Cubs

The endgame for the Cubs and Marmol

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The endgame for the Cubs and Marmol

Brian Wilson has the big black beard, the tattoos, the Taco Bell commercials and more than 600,000 followers on Twitter. The San Francisco Giants won another World Series without him.

Losing an elite closer is nothing like the Bulls trying to replace Derrick Rose this season. While Wilson recovered from Tommy John surgery, the Giants leaned on a 28th-round pick, a good setup guy with his own sweet beard and fist-pumping routine.

Sergio Romo had saved only three games in his entire big-league career until this year. He closed out the Detroit Tigers three times during a four-game sweep, ending it when he froze Miguel Cabrera with an 89 mph fastball.

Ideally, thats how the Cubs would like to build their bullpen. Their next closer wont be a cult of personality. Theyd prefer to grow one organically, or buy one at a discount, rather than pay top dollar.

Carlos Marmol will earn 9.8 million in the final year of his contract, which makes him an expensive, short-term asset in an organization with a long-range vision. So from next weeks general manager meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., all the way to next summers deadline, his name could be all over MLBTradeRumors.com.

When asked, Theo Epstein said hes comfortable with Marmol as his 2013 Opening Day closer. But the team presidents answer to a hypothetical question Philosophically, how would you go about finding a closer if your roster didnt have one? sounded more revealing.

I would look at it as an opportunity to try to give someone an opportunity, Epstein said recently. Either internally a pitcher that we believed in and liked and exposed them to that role (so he) could maybe develop into that type of asset.

Or go outside the organization and try to buy low on a pitcher that we really liked and then build value by putting him in that role. (Thats) value for the Cubs, and then if our season doesnt turn out the way we want it to potential value in a trade.

It didnt quite work, but Epstein went with the bullpen-by-committee when he took over the Boston Red Sox. He also went year-to-year with Jonathan Papelbon in arbitration at a time when they were locking up other young core players with extensions.

The Cubs are trying to stockpile power arms through the draft and build their bullpen from within. In the future, its hard to see them matching the kind of four-year, 50 million contract the Philadelphia Phillies gave Papelbon almost 12 months ago. They arent going to buy a brand name.

Marmol briefly lost his job and spent time on the disabled list with a hamstring strain in May. By the time he got back on track, no one was really paying attention to the Cubs as they marched toward 101 losses.

When theres something extreme early in the season, it dictates the narrative for the whole season, Epstein said. I think it kind of went unnoticed nationally, just the extent to which this guy turned his year around and was really effective.

Marmol converted 19 straight save chances during one stretch and posted a 1.52 ERA after the All-Star break. Whether or not that will lower heart rates among Cubs fans, or suppress that feeling of "here we go again" after the next leadoff walk at Wrigley Field, or convince a rival executive, his final numbers wound up being pretty good: 3-3 with a 3.42 ERA, 20 saves and 72 strikeouts in 55.1 innings.

Marmol also bought into what the coaching staff kept preaching: Trust your fastball. He threw it 51 percent of the time, seeing his average velocity rise back up to 94 mph, according to the online database at FanGraphs.

Big punch-out rate, more strikes and then really significantly he did it in a completely different way, Epstein said. His fastball was really useable and really effective and that hasnt been seen around here from him, maybe ever. That was a great sign, because I think its more likely to be repeated next year.

Hes got two really viable pitches now. If he had just been a straight-out slider monster and happened to lock in his slider for a couple months and faced some aggressive hitters, I wouldnt be as optimistic about him as I am now, because hes got two weapons to go at hitters with again.

After 13 seasons in the organization, Marmol celebrated his 30th birthday this month. He planned to spend his offseason riding horses, working on his farm in the Dominican Republic and ignoring all the speculation about what the Cubs might do next.

Marmol also considers Chicago to be a second home. He has become acclimated to the pressures of pitching the ninth inning here. Win or lose, he always stands in front of his locker postgame.

The statheads arent going to want to hear about a closers mentality, or being able to do it on a big stage in front of 40,000 fans. But even manager Dale Sveum who uses all the data analysis to guide his decisions thinks theres something different about getting the last three outs. Sooner or later, the Cubs are going to find out if someone else has what it takes.

Craig Kimbrel feels 'great' after first Triple-A outing, is motivated to win with Cubs in 2019 and beyond

Craig Kimbrel feels 'great' after first Triple-A outing, is motivated to win with Cubs in 2019 and beyond

Craig Kimbrel's progression towards joining the Cubs bullpen took another step in the right direction on Tuesday.

In his first outing with Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday, Kimbrel not only pitched a perfect inning of relief against the Sacramento River Cats, but he needed just eight pitches to do so. Now back in Des Moines as Iowa begins a nine-game homestand, Kimbrel told reporters that he feels great after his first pitching appearance since Oct. 27, 2018 — Game 4 of the 2018 World Series.

