Each candidate capable to close

Each candidate capable to close

MESA, Ariz. -- Flip a coin. Put their names in a hat. Draw straws. Do rock, paper, scissors. Somehow, the Cubs have to pick a closer.

They could let it play out this spring and see how Bob Howry, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol do. The trio of contenders threw to batters on Thursday, and all looked good.

"Whether it's Kerry, whether it's Howry, whether it's Marmol, these guys are all capable of doing it," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.

Which makes who will be the closer the hot topic of Spring Training, even if the players don't think it is.

"I don't feel like it's competition," Marmol said. "We're trying to help the team."

The three are doing their best to downplay what can best be described as a friendly battle for the job. Howry may not have invited Wood to his golf tournament this offseason, but that wasn't because of the competition for the job. Wood peeked in on Howry's session with beat writers to goad him about how he did Thursday.

"I thought I had a little bit more on the fastball," Howry said, jokingly, "but you might have had a better slider."

OK, let's be serious.

"The competition is good," Wood said. "We have three guys down there who can do it. Lou and the upper management will make the best decision to help this team win and put the best guy out there. Whoever we're getting the ball to, or whoever's getting the ball to them is just as important."

Howry got off to a slow start last season, compiling a 4.68 ERA in the first half compared to a 1.85 ERA in the second. Wood has to show his right shoulder is durable enough to handle the job. And Marmol has had one-half season in the big leagues and is lacking experience.

"I'd rather have a healthy Kerry Wood than rush him to be the closer come April 1," Piniella said. "That's a determination that's easy to make. Bob last year struggled for a month or five weeks, and then he really turned it on. Marmol in cold weather with that slider and that motion he comes at you with, it's not easy to hit. I don't think we can go wrong with any of the three."

What makes the situation even more interesting is that all three want the job.

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"That's a big part of the battle -- they all want the challenge, they all want the responsibility," Piniella said. "I could flip a coin right now and I could feel comfortable with any of them. We'll let it play out. That's why we have Spring Training."

Piniella didn't want to pick a favorite.

"Anything I say will probably bite me later on, so I might as well just leave it open and give ourselves some options," he said. "I can't go wrong with either three, and leave it at that."

Other teams have had success with three closer-type pitchers for the late innings. The Astros did so with Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner, and the 1990 Cincinnati Reds had the trio of Randy Myers, Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble.

"Regardless of how it plays out and who they put in what role, the fact that you have three guys who you feel could do a quality job closing ... it should give us a strong back end of a bullpen," Howry said.

So this competition thing, this battle for the ninth inning, it's strictly media-driven?

"Absolutely," Wood said.

"One hundred percent it is," Howry said.

Howry does have the edge in that he's done it more than the other two. In 1999, he was the White Sox closer and totaled 28 saves. Piniella has hinted in other interviews this spring that Howry is the favorite.

"I have to live up to it, if that's the case," Howry said. "Does that come because I've been around longer than all of them for experience? I may have more durability than Kerry does. The first time I did it, shoot, I was two months into the big leagues. Who's to say a young guy can't do it? It's a competition from the outside, but from here, let's get ready for the season. We expect to have a strong bullpen."

And if Howry didn't get the job?

"I'm not going to mope about it," he said. "Do I want it? Yeah. If it comes down and they say, 'Hey, one of these two guys is going to do it,' [setup] is what they brought me in to do two years ago.

"[To be the closer] is a great opportunity. I'm still going to be pitching in the same situations an inning earlier if I'm not closing."

All they want is to know their role when the season starts. Otherwise, their job is the same: get hitters out.

"You want to turn it into a six-inning game," Howry said. "I realize starters want to go seven, they want to go eight, they want to go nine. The way it works, and especially in the National League, if you can give us six quality innings, we've got a bullpen -- and not just us three, but the bullpen as a whole -- that we feel the game is over.

"You give us the lead after six innings, there's no doubt in my mind we should win."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.