Relievers are a crap shoot. In one season a guy can be lights out, the next he'll struggle to record an out. That's why when you find a shut down closer, you hold on to him for dear life.
However, unless your name is Mariano Rivera, even that so-called shut down closer will hit some bumps in the road.
With the Cubs 18 games under .500 and many veterans expected to be dangled before the trade deadline, the question must be asked if it would be worth it to the Cubs to gauge the market for struggling closer Carlos Marmol. If trading Marmol means the Cubs would acquire a top prospect who could help in 2012 and beyond, it might be the right move.
Of course then the issue then becomes who would fit into the closer's role for the Cubs in the future. Sean Marshall and Kerry Wood will be used in that capacity for the time being, but if Marmol is moved, Marshall and Wood may be holding the position for Chris Carpenter.
Carpenter, who was recently sent down to the minors to make room for Carlos Zambrano, has an electric fastball that every team covets for their closer. It's that second pitch that manager Mike Quade is looking for Carpenter to use effectively with more regularity.
"You see enough quality once in a while in [his slider] to be really excited," Quade said. "He's not consistent, but one out of every five or six he'll snap off where you'll go, ‘Woah, that's like unhittable stuff.' When he can make that three or four out of six, look out."
Of course the Cubs once felt that pitchers like Kyle Farsnworth and David Aardsma would be closers of the future. While both have had moments of success in the big leagues as a closer -- Farnsworth is currently filling the role for the Tampa Bay Rays -- neither has proven to be capable of filling the spot on a long-term basis.
One NL scout familiar with Carpenter had a different outlook for his future than Quade.
"If you twist my arm, he's more of an eighth inning guy for me," said the scout. "He's always been a guy that's slower to adjust and he's never missed as many bats as you'd expect for how great his stuff can be. I think he will settle in and be a good late inning guy, but if I'm a manager, I feel better about him in the seventh or eighth rather than the ninth."
Marmol is suffering through some rough times right now. But Quade is confident he can get back to the dominant closer he showed he could be in 2010 when he converted 38 of 43 saves and racked up an eye-popping 16.0 K/9.
"It's a lot of fun to dominate the way he has for several years and it's no fun when you're not," Quade said. "It'll probably be tough on him a bit, but he'll get through it. He'll be the same guy at some point that he has been for some years."
Quade indicated that Marmol's mechanics are off which is leading to a drop in the quality of his breaking ball as well as less velocity on his fastball, adding up to disaster when he's on the mound.
Marmol went through similar struggles in 2008 when he was the primary setup man for the Cubs. Prior to that season's All-Star break, Marmol made 12 appearances giving up 15 runs (11 earned) while walking 10 batters in 9 1/3 innings pitched.
Quade said this year's struggles are a bit different because in '08 his stuff was good but it was primarily command that was the issue. This season, he seems to have a dip in his stuff, and while he is issuing some walks, he's giving up more hits than he normally does as well. His .229 batting average against this year isn't horrible, but considering that his previous season high since becoming a staple in the Cubs bullpen was .170, it's definitely something to watch.
Marmol has lasted only three innings in his last six outings, giving up eight runs, seven walks and allowing all three runners he's inherited to score. What's most concerning about Marmol's recent struggles is that he has no strikeouts in that period.
"An alarm goes off, they're not swinging and missing the way they were," Quade said. "Normally that points to the depth of his breaking ball, the quality of his breaking ball because that's where he gets most of his strikeouts. He's just got to get that back, that's all."
Despite that fact that Marmol has been moved out of his closer's role, Quade reiterated that the move is expected to be just temporary.
"He's a closer," Quade said. "He's getting paid as a closer, he's got closer stuff. He's going through a rough time right now. "
It's clear the Cubs believe Marmol will regain the form that made him one of the most dominant strikeout artists in the history of the game. At 28, Marmol is still young and signed through the 2013 season. It's never an easy decision to trade a proven commodity to go with the unknown. However, for a team that's clearly looking towards the future, the Cubs' best bet may just be to move Marmol and take a gamble on Carpenter.