Commentary

No easy answers

Closer dilemma just part of the problem for Cubs manager Piniella

Originally Published: August 18, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeKevin Gregg
Jerry Lai/US PresswireKevin Gregg's blown save Monday in San Diego might have been the toughest of all and officially killed the Cubs' season.
If there was an easy solution to the Cubs' closer woes, surely Bob in Glen Ellyn would have phoned it in by now.

And if Kevin Gregg was Lou Piniella's only problem, it might actually matter.

Trailing St. Louis by six games in the National League Central isn't what seemingly turned Monday in San Diego into the night the Cubs season officially died.

Injury-plagued, offensively hamstrung, fundamentally challenged and now, yes, officially in search of somebody -- anybody -- who can get more outs in the ninth inning than walks, wild pitches and walk-off home runs, the Cubs are a mess.

But for now, let's pretend it does matter and focus on Tuesday's news, which is how to replace Gregg (pause for requisite sarcastic comments muttered under your breath suggesting such things as your 10-year-old son or a bag of donuts).

As ESPNChicago.com baseball reporter Bruce Levine points out, Gregg is worn down after being called on far too many times to rescue narrow leads. As everyone else chimes in, Gregg has allowed a major league-leading 12 home runs and has blown three of his six saves in August, the last perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all.

Allowing four runs in the ninth inning with two outs, the final three coming on a home run to Kyle Banks, pushed Piniella to a place he probably could have reached after Gregg's two blown saves in the Marlins series early this month: looking for a new closer.

Carlos Marmol? Angel Guzman? Or is there someone out there who can actually come in and take over the most demanding role on a new club?

The possibilities are endless:

Marmol, though one of the hardest guys to hit, elicits rightful groans for his place as the ML leader in walks, and Piniella does not have the stomach for it. Guzman might be the safest choice, if you can say that about a player who has had little to no experience in pressure situations like this one. And another option is the never-popular closer-by-committee of Guzman, Marmol and John Grabow, which seldom works.

In the fun/crazy discussion category, John Smoltz, who is on waivers after being cast away from Boston, has been brought up as a possible Cubs closer but will not go to the bullpen and could be headed to St. Louis as a fifth starter.

Rich Harden's name also pops up but should be promptly popped back down, as the Cubs have enough trouble getting him ready to pitch every five days, and his shoulder might well have fallen off entirely under the strain Gregg has experienced.

[+] EnlargeZambrano
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireCarlos Zambrano balked at the idea of helping out in the bullpen.
Carlos Zambrano, anyone? You want to throw a starter into the volcano that's the Cubs' bullpen; how about it? When the bullpen possibility was brought up in Miami earlier this month by Piniella as a way to help out a tired group, Zambrano naturally balked. But if he could avoid pouting, he might even like being the hero, and if nothing else, it might be one way to show he's not the selfish, overpaid prima donna he appears to be, and it might even get him back into the good graces of Cubs fans.

Looking outside, Billy Wagner, is going back on the active roster after coming back from Tommy John surgery. The Mets' left-handed closer is owed $4 million, a lot of money for a guy who hasn't pitched for a year, but is likely to be picked up by someone, as the Mets have little use for him.

With Gregg's demise as Cubs' closer, general manager Jim Hendry is taking heat for having him here in the first place, the argument being that he knew what he was getting with Gregg, who did not exactly blow his first save in Chicago.

But Gregg also had knee surgery last year, and while the Cubs liked the idea that he went out and battled at less than 100 percent, clearly we're seeing the residual effects now.

But who's to blame for the Cubs stranding 10 baserunners Monday night -- eight in scoring position over the second, fourth, sixth and seventh innings against one of the worst teams in baseball?

The arrow is pointing down; has been for a while now. And strains of "There's still a lot more baseball to be played" is being heard less and less, the idea more depressing than anything else.

Kevin Gregg takes the fall today, but it is merely a distraction. The problem is far bigger than him.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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