Carlos Marmol is the Chicago Cubs’ closer.

While that may have been a debatable issue back in May, Marmol came back from a hamstring injury/get-your-head-straight-hiatus and looked like something better than a mere satisfactory closer in the final three months of the season (setting aside the fact that the Cubs didn’t give him too many games to close). So, as of today, he’s the guy.

But will he be in 2013? That remains a legitimate question, even if Marmol has put to bed one of the primary reasons for asking it. Now the he has regained confidence in his fastball, and, with it, his effectiveness, we ask whether he’ll be the Cubs’ closer in 2013 only because of his contract and the team’s expected level of play. Marmol will make $9.8 million in 2013, and will be a free agent thereafter. If the Cubs aren’t expecting to be truly competitive in 2013, a near $10 million closer is a luxury that could be better used as a trade piece. Eat enough salary, and Marmol actually has some trade value (I know – crazy, right?).

Patrick Mooney recently spoke to Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein on the Marmol situation, and Epstein offered candid praise of his closer, as well as thoughts on how the Cubs might replace him.

“When there’s something extreme early in the season, it dictates the narrative for the whole season,” Epstein said of Marmol’s rocky start in 2012. “I think it kind of went unnoticed nationally, just the extent to which this guy turned his year around and was really effective.”

In large part, Epstein attributes that turnaround to the return of Marmol’s fastball.

“Big punch-out rate, more strikes and then really significantly he did it in a completely different way,” Epstein said. “His fastball was really useable and really effective and that hasn’t been seen around here from him, maybe ever. That was a great sign, because I think it’s more likely to be repeated next year.

“He’s got two really viable pitches now. If he had just been a straight-out slider monster and happened to lock in his slider for a couple months and faced some aggressive hitters, I wouldn’t be as optimistic about him as I am now, because he’s got two weapons to go at hitters with again.”

So is Epstein, who says he’s comfortable with Marmol as his closer going into 2013, standing behind Marmol as a core piece for the near future, or is he just doing his best to talk up a trade piece?

Obviously Epstein won’t say, but he did discuss how the Cubs would address the closer spot in 2013 if a void should suddenly develop.

“I would look at it as an opportunity to try to give someone an opportunity,” Epstein said. “Either internally – a pitcher that we believed in and liked and exposed them to that role [so he] could maybe develop into that type of asset. Or go outside the organization and try to buy low on a pitcher that we really liked and then build value by putting him in that role. [That’s] value for the Cubs, and then if our season doesn’t turn out the way we want it to – potential value in a trade.”

In other words, Epstein doesn’t see the Cubs going out and trying to buy one of the “top” closers in the game. That, of course, makes sense in at least two ways: (1) the 2013 Cubs aren’t expected to be the kind that needs a “top” closer (we are, after all, talking about a universe in which they’ve dumped Marmol); and (2) spending big bucks on “top” closers has always struck me as one of the more inefficient uses of your payroll dollars. Although I won’t go so far as to say it’s easy to find or develop an acceptable closer, I will say that it is consistently one of the more important roles that you see rapid turnover from year to year at the top of the leader boards.

If the Cubs do move Marmol, I have no issue with them giving the closer’s job to a young reliever, or finding some undervalued middle reliever on the cheap, and giving him a chance to up his value as a closer. Indeed, Epstein seemed quick to describe that latter option – signing a cheap reliever, making him the closer, and then hoping he creates trade value – pretty thoroughly. Enough so that I am more convinced than I already was that the Cubs would be aggressively shopping Carlos Marmol this Winter.

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