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Chicago Cubs

Cubs have experienced closer problems before

Chicago Cubs pitcher Rod Beck celebrates with catcher Tyler Houston after the Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants 5-3 to win the  National League Wildcard playoff game, Monday, Sept. 28, 1998, in Chicago. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)
Chicago Cubs pitcher Rod Beck celebrates with catcher Tyler Houston after the Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants 5-3 to win the National League Wildcard playoff game, Monday, Sept. 28, 1998, in Chicago. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)

While the Cubs await the arrival of newly signed closer Craig Kimbrel, this would be a good time for a reminder: They’ve been down this road before.

Through whatever circumstance – out of desperation or to close the big deal, so to speak – the Cubs have gone out and obtained big-name closers throughout their recent history.

They’ve gotten the girthy and the eccentric. They’ve found the flamethrowers and the junkballers.

The results have been decidedly mixed, no matter who was running the team.

So as former general manager Ed Lynch told me as Rod Beck came into a 1999 game at Dodger Stadium (and blew a save opportunity), let’s “buckle our seat belts” and take a wild ride over the past 25 seasons.

We’ll see how the moves worked out (or didn’t) and take a look at the unintended consequences and those who swooped in like vultures and picked up saves when the big guys failed.

Our jumping-off point is the post-strike 1995 season, when Randy Myers was finishing his Cubs tenure with 38 saves. Myers still holds the club record for saves in a single season, with 53 in 1993. The Cubs decided not to re-sign Myers, and he went on to Baltimore and more success.

That led to:

Doug Jones (2 saves with Cubs)

A changeup specialist who threw slow, slower and slowest, Jones had enjoyed a successful career, with seasons of 27, 43 and 36 saves. With the Cubs in 1996, it didn’t work out, and Jones was released in June.

He did have a sense of humor, along with a waistline paunch. When he heard that the Cubs were bringing up Kent Bottenfield to replace him, Jones said, “I’ll leave him my uniform pants. They’ll fit him.”

Turk Wendell wound up leading the Cubs with 18 saves that year. But he didn’t get a chance to close the next year because the Cubs went outside again.

And fitting of Cubs lore, Jones found his groove again, saving 36 games with Milwaukee in 1997.

Mel Rojas (13 saves)

Rojas saved 36 games for the Montreal Expos in 1996, but after the Cubs got off to an 0-14 start, he became about as useful as a hood ornament on a jalopy. So Lynch traded him to the Mets in August, and youngster Terry Adams led the Cubs with 18 saves. But like Wendell (traded along with Rojas), Adams wouldn’t get his chance to close full time.

Rod Beck (58 saves)

On the eve of the 1998 Cubs convention, they signed Beck, who was coming off a 37-save season with the San Francisco Giants.

Beck, who smoked cigarettes at his locker and joined his Cubs teammates for beer and baseball talk in the clubhouse after games, also had a plus-sized waistline. When asked about it, he said, “I don’t think of myself as a fat person. I think of myself as a guy with a little extra. I’ve never seen anybody on the [disabled list] with pulled fat.”

Beck piled up 51 saves for the Cubs in ’98, when they won the wild card. He was going on guts (or gut) and guile by the end of the year, and by early 1999, his elbow got the best of him, and he wound up being traded to Boston.

Rick Aguilera (37 saves)

Lynch strode into the manager’s office May 21, 1999, at Atlanta’s Turner Field and proudly announced that he had obtained Aguilera from the Minnesota Twins. To get Aguilera, the Cubs gave up little-known minor league pitcher Kyle Lohse, who went on to a successful big-league career.

The Cubs were 22-17 when they got Aguilera, but they finished 67-95. Aguilera earned eight saves for the Cubs in ’99 and 29 in 2000. He called it quits after that.

Tom “Flash” Gordon (27 saves), et al.

Stephen King fans may remember the novel, “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.”
Gordon wasn’t quite a horror story for the Cubs in parts of two seasons, but various ailments kept him from really helping.

The Cubs’ closing situation was in flux for the next few years. Antonio Alfonseca (known as “El Pulpo” because of an extra digit on each hand) took over for Gordon after coming over in a trade with the Marlins.

Journeyman Joe Borowski found magic to help the Cubs to a division title in 2003. When Borowski got hurt the next year, LaTroy Hawkins stepped in with 25 saves but was more known for contributing to a late-season collapse and for feuding with the media.

The Cubs took a flyer on Ryan Dempster, and he saved 87 games over three-plus years of closing before going back to starting. Former starting phenom Kerry Wood saved 34 games in 2008 before leaving.

Special mention, Kyuji Fujikawa (2 saves)

The Cubs weren’t sure if they were going to keep Fujikawa or trade him as part of their rebuild when they signed the Japanese closer to a two-year, $9.5 million deal in December 2012.

Tommy John surgery during the 2013 season effectively ended Fujikawa’s time as Cub, making him one of the biggest boondoggles of team president Theo Epstein’s time in Chicago.

Kevin Gregg (56 saves)

The Cubs began a serious decline in 2009. Gregg saved 23 games before going to Toronto. But he was back in 2013, saving 33 games for a bad team. He had to come to the press box after a game in September to apologize for saying he was owed “professional courtesy” if his role was going to change.

Aroldis Chapman (16 saves)

The Cubs went for it all on July 25, 2016, when they obtained Chapman in a trade with the Yankees for, among others, a young player named Gleyber Torres, now a mainstay of the Yankees.

Chapman, who served a suspension for domestic violence, did not impress in his introductory news conference when he looked uninterested and said through an interpreter that he had been sleeping and didn’t remember much of his conversation with the Cubs’ brass.

But fans oohed and aahed at every 103 mph fastball, and Chapman worked through heavy usage with four saves in 13 postseason games. He got his World Series ring the next year when he came back to Wrigley Field after re-signing with the Yankees.

Chapman pushed aside Hector Rondon, a former Rule 5 draft pickup who is sixth on the Cubs’ all-time saves list with 77.

Wade Davis (32 saves)

You hardy knew Davis was around in 2017, he was that quiet.

But he was effective after coming to the Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler. Davis signed with the Colorado Rockies after the 2017 season.

Brandon Morrow (22 saves)

Morrow is part of the reason Kimbrel was signed. He hasn’t pitched since before the All-Star break last year because of a biceps inflammation. He remains on the injured list after undergoing an elbow cleanup last fall.

It’s questionable whether he will pitch for the Cubs again.

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