What makes a closer? A look at the Cubs bullpen arms through a scouting lens

Yesterday we looked at some top Cubs starting pitchers and we measured them against the scouting standard for #1 starters.  Today we’ll look at closers.  What exactly makes a prototypical closer from a scout’s point of view?

Here’s what an ideal closer would have…

  • One plus-plus pitch
  • Second plus pitch
  • Plus command
  • Plus-plus makeup

One example of a great plus-plus pitch for Cubs fans is Bruce Sutter‘s split-fingered fastball.  If you want to go outside the organization, there is Mariano Rivera‘s cut fastball or Trevor Hoffman‘s change-up.  Rivera’s cut fastball is so dominant and he commands it so well that he really doesn’t even need a second plus pitch, but he’s the exception to the rule here.

There is also that plus-plus makeup which is very important, much like the plus-plus command is very important for a #1 starter.  A reliever can’t have one bad inning as even your top starter can.  One bad inning often results in a loss and a good closer has to forget it and regroup for the next opportunity.

The standard is pretty high for an ideal closer.  Many MLB closers are would-be front line SP prospects who either don’t have the durability to start or don’t have a third pitch to fall back on.

The Cubs have an established closer right now in Carlos Marmol, but with the team rebuilding and Marmol getting expensive, it’s a luxury right now.  There’s a good possibility that the Cubs deal Marmol and try to create value at the closer spot with a younger or lesser known RP.

There are two pitchers from the previous list on starters, Arodys Vizcaino and Juan Paniagua, who could factor into the equation.  Both have 2 plus pitches rather than that one plus-plus pitch right now, but both have excellent potential for plus command.  A third candidate, Alberto Cabrera, is converting from relief, but if he returns, he has a plus-plus fasball out of the bullpen to go with a plus slider.

A couple of notes to keep in mind as you read…

  1. I’ll concentrate on upper level RP prospects, so you won’t see top young arms like Josh Conway or Trey Lang on this list.
  2. I didn’t give a lot of the guys a “yes” on plus-plus makeup.  This isn’t a knock.  It’s a lofty standard and in most cases it’s hard to know whether a young prospect has the makeup to close at the big league level, so I’m being conservative.  Think of the “no” as more of an incomplete or untested.  I only gave “yes” to those who specifically stand out in that category.  For the record, I don’t think anyone on this list has less than “plus” makeup.

Here’s how the Cubs pitching prospects stack up as potential closers.  We did 8 starters, so let’s do 8 relievers.

Carlos Marmol

  • One plus-plus pitch? Yes.  Marmol’s slider is unhittable when he commands it.
  • Second plus pitch? Yes.  Especially this past season when Marmol hit as high as 97 mph and averaged around 94 mph.  It’s an uptick of about 2 mph from last year.
  • Plus command? No. Marmol used to rely heavily on his slider when he needed a swinging strike but hitters recently learned to lay off of it, forcing him to change his approach and throw more fastballs.  The end result is that he threw more strikes, but his command is still nowhere near the plus category.
  • Plus-plus makeup: Yes. Marmol has some pretty thick skin and rebounded after heavy criticism from both his manager and fans, not to mention his share of bad outings.

Verdict: Marmol is a closer but his spotty command makes him less than an ideal one.  His ability to miss bats makes up for his inability to consistently find the strike zone.

Rafael Dolis

  • One plus-plus pitch? Yes. Dolis can hit 97 mph with a two seam fastball that has heavy downward movement
  • Second plus pitch? Yes. He has a good slider but Dolis doesn’t show it enough, in my op9nion
  • Plus command? No. It’s not even average and that’s what causes Dolis’ stuff to play down so much.
  • Plus-plus makeup?  No. There’s nothing wrong with Dolis’ makeup, but I don’t think he has the confidence yet for it to be plus-plus.

Verdict: Dolis’ lack of command sets him back from being a closer right now.  The makeup isn’t an issue here. I actually think this could play hand-in-hand with his command. When and if Dolis can throw strikes and locate better, he’ll get hitters out with much more regularity. And that can do wonders for one’s confidence.

Lendy Castillo

  • One plus-plus pitch? No. Castillo has a good fastball but it’s not plus-plus.
  • Second plus pitch? No, not at this stage, though he did show improvement with both his slider and his change as the year went on.
  • Plus command? No.  He did show it in the minors and in spring training, but it deserted him in the majors.
  • Plus makeup? Yes. The Cubs love his poise and the way he handled himself both when he had success and failure.

