State of the Cubs: The manager search and World Series closers

State of the Cubs: The manager search and World Series closers
October 26, 2013, 7:15 pm
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Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki

Theo Epstein thinks closers can come from just about anywhere. The Cubs president isn’t interested in buying a brand name, believing the ninth-inning answer can be found through drafting and development, change of scenery and/or trial and error.

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The bullpen became a hot-button issue for Dale Sveum, who got fired after a 96-loss season. It will be that way for the next Cubs manager, who at least won’t have to sit through all those Carlos Marmol meltdowns.

The search continues to focus on the San Diego Padres, as bench coach Rick Renteria and executive A.J. Hinch will get another round of interviews with Cubs management, FOX Sports reported Saturday.

Eric Wedge – who managed the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians for 10 seasons – has discussed the Cubs job at length over the phone and will interview in-person on Tuesday. The expectation is Boston Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo will be contacted once the World Series is over.

[MORE: Lovullo is another Cubs angle to Red Sox-Cardinals World Series]

This October run has highlighted John Farrell’s feel managing a game. Remember the Red Sox had traded for Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan in consecutive winters, but both wound up needing season-ending surgeries in 2013, the kind of bad luck that could have sunk another team.

Koji Uehara looked more like a luxury item than a Boston folk hero when he signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal last December. At the age of 38, he led all American League relievers with 64 scoreless appearances. He has saved five playoff games, giving up only one run in 10 innings and not beating himself (13 strikeouts against zero walks). The ALCS MVP certainly earned that vesting option.

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The St. Louis Cardinals headed into Saturday night’s Game 3 at Busch Stadium with so much young power pitching they could build a dynasty.

Jason Motte won a World Series ring in 2011 and led the National League with 42 saves in 2012 before Tommy John surgery wiped out this season. So the Cardinals rode a hot hand with Edward Mujica (37 saves) before giving the ball to flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal, a 21st-round pick in the 2009 draft. Epstein’s front office doesn’t have that kind of assembly line yet.

Throughout October, will take state-of-the-organization snapshots, rewinding the 2013 season and looking ahead to the future, trying to figure out what’s next for the Cubs.   

Lightning rod: Public opinion turned on Sveum as Cubs fans booed Marmol and fired off angry messages on Twitter as soon as he started warming up in the bullpen.

Marmol was an All-Star setup guy, a key piece to two teams that won division titles and the franchise’s all-time leader in relief appearances. But Sveum couldn’t wait to see the Cubs get rid of Marmol, who was designated for assignment and traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 2.

Those bullpen decisions are so easy to second-guess, and the next manager will have to deal with Cubs fans and Chicago media types who want it both ways.

[State of the Cubs: Looking ahead to Starlin Castro and Javier Baez]

You can’t obsess over prospects, crediting Epstein’s front office for every draft pick and international free agent who is years away from making an impact…and then rip the manager for using some bum in the seventh inning. Something has to give with this constant roster churn of Rule 5 guys and waiver-wire pick-ups.

One day this summer, Sveum laughed when a reporter mentioned Jim Leyland’s line about the Detroit Tigers bullpen: “Who the (bleep) should I be closing with?”

Help wanted: No one’s suggesting the Cubs should pay $15 million for a closer. But the front office could help out the next manager by investing in a few veteran bullpen arms, knowing the devastating effects losing games late can have inside the clubhouse.

Maybe a former closer misreads the market and falls to them or they see a chance to build value with another sign-and-flip deal. There will be names out there like Mujica, Brian Wilson, Jesse Crain and Francisco Rodriguez, along with a nice crop of free-agent lefties: J.P. Howell, Eric O'Flaherty and Oliver Perez.

Remember the Cubs picked up Kevin Gregg off the scrap heap in April and he wound up saving 33 games.

Change of scenery: The anticipated return of pitching coach Chris Bosio means the Cubs can confidently keep taking chances with talented players who need a fresh start.

When the front office started selling off parts in early July, the Cubs grabbed hard-throwing right-hander Pedro Strop from the Baltimore Orioles in the Scott Feldman deal. Strop had been a huge part of Baltimore's bullpen during a surprising playoff run in 2012, but struggled with his slider, got booed at Camden Yards and put up a 7.25 ERA through 29 games with the Orioles.

[State of the Cubs: Kris Bryant and the talent awaiting next Cubs manager]

Strop rewired his game with the Cubs, posting a 2.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 42 strikeouts in 35 innings. He has the stuff and the guts to be your closer in 2014.

X-factor: Kyuji Fujikawa had saved more than 200 games in Japan before signing a two-year, $9.5 million deal. But his right elbow started “barking” and he made only 12 appearances before getting shut down for Tommy John surgery. He’s 33 years old and one projection had him returning sometime around the 2014 All-Star break.

Fading down the stretch: James Russell might have paid the price for making 151 appearances across the last two seasons. The lefty didn’t allow his first run until May 8, but saw his ERA rise consistently throughout the year, spiking in June (5.56), July (6.00) and August (4.91) before Sveum limited Russell's workload and called his number only five times in September. That could have been one issue when Epstein talked about concerns with long-term roster management.

The Cubs have watched the Cardinals ride all those young power pitchers through October. The Cubs looked at the draft as a volume game, selecting six pitchers with their first eight picks in 2013 and using seven of their first eight picks on pitchers in 2012. 

That won’t do much for the next manager on Opening Day 2014, but the Cubs hope that group will reveal a game-over closer.