The Plight of the Cubs Closer

November 16, 2006 | Comments (0) | by Jake the Terrible Cubs Fan

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Randy Myers.

That was the last time the Cubs had a definitive closer for more than two consecutive seasons. A stretch from 1993-1995 where Myers amassed 112 saves. Following the 1995 season, in which he led the league with 38 saves, Randy signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Orioles, thus beginning an 11-year stretch of inconsistent closing from the Northsiders. Here's a chronicle of those 11 seasons, looking at 10 guys that at one time or another during that span were in charge of the late-inning duties.

Turk Wendell
Oh Turk. He's probably remembered more for his quirky on-field routines he had than anything else. I remember going to an Iowa Cubs game and seeing a t-shirt for sale entitled "Turk's Quirks". The shirt listed a bunch of them. Here's some of them provided by Wikipedia:
  • Wendell insisted that the umpire roll the ball to the mound rather than simply throw it to him (If an umpire would ignorantly throw the ball to him, Wendell was known to let it go past him, or even to let it bounce off his chest, after which he would retrieve it from the ground).
  • Whenever he began a new inning, Wendell would turn and wave to the center fielder and wait for him to wave back before proceeding.
  • At the beginning of each inning, Wendell would reportedly draw three crosses in the pitcher's mound dirt.
  • Whenever his catcher stood, Wendell would crouch down.
  • When entering or leaving the field, Wendell would always take a tremendous leap over the baseline.
  • Wendell would chew black licorice (an alternative to the chewing tobacco used by many players).
  • Wendell often brushed his teeth between innings (some claim that he brushed between every inning). While brushing, he often hid in the dugout, either by ducking behind objects or by facing the wall.
  • Wendell forcefully slammed his rosin bag onto the pitcher's mound between outs.
  • Wendell wore jersey number 99, in honor of Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn, the main character in the movie Major League (played by Charlie Sheen).
  • Wendell wore a necklace made from the claws and teeth of various animals he had hunted and killed.
  • While in the minor leagues, Wendell was rumored to drink only orange juice (no food or any other drink) on days he pitched.
  • Wendell sometimes threw his glove into the stands when leaving a game.
I love the necklace one. He's like the Ted Nugent of baseball.

Turk was acquired by the Cubs in 1991 from Atlanta for Mike Bielecki and Damon Berryhill. In 1996, Wendell took on the bulk of the closing duties, notching 18 saves on the season. In 1997 he was used more as a middle reliever before being traded in August to the New York Mets along with Mel Rojas and Brian McRae for Lance Johnson, Mark Clark and Manny Alexander.

Turk went on to have a pretty solid run with the Mets, making two postseason appearances with them in '99 and '00. Later in his career he's made waves with his remarks regarding Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa using steroids, believing that there's no doubt that the sluggers took the performance-enhancing drug.

Terry Adams
Terry shared the closer job with Mel Rojas to start the 1997 season after emerging as a solid reliever the previous year. Drafted by the Cubs in 1991, the fourth round pick, Terry was relegated to middle relief by early June as Rojas became the sole closer. Later that season, Terry took over closing duties once more when Rojas was traded to the Mets. In 1998, the Cubs would sign Rod "Shooter" Beck. It wouldn't be until 1999, when Beck would go under the knife that Adams would close for the Cubs again. Adams tallied 37 saves with Chicago.

Following the 1999 season Adams was traded to the Dodgers for Ismael Valdez and Eric Young. While Valdez proved to be absolutely worthless, E.Y. did have two fairly decent seasons with the Cubs. Meanwhile Adams excelled at bilking the Dodgers and Phillies out of millions of dollars for so-so relief pitching.

Mel Rojas
Melquiades Rojas was signed by the Cubs prior to the 1997 season for roughly $4.5 million a year, after having two solid seasons as Montreal's closer. Mel never quite lived up to the price tag, saving only 13 games with a 4.42 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP, and giving up 11 home runs in 59 innings pitched. With the Cubs well out of contention, Rojas was traded to the Mets, where he pitched a little better to end the season.

