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Searching For Saves in Chicago Once Kevin Gregg is Gone

Sometimes, the best part about trading season is less about the additions some clubs make than it is about the new roles of those left behind. In fantasy baseball, that’s rarely more relevant than it is in the bullpen, where the “save” can suddenly make barely-notable middle relievers valuable properties, simply because they’ll be pitching now in the ninth rather than the seventh or eighth.

While we could see closers move in a few places, the most likely spot to see this happen this year is going to be in Chicago, where Kevin Gregg is 35, a free-agent-to-be, having a surprisingly good season, and absolutely not going to be with the Cubs the next time they’re any good. Dale Sveum‘s club has already gone through three closers this year — first Carlos Marmol before he was demoted and traded, then Kyuji Fujikawa before he got hurt, now Gregg — and it seems more likely than not that they’ll end up with at least one more before the season is out.

So… who’s it going to be?

As you’d expect from a club that’s in such a transitional period as the Cubs are, the bullpen is made up of an ever-revolving cast. For example, if you look at the Cubs page on Baseball-Reference right now, you’ll see that only two of the top five listed relievers are still with the club, and that will soon be just one once Gregg is moved. James Russell remains, but Carlos Villanueva was moved back into the rotation after Scott Feldman was traded to Baltimore, and Marmol & Shawn Camp were each designated for assignment.

It’s not likely to be veteran Matt Guerrier, who was designated by the Dodgers before being swapped for Marmol, or rookie Hector Rondon, who has struggled and is with the club only because he is a Rule 5 pick, or Michael Bowden, who has been constantly up-and-down from Triple-A.

If and when Gregg moves, we’re probably looking at saves from one of these three contenders:

Russell. The biggest knock against the 27-year-old lefty is that he’s having a solid enough season that he’s coming up in trade rumors nearly as regularly as Gregg is, and it’s going to be hard for him to collect saves in Chicago if he’s setting up for Craig Kimbrel in Atlanta, to name just one example. Russell’s not exactly strictly a LOOGY, but he’s trending in that direction whether you look at his career splits (.357 vs .289 wOBA) and especially in 2013 (.393 vs .218 wOBA). The Cubs have had only 10.2 relief innings from lefties other than Russell this year — bonus points if you really knew that they all came from Brooks Raley, Chris Rusin, & Hisanori Takahashi — and so one might expect Sveum to hesitate before putting his only lefty reliever into the ninth.

Blake Parker. Parker brings some ninth inning experience with him, collecting 66 saves in parts of seven minor league seasons in the Chicago organization. Sveum briefly alluded to that history in late June, but stayed far away from naming Parker the next in line, and the makeup of the bullpen has changed in the weeks since then anyway.  But for all his minor league experience, the converted catcher only has 24.1 big league innings under his belt, and missed nearly all of 2012 with elbow problems.

He’s settled nicely into a setup role over the last month, though his strikeout rate of 8.84 per nine seems a little misleading because after a nice first few weeks, he’s failed to strike out more than one batter in an outing in 10 of his last 11 appearances.

Pedro Strop. Both the newest — acquired in the Feldman deal from Baltimore — and potentially the most intriguing name in the mix, the 28-year-old Strop has been absolutely dominant since arriving in Chicago. That dominance comes over just six innings, of course, but he’s allowed a mere two hits and two walks, striking out seven. Strop has struck out nearly a man per inning across his career, though he’s also had more than a little bit of trouble with control… and yes, that sounds a bit too much like the man who had been the closer in Chicago for the last several years.

If and when Gregg goes, I would imagine that both Parker & Strop will get their chances in the ninth. Parker’s experience in the role in the minors is probably too much for Sveum to ignore, but if Strop has made such a good impression since joining the Cubs that he may force his way into the role. His arm and talent have never been questioned, just his ability to get the ball over the plate. That’s not going to suddenly change in Chicago, but he could be the best of a few unpalatable options.