the Cubs 12 days later.
“The way we’ve played is probably the most frustrating brand of baseball,” general manager Jed Hoyer said in mid-April. “There’s nothing worse than winning a game for two hours and 45 minutes and then losing. I think that starts to wear on a team.”
It has turned up the heat on Sveum, who hopes the Cubs are right on some of the upside/change-of-scenery/injury-risk pitchers they have collected – Justin Grimm, Daniel Bard, Hector Rondon, etc. But the manager also didn’t hesitate when asked what needs to be fixed if he’s brought back for 2014.
“You got to start with the bullpen,” Sveum said. “Not that we don’t have some pieces right now. But I think going into that first game next year in Pittsburgh, (you need) to have a bona fide seven guys in that bullpen that can shut the door on any given night with power arms and left-handers and hard sinker-ballers to get groundballs.
“You can go on and on, but I think that’s the first thing you have to address.”
Strop has looked like a potential closer since coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in a July trade, holding the opponent scoreless in 31 of 35 appearances, posting a 2.70 ERA with 40 strikeouts against 10 walks in 33.1 innings.
Epstein isn’t ready to anoint a closer for next season.
“The bigger story for me is we started out the year with a bad bullpen,” Epstein said, blaming his front office. “That’s our fault. Through the course of the year, I think it really steadily improved by changing the mix a little bit.”
It’s not a finished product. It sounds like the Cubs will be buying in bulk instead of paying for a brand name as they try to match up with the Pirates and what has become the toughest division in baseball.
“Bullpens for everyone is very hit-or-miss,” Sveum said. “Any general manager will tell you it’s the hardest thing to build on a year-to-year basis.”