In 1998 Rojas pitched even worse than before, and by year's end was dealt to the Dodgers for a washed-up Bobby Bonilla. In April of 1999 he was sent to Detroit, only to be dropped a month later. He then re-joined his old team, the Expos a few days later, but by July, Montreal had let him go as well. At the age of 32, Rojas was out of the majors. His decline makes me suspect he was one of those supposed cases of the Dominican player falsifying their birth certificate to make themselves younger than they really were. Or maybe he just plain flamed out. Who knows?

Rod Beck
Who doesn't love Shooter? With his trademark mullet and fu-manchu beard, Rod Beck brought a sharp fastball and an intimidating presence to the mound. In 1998 the Cubs signed Beck to a one-year deal. At last they had someone of the same caliber as Myers. And Beck didn't disappoint, racking up a career-best 51 saves, during a season that was quite memorable (Sosa chasing Maris, Wood's 20 strikeout game). The Cubs made the postseason for the first time since 1989, but were no match for the Atlanta Braves who swept them in three. Unfortunately for Beck and the Cubs, '98 would be his last full season as a productive closer. After getting off to a lousy start in 1999, Beck had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in his shoulder. Even after he returned from the DL, Beck still hadn't regained his old form and ultimately lost his job to Rick Aguilera. By the end of August, the Cubs would deal him to Boston for pitcher Mark Guthrie.

Shooter spent a couple seasons in Boston as a setup guy before having Tommy John surgery in 2001. Beck was signed once again by the Chicago Cubs in 2003. He spent the bulk of that season pitching for AAA Iowa and lived in a motor home parked behind Sec Taylor Stadium. However Cub fans never got to see him back in Wrigley as Beck was released on May 31, only to be signed 3 days later by the San Diego Padres. Shooter had a nice run with the Padres. Filling in for the injured Trevor Hoffman, Beck converted 20 saves.

Rick Aguilera
Aguilera is the one of those "Oh crap, I totally forgot he played for us once," type of guys. Acquired in the middle of the 1999 season from the Twins for Kyle Lohse and some guy you've never heard of Aguilera took over closing duties from Terry Adams who was filling in for the injured Beck. Aguilera would be our closer for the 2000 season as well, converting 29 saves, which isn't too bad given the Cubs were utterly craptastic that year and only won 65 total. Rick retired at the end of the season.

I remember 2000 as just an atrocious season. The starting lineup consisted of:

C - Girardi (back for his second run after 7 years in Colorado and New York)
1B - Grace (playing his last season in pinstripes before management shamefully ran him out of town in favor of Hee Suck Choi)
2B - Eric Young (somehow he's still kicking it in the league too)
3B - Willie Greene (thanks to Gary Scott, he's not considered the worst 3B in Cubs history)
SS - Ricky Gutierrez (he got paid Mark DeRosa money too)
LF - Henry Rodriguez (his legacy has lived on through Matt Stairs, Jeromy Burnitz and Phil Nevin)
CF - Damon Buford (luckily all the Cubs gave up for him was Manny Alexander)
RF - Sammy Sosa (well we all know about this guy)

I attended two games against the Rockies in August that year with fellow TMS bartender Brant Brown. We were treated to starts from Daniel Garibay and Ruben Quevedo. This was also the game where Brant's legendary "Todd Hollandsworth has AIDS" heckle occurred.

Jeff Fassero
I'm sure you're racking your brain, trying to remember just when in fact Jeff Fassero was our closer. In what is the shortest stint by any guy on this list, Jeff closed for the first month or so of the 2001 season, before Flash Gordon got back on track. After that, he became a decent reliever before completely shitting the bed in 2002 and being sent to St. Louis for a dusty old 12-pack of Bud Dry. In later years his number 13 would serve as a symbol of mediocrity when Neifi Perez would wear Jeff's old number.

Tom Gordon
December 13, 1999: Red Sox P Tom Gordon has ligament reconstruction surgery on his right elbow, and will miss the 2000 season. According to the Red Sox, there is only a 15% to 20% chance that he will ever pitch again.

December 14, 2000: Signed as a Free Agent with the Chicago Cubs.


Now that you got the theme song by Queen stuck in your head...

