On Tuesday night, the Chicago Cubs lost to the defending-champion Philadelphia Phillies 4-3 in extra innings. The game was lost on a home run off Kevin Gregg, but the debacle began when Carlos Marmol entered the game.
Marmol's had issues all season and nobody, including manager Lou Piniella, has an idea of why Marmol has been so bad at times this year.
He hasn't been able to locate the strike zone, and is throwing a significantly higher percentage of early-count breaking balls than he did when he was overwhelmingly successful in 2008.
What's the problem with Marmol, and how should the Cubs deal with it?
Back in March I postulated that the World Baseball Classic might mess with Marmol's mojo after he gave up a home run to eliminate the Dominican Republic. At that point I was hoping that his implosion wouldn't effect him during the regular season this year, and many of the comments on that piece told me I was over reacting.
Marmol was the guy, coming out of 2008, that everyone in baseball saw as one of the elite bullpen arms in all of baseball. His strikeout rate was ridiculous, and the way he struck batters out was demoralizing. He didn't just get you out, he broke your heart and dislocated your knees.
But ever since he gave up the home run against the Netherlands, it appears that Marmol's approach has been more to avoid contact then to aggressively make batters miss. He doesn't look like he wants anything to do with the strike zone.
Could the WBC have actually sent Marmol down the dark, awful path of the Mark Wholers? I hope not.
Marmol's numbers this year would indicate that he's lost something. His strikeouts (64 in 53.2 innings) and batting average allowed (.166 in 2009) would lead you to believe that he hasn't lost his junk. The stuff is still there.
However, his 52 walks and 11 hit batters paint a different picture. His WHIP has grown to 1.53 this season, which isn't a number any competing team can have pitching in the eighth inning of a close game.
What's most disturbing to me, though, is that Marmol's average number of pitches per at bat haven't grown since last year. One would think that, if Marmol can't find the zone and he's walking one batter per inning, the number of pitches he's throwing to each batter would have elevated from last year, when he only threw 4.35 pitcher per plate appearance.
But this year, with his strikeout-walk ratio falling from 2.78 in 2008 to only 1.23 in 2009, his pitches per plate appearance is only at 4.38, just .03 more than last year's dominating effort.
If he's walking as many batters as he is, and he isn't averaging five pitches per batter, those numbers would lead to the belief that he's not even close to the zone. When he's off, he's way off.
If the Cubs really want to compete for a World Series, they cannot have implosions like Tuesday night happening regularly. And they have this year. Gregg, Marmol, and Aaron Heilman all rank among the MLB leaders in blown saves. If Gregg and Marmol are your stoppers, the two guys at the end of the pen to close things out, and neither of them can do that, how can you win?
So what does that mean for the Cubs moving forward, not only in 2009 but beyond?
There are still seven weeks of baseball left to be played, so there is room on this cloud for the optimists' silver lining of belief that he'll find the strike zone and become dominant again. But the body of work this season would lead me to believe that's a far fetched hope.
General Manager Jim Hendry "reworked" the Cubs bullpen this past winter to give it better depth and versatility, so he said, for this season. That depth had Neal Cotts as the only lefty on Opening Day and the versatility might have referred as much to the fact that someone different disappoints every week from the group.
Marmol is a big part of that bullpen, and it reality is that when he's on, nobody in the league can hit his stuff. Electric might be an understatement for a "Good Carlos;" perhaps nuclear is appropriate.
Perhaps he's just having an off year. Lots of players, both pitchers and hitters alike, have seen their production fall off in the season directly following the WBC. Perhaps that's just what's happened to Marmol. He's been worked too much this calendar year.
There is a darker storm behind that little cloud, though, and that is why I fear the Cubs decision making moving forward in regards to their bullpen makeup.
I used the name Mark Wholers earlier in this piece, and while that might be an overly dramatic example of a pitcher's stuff leaving him completely, there's reason to have fears about Marmol's future. Perhaps Brad Lidge, who blew a save last night for the Phillies, would be a more appropriate case study.
Given Gregg's inability to close out games (in Chicago, some radio guys are calling him "T-Rex" now; big body, tiny arm), do the Cubs cross their fingers and go to church and think Marmol can be their closer in 2010? In the final year of Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly's contracts, when the cards are on the table, can the Cubs feel comfortable with Marmol being their guy?
Or do the Cubs part ways with a guy that reminds so many people of a young Francisco Rodriguez?
Putting Marmol on the trade market, despite his buckshot approach to the strike zone this year, would elevate the Cubs in most GM's rolodexes this winter. If a guy like Roy Halladay or Felix Hernandez is going to be dealt, as many rumors have whispered, wouldn't a talent like Marmol at least entice another team to think two or three times?
The risks are enormous either way.
If the Cubs keep Marmol and place their faith in him, and he rebounds to pitch like he did for most of 2008, they have an All Star. If he comes out for 2010 and pitches like he did this year, the team will suffer through a crucial season in the team's evolution.
But if the Cubs put Marmol out there and move him, he could come back to haunt Hendry for the rest of his life as the Cubs' K-Rod that got away.
The Cubs cannot gamble on the final year of Lilly and Lee's contracts. They either need to have stubborn faith in Marmol or make a move to impact the team's future. This winter could be very interesting on Chicago's North Side.