Verdict: Castillo is not closer material but I wonder if the Cubs may try him as a starter.  He does throw three pitches and they all have a chance to be average or better.  If he can pitch with good command, he can be a 4th or 5th starter.  If he stays in the bullpen, he’s probably a middle reliever, so I don’t think the Cubs have much to lose by seeing if they can stretch him out.  He can always return to a relief role.

Trey McNutt

  • One plus-plus pitch? Yes. McNutt can hit 98 out of the bullpen, though he has more movement on it when he takes it down a notch or two.
  • Second plus pitch? Yes. I dont know if it’s a curve with slider-like velocity or a slider with a curveball-like break, but whatever it is, it can be nasty when he commands it.
  • Plus command? No. Scouts keep expecting his good athleticism to translate to good command, but it hasn’t happened so far.
  • Plus-Plus Makeup? Let’s call it plus for now. I believe McNutt can handle the pressure of closing.  He’s also tough and has pitched through injury.

Verdict: There’s no doubt McNutt has closer stuff and I believe he has the makeup for that role.  The question is command.  He needs to keep the ball down and resist overthrowing his fastball.  Not only does he lose movement, but it makes it harder to repeat his delivery.

Tony Zych

  • One plus-plus pitch? Yes. Zych can touch 99 with his fastball and he does it with a deceptive delivery. More often pitches at 94-97.
  • Second plus pitch? Yes.  I wouldn’t have said this a year ago but the Cubs front office really seems to like the strides he made with his slider.  It had shown flashes in the past, but became more consistent last year and in the fall league.
  • Plus command? Yes. Zych walked less than 2 batters/9 IP in his first two seasons before slipping in AA.  He regained that great control in AZ, however.
  • Plus-plus makeup? Yes. He’s what you want in a closer.  Confident and he has just enough of a nasty streak to add some intimidation.

Verdict: Zych is currently the Cubs best closer prospect, in my opinion.  Vizcaino could surpass him for that status if he switches, but the hope is he remains a starter.

Kevin Rhoderick

  • One plus-plus pitch?  Yes. Remember what you could do with a whiffle ball when you were a kid?  That’s what Rhoderick’s slider looks like.
  • Second plus pitch? No.  He used to throw harder but Rhoderick’s fastball is average these days.  Throws low 90s with max effort.
  • Plus command? No.  As with Marmol, that slider has so much movement that it’s almost impossible to locate with precision, but Rhoderick should at least locate the fastball better than he does right now.
  • Plus-plus makeup? No.   There’s nothing to suggest he doesn’t have good makeup, but the closer mentality is a whole different animal. It hasn’t really been tested with Rhoderick.

Verdict:  Rhoderick isn’t likely to be a closer at the MLB level.  He doesn’t have the same promise he did early in his career when he was considered something of a sleeper, but he still has a legit major league out pitch, so he has a realistic shot at joining the Cubs bullpen down the road.  Success, however, will depend on his ability to locate his average fastball to set up that nasty slider.

Marcus Hatley

  • One plus-plus pitch? No. But Hatley has two plus pitches.  The first is his fastball, which can reach 97 mph and has life up in the zone.
  • Second plus pitch? Yes. Hatley has a hammer curve that is a second swing and miss pitch.
  • Plus command? No.  But it has improved over the past year. Another good athlete with the potential to develop command as he matures.
  • Plus-plus makeup? No, but I think it’s at least plus.  He’s a tough, but coachable kid who converted from the OF to become a pitching prospect, then also battled back from TJ surgery to regain the stuff and command he had prior to the injury.

Verdict: I like Hatley but I don’t see him as a closer because I don’t think he’ll ever quite have the command for it.  The Cubs, however, may not have room for him on the roster.  If I were a GM and needed a young bullpen arm to develop, I’d consider snatching him up in the Rule 5.  I can see him as a late bloomer.

Frank Batista

  • One plus pitch? No. Batista has a max effort low 88-92 mph fastball.
  • Second plus pitch? No. The second pitch is a slider.  It’s solid it but it can also be flat at times.
  • Plus command? No.  He isn’t wild but I’d classify his command as average.
  • Plus-plus makeup? Yes.  If Batista has anything that stands out, it’s moxie.  He’s undersized and he continually gets guys out with fringe average stuff and so-so command.

