Commentary

Sean Marshall wants to be a starter

Cubs LHP accepts role as reliever but thinks he can do more to help

Updated: March 25, 2010, 2:10 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. -- Standing in left field this past July with the bases loaded, nobody out in the ninth inning and the bleacher bums chanting his name, all Sean Marshall wanted was a fly ball to come his way.

"I was hoping I could throw the runner out at home," the Cubs lefty reliever said this week with a perfectly straight face. "There wasn't a person on that field whose arm was as loose as mine. I wanted to throw a four-seam heater right at [Geovany Soto's] chest."

[+] EnlargeSean Marshall
Jerry Lai/US PresswireSean Marshall says he's happy to contribute wherever he's needed but is confident he could be a starter.

Cubs manager Lou Piniella had gone -- in Marshall's words -- "old school" and sent the pitcher to left to replace Alfonso Soriano. Piniella wanted to force St. Louis manager Tony La Russa's hand in the lefty-righty chess game.

What Marshall wanted was to have a direct hand in winning the game.

He still does.

Proving once again this spring that he's too good for his own good, Marshall waits for Piniella's decision on the final left-handed slot in the starting rotation -- a role that undoubtedly will go to Tom Gorzelanny.

Although Marshall allowed just one unearned run in four innings in a victory over Texas on Wednesday and has a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings this spring, his role as a known quantity out of the bullpen once again appears to be getting in the way of his ambition to be a starter.

Even as the fifth starter coming out of spring training last season, Marshall ended up making two relief appearances in 2009 before his first start. And after mixed results in nine starts (for a 3-7 record and 5.24 ERA), Marshall proved once again to be outstanding in situational relief, including a period from June 12 through Aug. 4 in which he posted an 0.48 ERA in 26 relief appearances.

But that doesn't mean he has forgotten about starting, and he still had high hopes this week with a decision expected from Piniella on Friday.

"I like getting handed the ball and having a chance to win the game and get credit for the win," Marshall said. "Sometimes you come out of the bullpen and run into some luck and get a lead, or have a lead change when you're in the game and get some wins that way.

"But I like knowing I'm going to pitch every fifth day, knowing that my name is going to go across the ticker and I'm going to be the guy that has the ball and is in charge that day. I like that. And I like in the National League that pitchers get to hit because I like to hit. It's just my competitive nature, I guess, to be the guy in control."

That said, the consummate nice guy and team player said he is fine with the "swing role" he has filled the past few years and looks at the positives in coming out of the bullpen.

"If anything," he said, "throwing less innings every year has extended my career. That's a good way to think of it."

Marshall offers a different look out of the 'pen, he said, with his "big, 12-6, slow curveball. Most relievers come in, and they're usually sinker-slider and they throw hard, hard, hard, and I come in with the slow curveball and then sneak in some fastballs to get you out, especially, hopefully, against left-handed hitters."

Marshall also gives Piniella the luxury of using him in longer relief appearances and spot starts if necessary.

But Ryan Dempster, who admitted he always missed starting when he was a closer, can relate to Marshall's mixed emotions.

"Most of us grew up starting and started in the minor leagues," Dempster said. "Then there comes a point, especially at the big league level, where guys start to separate themselves a little bit if they can do it or not. But [Marshall] has shown the ability to be able to start and also shown an amazing ability to do whatever the team needs him to do to succeed, and that's another great attribute he has.

"Hopefully someday down the road he'll be rewarded for that and get a chance to start a little. He really knows how to pitch. He doesn't just throw one or two pitches. He can throw a whole bunch of pitches and he can throw them all for strikes. He's kind of gone under the radar for how good he has done for us."

If Marshall needs any reminders of how fragile a career can be, he need look no further than good friend and former teammate Rich Hill, whose control and injury problems derailed a once-promising career with the Cubs, followed him to Baltimore and now appear on the brink of relegating him to a minor league assignment with the Cardinals.

"It's a reality check for all of us pitchers that you never know what's going to happen next," Marshall said of Hill's sudden fall after appearing to be the next ace of the Cubs' rotation in early 2007. "You have to take every day and work and work as hard as you can because you see guys who aren't playing anymore and you don't want to be that person."

For now, however, he's not ready to give up on his dreams, either.

"Maybe later in my career when maybe I feel like I'm not ready to start, it'll be different," he said. "But I think right now and for several more years to come, my body will be in the shape to be a starting pitcher and be able to handle a workload of 180-200 innings a year and be up to that challenge."

Piniella said he has not given up on the idea of Marshall as a starter.

"We really like him as a pitcher, but to answer specifically, he can fit into this rotation or somebody else's rotation," Pineilla said. "Our problem here is compounded by the fact that we have four of them, and you've got to make a decision and the decision that we make will be affected a little bit by what the consequences are for our bullpen. So we're going to try to leave here with the best pitching staff we can starting and bullpen-wise, and you've got to remember that in short order, you're going to have [Ted] Lilly ready. So we have to make a decision now that won't have to be changed later."

Either way, Marshall is prepared.

"They know I like starting; I hope they know that," he said. "I try to tell them here and there, 'I'll be the guy for you.' I also know I'm useful as a utility pitcher. That's kind of my new title now. But hopefully, I've made it a tough decision for them."

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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