Cubs' closer cast set to audition

Cubs' closer cast set to audition

As the Cubs count down to the start of Spring Training, we'll take a look at different elements of the team, beginning with: The closer.

CHICAGO -- Last spring, Kerry Wood, Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol competed for the Cubs' closer job. Wood won, and notched 34 saves in his first season in that role. This year, Wood and Howry are gone, having departed via free agency. It would seem logical that Marmol would inherit the role.

Not so fast, Lou Piniella says.

The Cubs acquired Kevin Gregg from Florida this offseason, and Piniella doesn't want to declare Marmol the closer until he sees both pitchers this spring.

"Let them compete," Piniella said. "I feel comfortable with Marmol, there's no question. But we traded for this other young man, and he was a closer over there with success. Give him a chance, too."

Gregg has 61 saves over the last two seasons with the Marlins while Marmol has eight career saves, getting seven of those last year when Wood was injured. Who has the edge?

"That's really for Lou to decide," Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "I think Carlos has proved what kind of job he can do in that role. I'd be surprised if there is anybody who can do it better. We're confident in what he can do."

Marmol is confident, too. His agent told him at the end of the 2008 season that the Cubs wanted the pitcher to prepare for the job. Marmol stuck to the same offseason routine that he's done the last few years. It's worked so far.

"We'll see what happens," Marmol said.

Marmol did lead the Cubs with 82 appearances and was first among all Major League relievers with 114 strikeouts in 2008. Batters hit just .135 against him. He had one bad month in June, when he gave up nine earned runs over 11 innings for a 7.36 ERA. Marmol regained his form in August, and served up one run and two hits over 16 1/3 innings in 16 games.

"I think he got a little fatigued at one point and started overthrowing and got into some bad habits," Rothschild said. "For about better than a year, he pitched better than anybody could pitch. There was a bump in the road, and he recovered nicely from it. I don't think any of that is unexpected for a young kid."

Marmol's durability made him a perfect fit for the setup role. Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, who saw the right-hander pitch in the Dominican Republic, endorsed Marmol as a potential closer.

"Nobody can hit him," Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said. "He's one of those guys who has a chance to do anything he wants because he has a pretty special arm with electric stuff."

Gregg likes the adrenaline rush in the ninth inning, too. He feels better now than he did in all of 2008 after undergoing surgery for patellar tendinitis immediately after the regular season ended. He began his throwing program in early January and expects to be right on schedule when pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 13.

"I'm going in competing," Gregg said. "I know what I'm capable of; I know what I've done the last couple years. I know how to get the outs in the ninth inning."

Gregg has made eight starts in his Major League career, which began with the Angels in 2003.

"I've kind of covered every role that there possibly can be -- minimal starts -- but in the bullpen I've covered every role out there," Gregg said. "I'm definitely more comfortable closing in the ninth with the game on the line. Hopefully, that's where it takes me."

Wood, who signed a two-year deal with the Indians, admitted it took a while for him to get used to the timing of being a closer. The anticipation usually builds as the game progresses.

"Every game situation is different," Gregg said. "I'm pretty mellow and never had a big spike in adrenaline."

He's well aware that crowds at Wrigley Field can help. The Marlins relievers used to pass time in the bullpen by counting the number of fans in the stands at Dolphin Stadium.

"Going to Florida was kind of a culture shock for me," Gregg said. "It'll be nice to go back to 40,000 fans, and fans who are intense about the game and expect to win."

Gregg got to know some of his new teammates during the Cubs Convention in January.

"The one thing is we all have one thing in common, we all play baseball," Gregg said. "We all have one goal in common, and that's getting to the World Series and winning. It makes it pretty easy because you have something in common right away, even though you don't know the guy, you have something in common and that makes the connection a little easier.

"It takes some time to feel things out. The great thing about the Cubs is the chemistry and the atmosphere there is tremendous. That always makes it easy when you know there are good things going on, good people, good ideas. I'm excited to be around it and excited to be a part of it."

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