Marmol out; Russell, Dolis in
At some point, enough finally becomes enough.
For Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum, the tipping point came Thursday after he watched Carlos Marmol blow a 3-0 lead in the ninth inning. The disastrous outing in which Marmol failed to retire a single batter, walking three in the process, was the ninth time in 12 appearances in which Marmol allowed runners to reach base.
With an ERA of 6.23 and a WHIP of 2.31, Marmol ranks 153rd among relievers on the ESPN Player Rater. He had allowed 35.5 percent of all inherited runners to score this season, which certainly would put some doubt into any manager's mind and potentially force his hand on a closer change.
However, what really annoyed Sveum was Marmol's pitch selection. The coaching staff had specifically told him to use his fastball more, and Marmol didn't seem to get the message. He continued his season-long trend of turning to the slider (54.3 percent of overall pitches) even when behind in the count, and missing badly with it. He's landed only 46.5 percent of his sliders in the strike zone. In fact, all three walks he gave up on Thursday saw ball four come as a result of an errant slider.
So Sveum has told Marmol he's sliding him out of the closer role. For now, the team will go with a combination of right-hander Rafael Dolis and left-hander James Russell at the end of those rare games when the Cubs actually have a late lead. Chicago has led at the start of the ninth inning only eight times in 2012.
Dolis seems to be the more likely of the pair to succeed. In addition to his one save already this season, he did record 17 saves last year at the Double-A level. However, he's not exactly a power pitcher. He's fanned only four of the 61 batter he's faced this year and had only 48 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings last season in the minors. He relies predominantly on his fastball (85.4 percent of his total pitches), and batters have only missed 9.9 percent of them. Dominant stuff he does not have.
Russell, on the other hand, may not have any career saves just yet, but he has some good genes. His father, Jeff, saved 186 games in his major league career. He also has a bigger repertoire of pitches, with a fastball, slider, changeup and curve from which to choose from. He's struck out nearly one in four hitters he's faced in 2012, and opposing hitters are batting only .207 against him.
Of course, while Sveum may be content to "wing it" for the time being, odds are that neither of these two becomes a lockdown closer in the next week or so, at which point the manager might have another option ready to go. Kerry Wood was activated from the disabled list on Thursday, and the team plans to initially ease him back into action, using him in low-pressure situations in the sixth and seventh innings.
However, with Wood's history of arm trouble, another bout of fatigue might well strike him down before he gets a chance to take over the closer job he last handled for the Cubs in 2008. And of course, there's always the chance that Marmol finally gets the message, sticks more to his heater and earns another shot at the job in a few weeks. However, much like the Cubs themselves, that idea seems to be bringing up the rear in terms of the chances of becoming a reality.
In the immediate short term, Russell seems to be the pitcher with the best skill set for the job, and if Sveum holds true to his comments that he's not going to worry about lefty-lefty/righty-righty matchup so much right now, then perhaps he's the one to grab.
In terms of points leagues, Russell has been averaging 1.3 more points per appearance than Dolis this season, so if they do end up splitting the job down the middle, Russell has more value in that format as well.