Veras looks to solidify closer job

MESA, Ariz. -- If things go right for the Chicago Cubs, new closer Jose Veras will solidify a much maligned bullpen of a year ago.

The dye was cast early last spring. Although the Cubs believed the back end of their pen was going to be fine once the season started, the signs for early troubles were evident in Cactus League games. Former Cub Carlos Marmol wasn't very good in March, and later it was revealed that newcomer Kyuji Fujikawa was hurting. He eventually underwent Tommy John surgery and Marmol was demoted and then traded.

In steps the 33-year-old Veras, signed to a one-year, $3.85 million deal with an option and buyout for 2015.

"I'm here, no better than anyone else," Veras declared before the Cubs' first spring game. "But I think I can get three outs."

Those last three outs were so very difficult for the Cubs last season. The bullpen blew 26 saves and although not all came in the ninth inning, almost all were gut-wrenching.

"We had some struggles closing out games," fellow reliever James Russell said. "It's kind of tough. We lost Fujikawa early. He was one of the guys we were counting on to close games and Marmol kind of had his struggles. It was tough to pick it up from there because we didn't have guys with experience closing games until (Kevin) Gregg came."

Gregg is gone but the experience remains with Veras. He was a combined 0-5 last season with Houston and Detroit but his 3.02 ERA was respectable and he saved a combined 21 games in 25 chances. It was his first real stint as a closer after about seven years as a middle man.

"It's hard to be here (in the majors)," Veras said. "So many players all across the world want to be here. I'm blessed with that. It's not easy. There's 30 teams, I'm one of 30 closers. People think it's easy. It's not easy. You have to work for it. You have to give your life, everything you have to be here."

Veras says his out pitch is either his fastball or his curve and he believes his demeanor works for the ninth inning. He's an opposing figure on the mound at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds. As for leadership, Veras checks that box for the Cubs as well. It wasn't a role Marmol was right for, not with him fighting for his major league life.

"He's been doing a good job with (Hector) Rondon and (Pedro) Strop and those guys," Russell said. "They're always working together and running together. It's only going to help the team."

Veras responded: "If they see me that way that's great. I'm focused on showing what I have."

Predicting the success of a bullpen is a dangerous proposition. The Cubs had a decent one toward the end of 2012, but it blew up in 2013. It looks better on paper this season and frankly it can't get much worse. Then again, if all the arms aren't around all season, all bets are off. Veras could easily be on another team come the end of July. That's what the Cubs do these days: Flip veterans at the deadline.

"I don't think about what's going to happen. I'm here today, I'm going to pitch today, get my three outs and prepare for tomorrow," Veras said. "I'm not worrying about things two or three months from now."

The plan, according to pitching coach Chris Bosio, is to pitch Veras in the middle of games this spring so he faces other team's regular hitters. That wasn't always the case for Marmol, who struggled against minor leaguers anyway.

"We have a couple of tricks up our sleeves when it comes to Veras," Bosio said.

Bosio wouldn't expound on that, but if it means getting some more late-inning outs, Cubs fans will be all for it.