Verdict: Batista is a battler and you have to admire the results he gets, but he’s not at the same level talent-wise as the other pitchers on this list.  He’ll have to continue to grind his way through the organization.  If he makes it, he’s a middle reliever, but he’ll have to improve his command to the plus category to have a chance.

Monday:  The 5 ( or “6”) tool player…


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  • Would you say that Tennessee is a reasonable destination for Lendy Castillo to start the year?

  • In reply to elusivekarp:

    That's where I would start him if I were going to make him a starter. The PCL could be unforgiving for a pitcher trying to make that big adjustment.

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    Going into the offseason, I thought it was a lock that Zych would nail down the closer role no later than mid-2014. However, after going to the AFL and striking out only 4 guys in 14 innings, I'm a little concerned.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I wouldn't take AZL stats too seriously. He didn't have problems missing bats in AA which is roughly the same level. Certainly has the stuff. It's likely he was working on something specific like keeping the ball down or refining his breaking pitches.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    How would something like that work? That is, do the Cubs pull him aside before he goes down and tell him: "We want you to primarily throw your breaking ball to get better feel for how to use it," or do they call whoever is managing that team and tell him what their goals for Zych are, leaving team management to handle it as they see best?

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Pretty much and then they have a guy like Harper down there to make sure hes working on stuff like that. I didn't get to see Zych pitch but I saw Struck and I know he's working on things he started midseason. I did see Rhoderick there too and he threw more fastballs then I remember him doing during his season at AA, which is what I think he needs to do. Tends to fall in love with his slider, and rightfully so, but he won't get by if he can't set it up in the majors. I'm only assuming Zych is working on something as well.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Most importantly, 14 innings is a ridiculous sample size.

  • In reply to João Lucas:

    Also true.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    But he's a relief pitcher -- so 14 innings represents around one-fifth of his total workload.

  • Is it me or has most of the relievers in the past few years burning out faster?........one of the most over-rated saves relievers was Dennis Eckersley......more half of his saves were just getting one out.......Sutter was brought in the 8th inning in many Cubs games....Rollie Fingers went three innings to get a save........I remember how Braves Gene Garber battle Pete Rose to stop his hitting streak.....you would have thought Garber won the World Series when he got Rose out.........funniest act for a reliever, Al Hrabosky....went into his behind the mound "temper" act.......but Goose Gossage was a "Beast" when he threw when he was in his prime.......Willie Hernandez was MVP after he left the Cubs.....that was a head scratcher.......Bill Caudill, late primer, had a few good seasons in Seattle....... think of the relievers we had and failed.......Beck, Hawkins, Rojas, Jones, Gossage, Agurillia, Schiraldi....

    Notre Dame #1......did anyone see that coming this year?

    Right before Thanksgiving, history tells us of major F/A signings to happen.

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    I don't think I would call Beck a failed reliever. The Cubs don't win the Wild Card in '98 without him and his rubber arm. He also accepted a demeaning assignment down to Iowa when he was rehabbing, which only helped to grow his legend. He also was reportedly buried in his Cubs uniform when he passed. I'll take any "failed" relievers like Beck that you'd like to send the Cubs' way.

  • In reply to TheSinisterUrge:

    Beck had 51 saves in 98 with the Cubs.....in 99, he was kicked out of town with an ERA near 8.00........his best years were with the Giants......

    to say Beck was not a failed Cubs reliever, is also saying Jerome Walton was not a failure playing OF for the Cubs.......

    "One Hit Wonders" don't win championships.

  • What about Bowden?

  • I was thinking they would make Castillo a starter too. He didn't seem like an obvious closer candidate and with the need in the farm system, it seemed more likely to me they'd spend a whole year's roster spot on someone they viewed as a potential starter rather than a middle reliever. I was even hoping he'd start the year in the rotation, but if he starts out in AA, they might introduce him to the jump in leagues a little more slowly.

    Zych seems like the real deal to me. His SO rate was a little low in the AZFL, but it was a pretty small sample size. Plus it's a bit like spring training - can't take the numbers too seriously because you don't know what players are working on.

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