The Cubs, looking to replace Rick Aguilera, decided to sign Tom Gordon and his new bionic arm. Flash notched 27 saves for Chicago in 2001. In 2002 he was hurt again, spurring the Cubs to trade perpetual wet blanket Julian Tavarez and a handful of prospects to the Marlins for Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement. One of those prospects was none other than Dontrelle Willis. So thank Flash, for why we were subjected to the 12-fingered freak Awful-seca and missed out on the eventual 2003 Rookie of the Year. Of course if Willis had stayed with the Cubs he'd have already had Tommy John surgery at this point.

Flash would later be traded to the Astros for a couple mules and a sack of flour. He spent a couple seasons as a setup guy for the Yankees before cashing in with a fat 3-year $20 million deal to be the Phillies closer last season. It has worked out so far for the Phils, but locking in a 38 year old reliever to a deal like that, who hasn't been a closer that much in his career? We'll see what happens next year.

Antonio Alfonseca
2002 was a downright pitiful season for the Cubs, finishing 67-95 and running through three managers (Baylor, Lachemann, Kimm). Anchoring this lousy squad was a horrible bullpen, and anchoring that turd of a pen was El Pulpo, Antonio Alfonseca. Known more for his extra digits than for his pitching prowess, Alfonseca managed to convert only 19 saves all season. The team only converted 23 total.

Alfonseca lost the closer job in 2003 and has never retained that role for any team since then. In June of this year, he was released by the Texas Rangers and appears like his career may be done.

Joe Borowski
In 2003 Joe Borowski seemingly sprung out of thin air to become the Cubs closer. Actually, Joe was one of the only relievers to pitch quite well for Chicago in 2002. Before landing with the Cubs, Joe bounced between the minors and the bigs with three different clubs (the Orioles, Braves, and Yankees) from 1995 to 1999 and eventually ending up in the Mexican League and Northern League in 2000. Joe pitched pretty well in 2003, posting a 2.63 ERA and 1.05 with 33 saves. However in 2004 a torn rotator cuff ended his closing duties and eventually in 2005, his tenure with the Cubs.

Joe bounced back this past season in Florida and was a fairly effective closer for the fish, racking up 36 saves.

LaTroy Hawkins
In attempt to bolster the bullpen, the Cubs signed Hawkins for the 2004 season. A Gary, Indiana native, LaTroy grew up a Cubs fan. When Borowski went on the DL, Hawkins was thrust into the closer role. Hawkins was serviceable in the role for most of the season, but his struggles early on in 2005 began to draw the ire of fans who began to boo him mercilessly. What should have been his dream job, playing for the team he grew up cheering for became a nightmare. After losing the job to Ryan Dempster, Hawkins was sent off to San Francisco for Jerome Williams and David Aardsma.

Hawkins has never been a great closer as he's lost the job in both Minnesota and Chicago due to his struggles in that role. Since leaving Chicago, he's bounced from the Giants to the Orioles, where his effectiveness out of the pen has been limited.

Ryan Dempster
And that brings us to the latest chapter in this epic drama of late-inning misery. Ryan Dempster got his start with the Florida Marlins in 1998. In 2002 he was dealt to the Reds for Juan Encarnacion and the less-talented brother of Vladimir Guerrero. In 2003, the wear and tear of being a workhorse in the Marlins rotation finally caught up with him as he underwent Tommy John surgery. The offseason following the surgery, Ryan was released by the Reds and in 2004 he was signed by the Cubs. Originally thought to be another arm for the rotation, Ryan was shifted to the bullpen in early 2005 when LaTroy Hawkins began to struggle mightily with the closing duties. Dempster pitched well in the new role, notching 33 saves in 35 opportunities. The Cubs rewarded Dempster with a three-year $15.5 million deal. Just for a moment, it looked like we may actually have a solid closer for more than one season.

Alas, 2006 was not a great year for the Cubs, or for Dempster. Ryan's ERA ballooned to 4.80 and he only saved 24 games. By the end of the year, Bob Howry was beginning to see save opportunites instead.

And so the merry-go-round of Cubs closers continues. Who will be the guy for 2007? Will Dempster be able to rebound and close out games effectively? Or will Bob Howry, who did close games for the White Sox back in the day, take over the duties. Then you have the wild card, Kerry Wood, who is riding into the upcoming season on a one-year incentive-laden deal. Could Wood reinvent himself as a closer and resurrect a once promising career? We'll see.