Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella has said he’s likely to announce the team’s closer for the upcoming season by the end of this week. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, Piniella has indicated that Kevin Gregg is at least as likely to claim the role as Carlos Marmol.

How could this be? Marmol is obviously the superior pitcher. Sure, Gregg has successfully closed before, but Marmol was possibly the best reliever in the National League last year. Certainly that’s the guy you want closing out ball games, right?

What possible reason could there be to use the lesser pitcher in the 9th inning? Well, I can think of one.


At the outset, let me say: I recognize there is a school of thought that the reason you don’t use your best reliever in the closer’s role is so that you have the flexibility to use him in high pressure situations that emerge earlier in the game – say the 7th or the 8th innings. But, in my opinion, that’s not a reason not to use that pitcher as your closer in “normal” games. Recall, when Eric Gagne was the best closer in the history of the universe, the Dodgers routinely used him in high pressure situations in the 8th inning. He was still nominally the Dodgers closer.

So with that caveat aside, I see but a few reasons to name Kevin Gregg the closer of the Chicago Cubs over Carlos Marmol, regardless of what happens in the relatively meaningless Spring Training. And the reason that’s jumping out at me is both savvy and crummy.

Money.

Kevin Gregg, whom the Cubs received from the Marlins this year for prospect Jose Ceda, is in his last year of team control before free agency. Carlos Marmol, on the other hand, is under the Cubs control for three more years after 2009 – his arbitration years.

Without getting into the fine details of the MLB contract system, generally a player is under a team’s control for his first six seasons – the first three on a renewable contract (team picks the salary), and the second three he is eligible for arbitration. Generally, players’ salaries may only decrease by a fraction in arbitration, and usually increase a great deal in those three years. The better a player performs, the more dramatic those arbitration increases are.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

Regardless of how he does on the field this year, Kevin Gregg could leave the Cubs, and they would owe him nothing more. Carlos Marmol, on the other hand, will be a Chicago Cub (God willing) through 2012 at least. And more importantly, how he performs in 2009 will go a long way to determining his 2010 salary. Further, because salaries essentially never decrease in arbitration, the greater his 2010 salary, the greater his 2011 and 2012 salaries.

But why does it matter who closes, you ask? After all, if Carlos Marmol pitches this year like he did last year, even in a setup role, he’s going to see a very nice increase in his salary in 2010 anyway, right? Well, sure.

But that ignores a nasty little secret of the salary measuring tools at the disposal of an arbitrator: they love quantitative statistics.

Runs, hits, home runs, RBIs, strikeouts. Whatever the reason, these statistics are consistently favored in arbitration over rate stats – ERA, batting average, OBP, OPS, WHIP. Thus, arbitrators love … saves.

The mythical statistic attributed to modern statistic superstar Bill James defines a closer, for better or for worse. And closers simply make more money than top set up men. After all, if you’re a top set up man… shouldn’t you be closing by now?

Consider this year’s crop of relievers who took things close to arbitration. Brian Tallet is a relatively obscure left-handed reliever for the Toronto Blue Jays. Last year he threw 56 dynamite innings with an ERA of 2.88, and his career ERA is under 3.50.  He was arbitration eligible for the second year, and his arbitration range was $950,000 (submitted by Blue Jays) to $1.3 million (submitted by Tallet).

Compare with Baltimore Orioles closer George Sherrill. Sherrill threw 53 thoroughly mediocre games last year with an ERA approaching 5. His career ERA is a half run higher than Tallet’s.

Yet when Sherrill was approaching arbitration, what were his figures? He asked for $3.4 million and was offered $2.2 million. More than double what Tallet was going to receive.

What could possibly explain this ostensibly ridiculous, and obvious disconnect? I guess I forgot to mention something: Sherrill had 31 saves last year. Tallet had none.

So what does this mean for the Chicago Cubs closer competition? Maybe nothing.

If there is a significant chasm between Gregg and Marmol in terms of late inning success, I’m sure the Cubs and Piniella will manage them in the most appropriate way to benefit the 2009 Cubs. But it would be naive to think they will ignore the impact on the 2010 Cubs.

If the two are relatively close to each other in Spring Training and early season performance, you can write it down now that Kevin Gregg will be the closer. If Carlos Marmol pitches well this year, and racks up a lot of saves, he’s gonig to be very, very handsomely paid next year, and in the two years to follow. Sure, the team could pass off Gregg as closer as a question of experience – Gregg has closed for two years now, and Marmol hasn’t. They can offer the “use your best pitcher in the critical spots” justification, too.

But I’ll always wonder if the Cubs were thinking, at least a little, about the bottom line.

I don’t mean it as a criticism, mind you. Because maybe they should be. I would.



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