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It's pretty clear Lou Piniella wants Kerry Wood to be the closer for the Chicago Cubs this season. He's all but said this, implying numerous times that Wood is the leader, has thrown well enough to earn the job and won't share the role. The problem is, Wood hasn't been a closer before, and there's no telling whether his body would comply anyway.
This has been one of the big stories in Cubs camp all spring training, along with where Piniella will hit Kosuke Fukudome in the batting order, who will be the fifth starter and whether all the talk about the Brian Roberts trade will ever become reality. The truth is, everyone wants to know who will get the ball for the ninth inning, and the leading contender for the role has never saved a major league game.
Not that Carlos Marmol and Bobby Howry are Bruce Sutter, but can Wood hold them off? Someone has to lead the Cubs in saves, right?
The problem for fantasy owners is that this is probably not going to be decided in the next week, maybe not in the next month. How about July? Will there be clarity here anytime soon? Not as long as Piniella insists on using Wood to close games when his other options manage to stay healthy.
Of course, this isn't news for Piniella. Since leaving Cincinnati, where the bullpen was arguably the strongest part of a World Series-winning club, Piniella has had some pretty interesting closers in Tampa Bay and Seattle. Danys Baez and Lance Carter got the saves for him in Tampa Bay. In Seattle, Piniella most often turned to Kazuhiro Sasaki, Jose Mesa, Mike Timlin, Norm Charlton, Heathcliff Slocumb and Bobby Ayala. If you've played fantasy baseball for a while, you know this isn't the first time Piniella has had decisions to make in his bullpen, and he's often made decisions that the team's fans and the general public haven't agreed with. Remember, Ryan Dempster kept the closer role much of 2007.
Each of Piniella's current options are flawed to some degree, so let's examine the combatants.
Kerry Wood: The undisputed leader in the clubhouse, Wood is the guy Piniella wants to close. It makes sense, you know. Then again, Piniella also wants to win 110 games, lose 20 pounds and ride a Harley to work each day. Wisely, Piniella sees Marmol and Howry as horses he can go to on a daily basis, and for more than an inning at a time if needed. With Wood, who knows when he'll be available? Once a dominating starting pitcher seemingly on his way to Cooperstown, Wood hasn't been able to stay on the field due to shoulder and knee problems, and it's not a one-year thing. In the past three seasons he's pitched a total of 110 major league innings. He can no longer start games, but can he finish?
Wood has pitched well this spring, better than the other closer hopefuls, allowing six hits in seven innings and three earned runs, walking nobody and fanning four. Piniella has used him carefully, never on back-to-back days, and this would seem to be the main hindrance to letting Wood close during the season. Wood's partially torn rotator cuff appears healed, as he had strong velocity and overpowered hitters late last season. He also struggled with his command, but that's nothing new for Wood. His latest setback is back spasms, and they likely pushed back an official announcement of Wood being named closer already. Once Piniella is convinced Wood doesn't need days off between outings, he'll let the world know who his closer is. This could happen if Wood pitches this coming Sunday and Monday.
It's quite possible this won't happen, however, as Wood isn't likely to suddenly become a pillar of durability. Look for Wood to get the first shot to close a game once April begins. He should pitch well, if not often. His stuff is not a concern, and we've seen plenty of other pitchers moved to the closer role when they couldn't start due to performance or injury. It happens all the time. Maybe you've heard of Eric Gagne? Joe Nathan? Wood could be a 30-save closer.
Prediction: Wood closes in April, and looks terrific. Fantasy owners fawn over him, trade for him, assume he's a key fantasy cog. Then Wood breaks down. It'll be something, a sore shoulder, a tweaked knee, blisters, you name it. Wood serves a DL stint, comes back to earn more saves, gets hurt again, loses the job for good in August and ends up giving fantasy owners 16 saves, but spread out over a few months.
Carlos Marmol:With Wood no longer hitting triple digits on the radar gun, Marmol becomes the hardest thrower in the bullpen, and owns the nastiest stuff. His breakout came in 2007, with 96 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings, and it stunned fantasy owners who only saw the 6.08 ERA and 1.688 WHIP from his 77 innings in 2006. Marmol has always been a strikeout pitcher, though a wild one, and his lack of command and fly-ball rates probably don't make him the perfect closer in the first place. But he will get a chance.
Marmol was the preeminent relief pitcher in the Chicago bullpen, and fantasy owners waited all season for him to replace Ryan Dempster as the closer. It never happened. In fact, there were times when both Marmol and Angel Guzman became non-options for the rotation so they could get in line to close. Marmol is clearly a relief pitcher at this point, and Guzman is healing from August Tommy John surgery.
Prediction: Marmol is going to be worth owning in fantasy this season, so one needn't worry about drafting him. You want to draft him for the peripheral numbers and strikeout potential, and hope for saves. Few relief pitchers have the ability to fan more than 100 hitters in a season. Marmol can do this. He's Joel Zumaya, hopefully without the fluke injuries. He's Brad Lidge, hopefully without the home run issues. The saves will come when Wood is out of the lineup, but Piniella is unlikely to commit to him long-term until Wood is out of the picture. Expect Marmol to have an ERA around 2, a strong WHIP and about 20 saves. But no job security as closer.
Bobby Howry: When spring training commenced, Howry seemed to be the team's leader in the closer race. A bad spring quickly changed things. The truth is Howry has done well with his occasional save chances the past two seasons, but there are reasons for concern. One, he allows a lot of fly balls, and whether the wind is blowing out or not, too many of the fly balls go over the wall. Howry has permitted 16 home runs in two seasons, and the majority of them were blasted by right-handed hitters. He eats up innings, throws strikes and has a strong cumulative WHIP of 1.15 as a Cub, but his role is likely to be fortifying the seventh and eighth innings, bridging the gap to the closer. Certainly Howry could close if given the chance, and looking at some of the winners Piniella has chosen for the role in the past, he could keep the role and thrive. My guess is he's a clear No. 3 in this race.
Prediction: Howry starts the year in the seventh inning, and finishes in the eighth when Wood is out and Marmol gets the promotion. Howry can still help a fantasy team this way, piling on the safe innings, strikeouts and holds, but don't expect him to garner many saves. I'll set eight as his over/under, and take the under.
Ryan Dempster: Hey, don't forget this guy. Stranger things have happened than former closers regaining the role. Fantasy owners might think Dempster was a horrible disgrace the past few seasons, but the fact is only 12 pitchers in baseball have more saves since 2005. Dempster led the NL in save percentage in 2005, and was consistently undervalued in his three years as closer based on perception. Was he good? Well, his 3-16 record and high peripherals since 2006 weren't very good. I think Dempster will be a capable No. 4 starter for the Cubs and flirt with 200 innings pitched and 12 wins, but if there's trouble in the bullpen, he could easily be moved. It happened to Brett Myers in 2007. Who expected that?
Michael Wuertz: Buried as a sixth inning guy for a few years, Wuertz has closed in the minors before, but his only Cubs save came as a rookie in 2004. Wuertz has thrown eight scoreless innings this spring, allowing five hits and no walks, with 13 strikeouts. If Marmol keeps walking people, and Wood can't stay healthy, Wuertz could become more relevant. For now, he's fourth in line for saves, at least.
In terms of fantasy value for this season, I'd rank Marmol as the best option from the Chicago bullpen, then Wood (for the saves) and Howry a safe, but distant third. It's going to be an adventure in Piniella's bullpen, and judging from past seasons, it seems he'd have it no other way.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.