Six Cactus League position battles

Now that Ryan Dempster has moved from the end of the bullpen to the starting rotation, the race is on to see which pitcher the Wrigley Field faithful will boo in his absence.

I don't mean to sound like a defeatist, but it's a tough gig closing out leads for Major League Baseball's most tormented franchise. Dempster converted 28 of 31 save opportunities last season, and Cubs fans were more galled by his flair for finding trouble than dazzled by his ability to tap dance out of it.

Carlos Marmol


Kerry Wood


Bob Howry


So who will pick up the baton from Dempster? Cubs manager Lou Piniella's choice will come down to Bob Howry, Kerry Wood or Carlos Marmol this spring. And Piniella's adamant that once he makes a decision, he'll stick with it.

Until, of course, he changes his mind.

The respective strengths of the three candidates give Piniella reason to believe he can't go wrong regardless of his choice.

Howry, 34, is the unflappable, reliable, "safe'' pick of the three. He notched 28 saves for the White Sox in 1999 in his second big league season and has 65 saves overall, so he's not going to melt upon exposure to the ninth inning.

Wood, who's gone through hell to resurrect his career at age 30, is the sentimental favorite. He still has swing-and-miss stuff -- as evidenced by his 24 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings last season -- and he's mentally prepared to handle the ups and downs of the job after all that time on the disabled list.

And Marmol? He has youthful exuberance and the nastiest repertoire on his side. Marmol whiffed 96 batters in 69 1/3 innings last season, and the National League batted .169 against him. With his mid-90s fastball and traction-inducing breaking ball, Marmol will elicit the obligatory groans in opposing dugouts once he begins warming up in the pen.

On the other hand ... each pitcher also has a red flag or two that could give Piniella pause.

Howry has allowed 67 homers in 618 1/3 career innings, so he might be prone to some walk-off misadventures. He also has a track record for slow starts, as evidenced by his 11-20 record and 4.18 ERA in April and May.

Wood issues too many bases on balls, and his durability is a concern. Last year Wood worked both ends of a doubleheader against St. Louis on Sept. 15. Other than that, want to know how many times he pitched back-to-back days? Try zero. Can anyone see Piniella running him out there for three straight games when it's parka-and-earmuff weather in April?

Marmol has the inevitable "lack of experience" knock against him. But the big reason to avoid anointing him the Cubs' closer is that he's more valuable when he does the heavy lifting in the seventh and eighth. He stranded 36 of 41 inherited runners last year and pitched more than an inning a whopping 27 times. If he assumes the closer's job, it's going to seem like a vacation.

So who's it going to be? In the early stages of camp, Piniella has twice mentioned Howry as the front-runner. We'll take Sweet Lou at his word.

The favorite: Howry

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.