The Cubs did a notable bit of housekeeping on Tuesday, cutting ties with infielder Ian Stewart and designating relief pitcher Carlos Marmol for assignment. The first move comes as no surprise, but the second one does, particularly given that the former All-Star closer is making $9.8 million this year, the final one of a three-year, $20 million deal.
Stewart, a 27-year-old former top prospect with the Rockies, hadn't played for the Cubs this season. He suffered a quad strain and missed all of spring training and April, and he has been struggling at Triple-A Iowa, hitting just .168/.286/.372. Just after he began heating up, he took to Twitter to vent his frustrations at not being promoted, publicly criticizing manager Dale Sveum, who "Doesn’t like me and He’s Running the show" [sic]. The Cubs suspended Stewart 10 games without pay for violating the loyalty clause of his contract, and while Stewart publicly apologized, general manager Jed Hoyer has granted him his unconditional release. The Cubs will have to eat the remaining money on his $2 million deal, which checks in at a bit over $1 million.
As for the 30-year-old Marmol, it was already clear entering the season that he was not long for the closer's job -- if not for the Windy City. Back in November, the team nearly sent Marmol to the Angels in exchange for Dan Haren, but the deal ultimately fell through. In December, the team signed veteran Japanese closer Kyuji Fujikawa to a two-year, $9.5 million deal as the heir apparent, and Marmol lost his job as the closer for the umpteenth time during the first week of the season, when he allowed five runs in 2 2/3 innings over three appearances. While Marmol struck out 32 in 27 2/3 innings, he walked 21 (6.8 per nine) and allowed six homers (2.0 per nine) en route to a 5.68 ERA, an unsustainable performance even for a reliever on a rebuilding team. Unfortunately, Fujikawa recently undewent Tommy John surgery after making just 12 appearances and saving two games, leaving the closer's job in the hands of scrapheap pickup Kevin Gregg — the pitcher who Marmol supplanted as closer back in 2009.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Cubs back in 1999, Marmol broke into the majors with the Cubs as a 23-year-old in 2006; he started 13 games and made six relief appearances but put up a 6.08 ERA. He emerged a sensation upon moving to the bullpen full time in 2007, striking out 12.5 per nine with a 1.43 ERA in 59 appearances, and earned a trip to the All-Star Game as a setup man in front of Kerry Wood in 2008. When Wood left for Cleveland via free agency that winter, the team brought in Gregg to handle the closer chores until Marmol was ready, and he took the job in August of that season. He peaked in 2010, saving 38 games in 43 opportunities with a 2.55 ERA and 16.0 strikeouts per nine, a record for relievers (50-inning minimum), though a mark that was quickly surpassed by Kenley Jansen in 2011 (16.1 per nine) and then again by Craig Kimbrel in 2012 (16.7 per nine).
The problem was that even when Marmol was at the peak of his strikeout ability, he was prone to wildness, turning the ninth inning into a white-knuckle ride and, increasingly, drawing boos from the Wrigley faithful. He walked 7.9 per nine in 2009, and has been above 5.8 per nine ever since, blowing as many as 10 saves in a season and losing the closer's job several times. He declined from 34 saves in 2011 to 20 last year to only two this year. To get a better sense of his decreasing level of effectiveness, take a look at his per-plate-appearance unintentional walk and strikeout rates, which have converged as his ERA has risen:
The Cubs now have 10 days to trade Marmol — which could be complicated by a partial no-trade clause that may have factored into the scuttled Angels' deal — or release him, in which case they'll have to eat the remaining money on his contract, which is a bit over $5 million. The Tigers, who expressed interest in Marmol earlier this spring, recently DFA'd Jose Valverde, but their level of patience for another reclamation project is unknown, and the same probably applies to other teams with acute bullpen needs: adding another control-challenged righty isn't a recipe for healing what ails most bullpens. Indeed, Marmol may have to take a detour to the minors to show he can be effective again before getting another shot in the majors. In the grand scheme, the departure of Marmol means that the Cubs' only major financial commitment dating back to the Jim Hendry era (which ended in late 2011) is the contract of Alfonso Soriano, who's making $19 million this year, with another $19 million remaining for 2014. Their efforts to deal the 37-year-old leftfielder won't be helped by his current .248/.278/.398 line and 65/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but as they've shown with regard to Marmol and Carlos Zambrano before him -- not to mention Stewart, albeit at much smaller stakes -- the day when they're willing to eat the remainder of a bad contract will come.