Who's the Cubs' playoff closer? Even when Pedro Strop returns, Joe Maddon's not naming one


Joe Maddon said Saturday that when Pedro Strop returns from his injury layoff — which according to Strop would be for Thursday’s playoff game, though he didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility that there might be no Thursday playoff game for the North Siders — he won’t become the team’s official closer.

Strop has been the Cubs’ closer, in practice, for some time now. Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched since before the All-Star break, and Strop’s racked up 11 saves in that time.

Of course, the hope was, for much of that time, that Morrow would be able to return, presenting no need for Maddon to declare someone else closer. Strop was simply filling in — and doing a very good job of it.

But with Morrow done for the season, Strop seemed the logical choice to be named “the” closer whenever he finished his recovery. Well, Maddon hasn't made any such declaration since the news on Morrow. So why do it come playoff time?

“I really like what we’re doing right now, having all these different options late. So I definitely would not just say, ‘He’s the closer,’” Maddon said before Saturday’s game against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. “He’s just part of the bullpen, the back end of the bullpen.”

There’s a couple other wrinkles of note in this whole situation, which really isn’t that big a deal. After all, whether he’s got the title or not, as long as Strop delivers in big-time late-game situation, what difference does it make?

First, there’s Strop’s health. All reports, from both Strop and Maddon, indicate that the recovering reliever — who’s been out with a hamstring injury suffered Sept. 13 while running to first base during a rare at-bat — is feeling good and getting close to returning. There seemed to be little doubt that he’d be back for an extended run in the postseason. But on the off chance that something does pop up and Strop’s comeback is delayed or he doesn’t feel so hot after getting back into game action, not naming him the team’s official closer doesn’t add the pressure of “losing your closer in the middle of a playoff run.”

Not only that, but because of Strop’s health, Maddon might be looking to ease Strop back into high-leverage action.

“I’d probably ease him in, not just thrust him into a ninth-inning situation,” Maddon said. “But if you put him out there and he responds well, then you would easily get him right back where he belongs. You’d want to test him out if we had a period of time in between. If we’re able to take care of this and get some down time, you could even throw a sim game to find out exactly where he’s at.”

Second, there’s the different approach to bullpen usage in the postseason. Closers aren’t always reserved for the final three outs of a game, like they almost exclusively are during the regular season. Managers might turn to their “best” reliever earlier in the game. If the seventh or eighth inning presents a tougher part of the opposing lineup, then maybe that’s when Strop would be used. By not bestowing him with the closer title, Maddon can use Strop wherever he sees fit. A title likely wouldn’t have gotten in the way of Maddon doing that anyway, but hey.

And building off that, with the wealth of arms that have been getting late-game opportunities while Strop’s been on the shelf, Maddon has the luxury of mixing and matching depending on what the opposing lineup looks like at any given time throughout the postseason. Maddon’s never shy about making a bunch of pitching changes, and by not putting the closer title on Strop, he can go with a pitcher who might have a better shot of getting one individual batter out in the ninth or any other high-pressure inning.

“You saw what (Jesse) Chavez has been doing. (Jorge) De La Rosa continues to do great work. (Justin) Wilson’s capable. Carl (Edwards Jr.), being on top of his game, is capable,” Maddon said. “All the guys getting the work they’ve gotten to this point feel pretty good about themselves. It really presents a wide-open method with the bullpen.”

It’s all about having the most options, and the mix-and-match king that Maddon has been during his time as a major league manager has shown how valuable that can be.

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