Cubs

Marmol meltdown has Cubs thinking about changing closers

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Marmol meltdown has Cubs thinking about changing closers

CINCINNATI This seemed like the perfect opportunity to get Carlos Marmol a low-stress, confidence-boosting save. But nothing is easy with the Cubs closer right now.

Some 18 hours earlier at Great American Ball Park, Marmol had worked a one-two-three ninth inning and finished off the Cincinnati Reds.

You can look for positive signs, but its hard to draw any meaningful conclusions. At the moment, the Cubs have no idea whats going to happen when their closer walks through the gate.

Thats why manager Dale Sveum had to consider a change after Thursdays 4-3 loss to the Reds in 10 innings.

Theres definitely thought of it now, Sveum said. I cant lie to you.

Sveum mentioned James Russell and Rafael Dolis as options, excluding 3 million setup man Kerry Wood, who just came off the disabled list with right shoulder fatigue.

Thats about it, really, Sveum said, if we do elect to go with a change and just use matchups (with) whatever happens in that ninth inning.

After Ryan Dempster threw eight scoreless innings, Marmol couldnt protect a three-run lead. The enigmatic closer walked Willie Harris who was hitting .097 entering the game and Joey Votto on nine pitches combined.

Marmol induced a groundball from Brandon Phillips, which third baseman Ian Stewart charged aggressively. The topspin made it take a funny hop, and it skipped past Stewart for an error.

I just missed it, Stewart said. Plain and simple.

Marmol gave up a sharp single to Jay Bruce and walked Ryan Ludwick to put another run on the board. It was all unraveling.

Heres the situation Marmol left for Dolis, a 24-year-old rookie: Bases loaded, no outs, one-run lead. Dolis was able to force a double-play ball while the tying run scored, and then struck out Wilson Valdez to end the ninth, before losing it in the 10th.

Hes the manager. He can do whatever he wants to do, Marmol said. Ill take the ball whenever he asks me to.

Marmols unpredictable slider made him one of the best relievers in the game, and got him a big contract, but the Cubs have been trying to get him to evolve beyond that one pitch for awhile now.

Inside the clubhouse, that was one takeaway from Carlos Zambranos We stinks! rant after Marmol blew a save last year in St. Louis.

Its been a point of emphasis for a new coaching staff since the start of spring training: Trust your fastball.

Sveum called it the same story again. Why hasnt the message sunk in yet?

To tell you the truth, I dont know. Its a confidence factor or something, Sveum said. Weve talked about it, and when he gets out on the mound, things change.

We cant ever forget that a couple years ago he was pretty dominant throwing (that slider for a strike) whenever he wanted. So there is a fallback there. At one time, he was having tremendous success being able to throw that thing at any time.

That seems like a distant memory for a guy with a 6.23 ERA whos owed 16.8 million this season and next. All the momentum from a 3-3 road trip through Philadelphia and Cincinnati seemed to evaporate.

We had another opportunity to win a game and we didnt get it done, Stewart said. Its not just on (Marmol). As a team, we had opportunities to put more runs on the board. Thats why baseball is tough. Its a team game, but guys get singled out like that at the end.

In the past, Marmol had thrived on those high-pressure situations. Surrounded by reporters at his locker, he didnt want to talk about his confidence level.

Im embarrassed right now, he said.

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

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USA TODAY

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

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AP

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.

"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.

That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.

"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."

The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.

And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?

"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.

"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."

It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.

That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again. 

"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.

"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."