Asking whether it's better to have a wild closer who just can't find the strike zone or one who allows opposing hitters to smash baseballs 450 feet with alarming regularity is kind of a trick question. You don't want either. There just aren't any closers who have the same problems Carlos Marmol does finding the strike zone, and there is no relief pitcher in baseball who has permitted as many home runs as Kevin Gregg has.
Then again, I'm not one bit surprised that Gregg's awful start to August, culminating in a brutal blown save at San Diego late Monday night, resulted in Lou Piniella's making a closer change to Marmol the next day. The Cubs received eight shutout innings from Ted Lilly, John Grabow and Marmol that night, all of which were quickly forgotten by Gregg's latest handiwork. He's been terrible this month; public opinion demanded a move.
I just don't think he made the right move. Let's discuss the options at Piniella's disposal.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
Gregg: On the Baseball Today podcast, my co-host, Peter Pascarelli, acted as if it were totally expected that Gregg would lose the job. I disagree. Maybe I'm just looking in a different place than everyone else, but Gregg did save 61 games for the Florida Marlins the previous two seasons. No, he wasn't baseball's top closer by any means, but when he was healthy, he did a good enough job. Fantasy owners ignored Gregg as a potential closer option when the Cubs traded for him this offseason, but he won the job legitimately and after four months had accrued 21 saves and a 3.35 ERA into August. Put simply, Gregg had been considerably better than Marmol this season, and wasn't at all a major issue for Piniella.
Of course, as a fly-ball pitcher, Gregg has to be careful. He's going to allow home runs. In his final season with the Angels he gave up 10 of them. The Marlins didn't care, and early in 2007 after Henry Owens got hurt and lost the closer role, Gregg was in the right place at the right time to earn the job that's still carrying him. Through four months this season he was doing fine. In August, he hasn't been fine. He's allowed five home runs already this month, blown three saves and lost three games. Piniella's postgame quote focused on the home run problem; it has to be demoralizing to a team to lose on a walk-off home run. Gregg has allowed three of them this season, including the Monday blast hit by rookie Kyle Blanks. Since Gregg's problems have come in the past few weeks, it's not the same deal as what has befallen Brad Lidge, who's been bad all season. Gregg hasn't been. I don't think we've seen the last of him.
Marmol: Oh, those walks. Marmol is not easy to hit. He throws a live ball, and even last season I don't think he was certain where it was headed. But more times than not, it was headed somewhere in the strike zone, or it looked like it was and hitters flailed away at it. Marmol was the pre-eminent strikeout relief pitcher in the game, fanning 114 hitters in 87 1/3 innings. Marmol had a 2.68 ERA and really controlled his walk rate, issuing 41 free passes. If those 30 holds were saves, he really might have been one of the top three fantasy relievers.
This season, Marmol's control is a mess, as in, he has very little of it. At times he can overpower hitters, and he's still difficult to hit. His strikeout rate remains among the best for a relief pitcher, and the best news is he's cut his home run rate; last year he allowed 10 of them, this year only one. However, 52 walks in 56 1/3 innings is an abominable total. Marmol has compounded the carnage by hitting a league-leading 11 batters. Nobody charges the mound when Marmol hits them because they know his aim has been off this season. He's trying to throw strikes. It's just not working, and I don't see an end in sight.
Guzman: Here is my pick to actually succeed as closer, but I doubt Piniella looks his way. If he ever does, since Guzman is available in more than 98 percent of ESPN leagues, I'd call adding him a smart investment. Guzman has one career save, when he closed out a 14-inning win over the Reds in June. He was Chicago's eighth pitcher of the day.
Guzman has allowed seven home runs this season, but his opposing hitters aren't clubbing him at all (.194 batting average against). His WHIP is 1.02, and hadn't walked anyone in August before Tuesday's game in San Diego. Sure, he also allowed a Blanks home run in that game, but it was a long fly ball to center field that got misplayed into an inside-the-park shot. Remember back to 2006 when both Marmol and Guzman were being tried out as starting pitchers? There was also an opening for closer during 2007 as Ryan Dempster imploded. Ultimately, Piniella stuck with Dempster most of the season, giving Bobby Howry some chances to close. He was loyal. That's probably the main reason, other than a lack of experience in the closer's role, why Guzman won't get his shot.
I think Piniella has other viable options, but it's premature to discuss them. Rich Harden can be a dominant starting pitcher when healthy, so forget him moving to the bullpen. Dempster wasn't exactly Dennis Eckersley when he closed, and he was a revelation as a starter in 2008. John Smoltz is available and has closed before, right? A waiver trade for Matt Capps or another available closer? I don't see it. Down at Triple-A Iowa, Blake Parker has 16 saves and a 2.55 ERA, but it would be difficult to put a rookie with no major league experience on the spot in a pennant race. Jeff Samardzija throws hard, but the Phillies battered him as a starter last week. Jeremy Papelbon pitches for Iowa, but he hasn't showed similar characteristics to his brother on the Red Sox; this Papelbon is starting, and he's a lefty. B.J. Ryan might have been an option, but the Cubs found out what the Blue Jays already knew, and released him. Basically, Piniella has what he has. I'd give Guzman a chance. Fantasy owners should be prepared for any of top three options to seize the role.
