Early Guesswork on How the Chicago Cubs Will Handle the Closer Spot

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Early Guesswork on How the Chicago Cubs Will Handle the Closer Spot

Chicago Cubs

The nature of the Chicago Cubs bullpen situation is such that it’s pretty hard to make a COMPLETELY CONFIDENT prediction on who the closer will be this season.

For the most obvious thing, there is no “established closer” on the roster. Some teams have that guy. Some don’t. That’s not that atypical for Spring Training, but the Cubs definitely fall into that group.

For another thing, the composition of the bullpen, itself, is still being sorted out, and there are guys with obvious closer upside – Jeremiah Estrada, for example – who may not actually join the bullpen until some point well into the season.

For another thing, the Cubs have a large number of guys who’ll be in the bullpen about whom you can make a convincing closer argument.

For still another thing, some of the guys with definite closer ability are also multi-inning guys, which has its own significant value.

And, lastly, it’s not like David Ross has given up any kind of sure-fire clues as to what the plan is, instead suggesting – as expected – that it might be a mix-and-match situation for a while, until and unless someone emerges, like David Robertson last year.

Of course, you will remember that Robertson, who had extensive closing experience in the past, kinda felt like a favorite from the jump. When everyone was rested in the bullpen, and there was a clear save opportunity coming, without obvious match-up-related limitations, Robertson was getting the 9th. He did very well with it, and thus became “the closer.” So it’s true that no one had the job entering the season, but we kinda had a sense which guy the Cubs might already be leaning toward.

Who is that guy right now? Even if the Cubs don’t have a set closer, who is going to, all else equal, get the first chance to win the job?

At a gut instinct level, it’s felt like the answer there is probably one of Michael Fulmer or Brad Boxberger. Other guys are a little more situational, or are multi-inning guys, or are younger, or are the-maybe-sole-lefty. Boxberger has some closing experience in his career, and Fulmer, a more recent bullpen convert, has definitely showed closer ability (and had a touch of experience there with the Tigers). Throw in the fact that these two are the only true free agent signings in the bullpen, and it’s not hard to imagine it was floated to them that they would have a chance to close if they signed with the Cubs (on what proved to be very modest deals in both cases).

Well, sure enough, Patrick Mooney – in writing about the Cubs’ pitch to Michael Fulmer in free agency – says that, “The Cubs view Fulmer and Brad Boxberger as their primary options for the ninth inning.”

Again, it passes the gut check.

For his part, Fulmer confirmed to The Athletic that closing came up in the Cubs’ pursuit, which started very early in the offseason, but nothing was promised.

“They had conversations about (closing), but I kind of inferred it as me having to win a job,” Fulmer said. “This clubhouse is full of great relievers. I know a lot of them had closing opportunities last year, which is great. A well-rounded bullpen like that — where you can put any guy in any situation — is huge. Whatever Rossy says, whatever he feels — I know he’s big on matchups — we got a great group of guys. Anybody can do it. Would I love to be back there? Absolutely. That’s just kind of the way I’m wired. When the game’s on the line, I want to be pitching.”

Keeping in mind that sometimes your most high-leverage late-inning moment comes in the 7th or 8th inning, my guess is – again, all else equal, with everyone rested and healthy – we’ll see Boxberger used primarily as a late-inning setup guy, and Fulmer will get the first crack at closing. That doesn’t mean he’ll get every save spot, and it doesn’t mean there will necessarily be a ton of runway there. But I get the feeling that the Cubs believe he has the constitution to handle the 9th inning – as un-sabermetric as it sounds, the inning is just different at an emotional and intensity level for pitchers – and I also think the Cubs believe he can be really good at the role.

All that said, I don’t know that I’d go out and draft Fulmer to be your closer for fantasy baseball purposes. There will still probably be a feeling out period in the first couple months of the season. Let’s just hope the Cubs give David Ross plenty of opportunities to use a “closer.”

er, well, I mean, if we’re just HOPING for stuff, I guess I’ll hope that the Cubs give David Ross plenty of opportunities to pitch a guy in the 9th, but no save opportunities, since the Cubs are already leading by a dozen.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.