“[I] feel great," Kimbrel told reporters in Iowa. "Jumped on a plane yesterday morning and made our way [to Des Moines] and once we got in, [we] kind of assessed how everything felt. Everything feels good, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there Friday."

As he mentioned, Kimbrel's next outing with Iowa will be Friday, when they take on the Round Rock Express. And while it's possible he also pitches on Saturday, what comes after that is entirely based on how Kimbrel feels, as the Cubs and the 31-year-old have continued to stress patience in his buildup towards big league action.

"We’re just going one appearance at a time, one step at a time," he said. "I’ll throw Friday, see how I feel and then go from there.

"We really haven’t set a time on anything. It's more about how I feel and how I’m recovering. And once I get to feeling great and recovering where I feel like I need to be, I’ll be ready to go."

"He's trending in the right direction," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make a judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

Although he's had a long layoff from MLB action, it's not like Kimbrel has been sitting around at home unprepared. During his extended free agency that leaked into June, he worked out in the gym three times a week in addition to throwing six days a week. And despite pitching deep into October with the Red Sox, Kimbrel started throwing in January in preparation for the 2019 season.

No matter how long the layoff, though, Kimbrel stressed the need to practice patience right now. He's an important piece to the Cubs' championship puzzle, one that will be a valuable weapon in the summer and in the postseason, should the Cubs get there. Right now, it's about getting his body ready, even if he's mentally ready to pitch.

“I’m ready, I’m ready to do it, but also I have to listen to myself, listen to my body," Kimbrel said. "This isn’t about the next couple games before the (All-Star) break, this is about after the break and the postseason."

As if joining a team in the midst of a pennant race wasn't enough, Kimbrel was asked if he is feeling any motivation from the way last postseason went for him individually (5.91 ERA, 10 2/3 innings) and after how long he remained a free agent.

“No, I’m motivated to win. I don’t need to try to make anyone else happy," he said. "Towards the end of last year, we still accomplished what we set to do - win the World Series. [It’s] still a success. I'm not trying to prove anybody wrong. I'm just trying to do my job."

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David Bote's neverending game of chess

David Bote's neverending game of chess

David Bote feels like he's in a neverending game of chess.

He's been so ingrained in the Cubs conversation the last two years that it's easy to forget this is his first full big-league season and he's still learning the ropes.

Bote is now nationally known thanks to the ultimate grand slam he hit last August, but he's not hanging his hat on that one accomplishment and has found a way to conjure up some staying power in the majors. He's a former 18th-round draft pick who never found his name on top prospect lists, yet signed a five-year, $15 million extension before even playing his first home game in 2019.

But Bote won't rest on his laurels with that contract extension, either. He knows he's in store for a constant battle.

"It's never ending," Bote said. "[The league] points out something that you do and you make an adjustment off it and then they make another adjustment off of you. It's just trying to stay with what you want to do and also try to stay in front of what they're trying to do at the same time."

Much like he did last year, Bote got out to a hot start this season but then eventually hit a rough pitch. 

After he had a tough series in Cincinnati in mid-May (he went 0-for-8 with 6 strikeouts), he found himself on the bench for back-to-back games while his season average dipped to .239 and OPS fell to .713.

But then he got the start at third base in Washington on May 18, hit a homer and hasn't looked back since.

From that game on, Bote has a 1.027 OPS while slashing .324/.378/.649 with 6 homers and 18 RBI in 19 starts.

The 26-year-old infielder has earned more playing time with his production, taking advantage of the respective offensive slumps from Addison Russell and Daniel Descalso. As the Cubs faced a tough righty in Lucas Giolito Wednesday night, it was Bote who found his name at second base and he responded with a homer off the American league ERA leader.

"He started out well, then he hit a little bit of a skid, which was good because he had some problems at the major-league level early in the season and he's overcome that already," Joe Maddon said earlier this month. "So you need to go through that adversity, too. My goodness, David's got a great head on his shoulders. He's a team-oriented player. 

"He's like any other young player — he's still working to really understand what's going on every day and understanding himself. But he does it in a very mature way. He's gonna keep getting better because he listens well, and I think he's getting to the point where he understands his strengths, which is really important. Just watch him — he's gonna continue to get better."

Bote doesn't feel like the neverending game of chess gets any easier, but at least now, he has a checklist he can go through to evaluate his mechanics or mental approach or whatever else may be slightly off. 

At the end of the day, it's all about confidence for Bote — as it is for every player in the big leagues.

"Whether you feel good or feel bad that day, it's trying to be as confident as you can and just letting your ability and your work before that take over," Bote said. "I'm not in the box thinking about my mechanics, but trying to trust that my BP and cage work and all that that takes over and you just go to battle.

"And if [you're still not feeling great], then you say, 'Screw it, I'll just go out there and battle today and get 'em tomorrow.' It's all fluid. It's all ever-changing."