Honestly, I still think there's a decent chance that Gregg will fix whatever mechanical problem has sent him astray into major home run mode and that he will get September saves. Even while Piniella was naming Marmol the closer, it's not as though Gregg was released. He's probably going to pitch in the main set-up role. But really, if he's still struggling, how does that help the Cubs? Piniella already knows that Marmol tortures him in a different yet still distressing way. From a fantasy perspective, he's a must-pickup if you need saves, but don't drop an established, safe closer to get him. This isn't the Marmol of 2008.
Piniella chose the all-too-obvious Marmol to close, but with spotty command, the results won't be much better. Instead of allowing spine-crushing home runs, Marmol will be filling the bases with walks and hitting opponents. Consider that Marmol's walk total is one of the 30 highest in baseball, and he's got a fraction of the innings of the other 29 pitchers; after him, the next most walks for a relief pitcher is 34 by Miguel Batista and Chad Durbin. Ugly indeed. Six weeks remain in the season, and I'll predict Marmol isn't the last pitcher to get saves for the Cubs, so prepare accordingly in fantasy.
• Neftali Feliz, Rangers: I know he was discussed last week, but I had to move him into the rankings this week. Feliz has been putting up among the best stats of any relief pitcher since he was recalled. In six games, covering 10 innings, Feliz has fanned 16 hitters and still has yet to permit a walk. The lone run he allowed was an Adam Kennedy home run in his second outing, and since then he's given up two singles in 6 2/3 innings. He's been overpowering. I moved Frank Francisco way up in the rankings this week, separately, because he's clearly the Texas closer now, and despite a horrific outing against the Red Sox, I'd call him safe. I'd also call Feliz safe for big-time strikeout numbers and good peripherals, and he's a must-add for those coming up against a season starts cap.
• Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Phillies: Kevin Gregg is the only relief pitcher in baseball to allow more home runs than Brad Lidge, and now there are signs that manager Charlie Manuel is losing his patience as well. Over the weekend at Atlanta, Lidge lost his fifth game in as many decisions, adding to his league-leading blown save total -- yes, even more than Gregg -- when his own pair of errors on one play did him in. Hey, at least nobody took him deep. The Phillies are in a different situation than the Cubs, since they lead their division and, with a good week and a tough one for the Marlins and Braves, could salt things away before September. Also, Lidge is a bit of a hero for his perfect 2008 season and aid in earning the World Series title. However, if the Phillies' lead shrinks and Lidge is the reason, I do think Madson will get some save chances. He didn't do so well in the role earlier this season, which is why I mention Myers. He's on a rehab assignment and he did close two seasons ago. I've been saying for months Lidge's problems weren't likely to go away. I could see Madson or Myers closing for this team soon and if it gets into mid-October.
• Rafael Soriano, Braves: Two weeks ago, Soriano was sporting a 1.80 ERA and had allowed two home runs all season. Now he's got a sore shoulder and drops quite a bit in the rankings after allowing runs in three of his past four outings. Don't be surprised if a DL stint is in the cards, as Soriano hasn't been the healthiest pitcher over the years, and he was so good for four months this season that one has to assume injury is the reason for recent performance. Keep Mike Gonzalez on those benches just in case. Even though Peter Moylan is pitching better, not allowing a run in more than a month, I doubt Bobby Cox would vault him over Gonzalez.
• Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers: He drops in the rankings as well because it's clear his toe injury remains a problem, and like the Phillies, the Dodgers are in a position of power with a division lead. There are rumors the Dodgers want to give Broxton some rest, and they can afford to do so with recent acquisition George Sherrill lurking. Broxton has given up three home runs in the past week, including consecutive ones in the ninth inning to Mark Reynolds and Miguel Montero to blow a save. Sherrill could start seeing the occasional save chance to keep Broxton fresh.
News and notes
• He's back! Well, he's almost back. Billy Wagner has the third-most saves among active pitchers, and sixth of all-time, and the Mets are scheduled to activate him from the DL on Friday. Wagner had Tommy John surgery late last season, but reports are he's been throwing well and is ready to contribute to that fourth place team. Wagner's likely pitching for a 2010 contract, and not in New York. He's a closer. Don't expect saves this season, no matter how badly Francisco Rodriguez performs.
• Maybe the Pirates would take a look at Wagner? Matt Capps has pitched better of late, but still has a 6.41 ERA and 1.78 WHIP. Capps has also given up eight home runs in 39 1/3 innings. The Pirates might soon overtake the Nationals as the NL's worst team, which really has been Capps' biggest problem; he has one save in the past month.
• Speaking of Washington, the beleaguered franchise made news this week by signing top draft pick Stephen Strasburg, but don't look for him in the team's major league bullpen this season. Strasburg should make a run at the rotation next spring. The team also announced recently that Drew Storen, the team's other first-round draft pick this season, isn't going to appear in the majors in September. Storen was a closer at Stanford and breezed through Low-A ball, and now he's at Double-A Harrisburg, where he's closing. He could be the Nationals' closer next season, no matter how Mike MacDougal finishes off this season.
• Jose Arredondo remains owned in nearly a quarter of ESPN leagues based on what he did last season, but he's hardly pitching well enough to be owned in any. Arredondo took a five-run lead against the Orioles over the weekend and quickly made the game too interesting when he allowed a Melvin Mora home run. It's the third home run Arredondo has allowed in five games. By the way, the guys setting up Brian Fuentes recently have been Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger.
• Jason Frasor continues to close for the Blue Jays as Scott Downs prepares for a rehab assignment for his toe injury. Honestly, I don't know why Cito Gaston would go back to Downs in the ninth inning. Frasor has a 1.91 ERA and 0.97 WHIP and last allowed a run five weeks ago.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.