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updated: 4/14/2014 8:33 PM

Closer by committee? Cubs ought to give it a shot

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  • Pedro Strop gets congratulations from Cubs manager Rick Renteria after earning a save against the Pirates on April 9. Beat writer Bruce Miles thinks the Cubs should abandon conventional baseball wisdom and utilize a different approach to the closer's role.

      Pedro Strop gets congratulations from Cubs manager Rick Renteria after earning a save against the Pirates on April 9. Beat writer Bruce Miles thinks the Cubs should abandon conventional baseball wisdom and utilize a different approach to the closer's role.
    Associated Press

 
 

Baseball is a sport that doesn't take to change very well, and when change does happen, it usually happens gradually and grudgingly.

Watching the Cubs since the start of the season -- yeah, I know it hasn't been easy -- you find them with a crisis as the closer's spot once again.

Jose Veras had the job, but he's out already after a shaky start, and now the Cubs will go with a combination of Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm and maybe even James Russell to finish off close victories, few as they may be.

On one hand, the approach draws groans as the dreaded "closer by committee" system. But on the other, I say to Cubs manager Rick Renteria: give it a shot.

Over the last generation in baseball, we've seen specialization become the norm in bullpen management to the point of silliness.

We've been told repeatedly that "the last three outs of the game are the toughest to get and you really need a special guy to get them."

I think it's more that baseball has talked itself into that mentality.

In a better world, managers would approach the end of games with the matchups they think are best to win that day.

If that means bringing your designated closer in to pitch to a tough hitter with two outs and two men on in the seventh inning, when the game is no less on the line, and turning things over to somebody else for the eighth and ninth, so be it.

Like anything else, the designated closer role worked for somebody way back when and then it was copied around baseball.

That's what happened when teams went from four-man starting rotations in the early 1970s to the five-man. We're speaking generally here, because five-man and even three-man rotations have been in vogue with various teams now and then throughout baseball history.

But the Cubs are in a perfect position to abandon conventional "wisdom" and go with a different approach with their closer situation, even if they don't revolutionize the game and cause a sea change.

The 2014 Cubs have nothing to lose. They're already 4-8, and nobody really expects them to be any better than they were the past two seasons. They might even be worse.

Going with multiple pitchers to close out games can work. The 2005 Boston Red Sox made the postseason -- falling in the division series to the eventual world-champion White Sox -- with no relief pitcher getting more than 50 percent of his team's saves. That's how some in the stats community define a closer-by-committee system.

The Red Sox of that year had 38 saves as a team, with Keith Foulke picking up 15, Mike Timlin 13 and Alan Embree 1. Lo and behold, the other 9 went to Curt Schilling, who may end up in the Hall of Fame someday based on his work as a starter.

Nearer to home, the 1992 White Sox didn't make the playoffs, but they had a respectable season, finishing 86-76. Their 52 saves that season were split among Bobby Thigpen (22), Scott Radinsky (15) Roberto Hernandez (12), Wilson Alvarez (1), Greg Hibbard (1) and Don Pall (1). Thigpen never was quite the same after his then-record 57-save season in 1990.

Most times, teams will try something different out of necessity. Either somebody gets hurt or is ineffective in a certain role.

The Cubs have frittered away good money the last couple of years on designated closers for teams they knew weren't going to be good.

Last year it was Kyuji Fujikawa, who signed a two-year free-agent deal worth $9.5 million out of Japan. Fujikawa replaced the ineffective Carlos Marmol but came down with elbow problems that cost him most of last season and likely will keep him out a good chunk of this year.

Veras came to the Cubs this past winter on a one-year, $4 million deal, and now he's out as closer, at least for now. He has 2 blown saves, an ERA of 12.27 and a WHIP of 2.45 in the small sample size of the early season.

But when a closer continually looks bad and blows saves, it can have a tremendously negative impact on the club and the rest of the bullpen. It also has a way of turning the fan base against the team and manager.

By spreading the save chances among Strop, Rondon, Grimm and Russell, the Cubs can take advantage of favorable matchups from the seventh inning on and even find out if they have "the guy" if they do decide to go back to a one-closer system.

Given the state of the team these days and in its rebuilding process, doing things a different way can't hurt. It's definitely worth a shot.

bmiles@dailyherald.com

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