Carlos Marmol, Sergio Santos glad they went to the pitching mound
By Justin Albers firstname.lastname@example.org August 8, 2011 9:38PM
Carlos Marmol (left) and Sergio Santos | Getty Images, Tamara Bell~Sun Times Media
BY THE NUMBERS | CARLOS MARMOL
G IP ER HR BB K W-L S BS ERA WHIP
2011 53 521/3 21 2 32 66 2-3 24 7 3.61 1.41
Career 369 4372/3 160 32 284 566 18-22 85 19 3.29 1.28
BY THE NUMBERS | SERGIO SANTOS
G IP ER HR BB K W-L S BS ERA WHIP
2011 46 481/3 15 3 22 64 3-3 23 3 2.79 1.01
Career 102 100 32 5 48 120 5-5 24 5 2.88 1.28
Updated: November 20, 2011 2:19AM
Oneri Fleita was playing in a summer college league in 1987 when he spotted the man who would become one of the greatest closers of all time working in the oddest of places.
“I wasn’t a very good first baseman, and there was a shortstop on that team that couldn’t hit, but he had a tremendously accurate arm and made me look real good at first,” Fleita said. “His name was Trevor Hoffman.”
It’s because of what he saw on those summer nights in Kansas that Fleita, now the Cubs’ vice president of player personnel, rarely gives up on a player.
He didn’t give up on a young, stubborn hitter named Carlos Marmol just as the White Sox’ Buddy Bell didn’t give up on a struggling shortstop named Sergio Santos.
Marmol grew up in the Dominican Republic with a bat in his hands at all times. He said he was always one of the better hitters growing up and dreamed of hitting home runs off the game’s top pitchers.
Marmol hit for power at times, but his batting average usually hovered around .250 — not high enough for Fleita and the Cubs to keep him as a catcher.
Santos loved playing shortstop. His strong arm helped him make tough plays look easy in the field. He hoped to eventually excel at the plate. But he never hit for enough power to be a full-time position player in the majors.
Marmol and Santos had to alter their dreams and push their egos aside to keep their baseball careers alive.
Marmol and Santos are closers in the same city — two faces of the position-player-turned-pitcher movement. But their success didn’t come overnight. Like Hoffman, Rafael Soriano, Rafael Betancourt and others before them, Marmol and Santos started over and began the long climb toward their dreams — for a second time.
‘A little mad’
Marmol wasn’t a great catcher, but he resisted the Cubs’ movement to convert him. He thought he could hit, so the Cubs moved him to the outfield to give him a chance to prove himself.
Marmol hit .249 in 164 career minor-league games as a position player, leading to an ultimatum from Fleita: Convert to a pitcher or be done in the organization.
“I was a little mad,” Marmol said. “It feels good, what I do now, but it didn’t in the past. I didn’t want to be a pitcher.”
Marmol had never pitched before. He didn’t know how to grip a slider or how to locate pitches. He just knew how to throw hard — really hard — something he learned by gunning down runners as a catcher.
After starting 13 games his rookie season, the Cubs moved him to the bullpen in 2007, setting up for then-closer Ryan Dempster. As Marmol’s slider improved, talk in the organization centered on him eventually closing.
But Marmol wasn’t ready. Even as his slider was fast becoming one of the nastiest pitches in baseball, he struggled with control. He walked far too many batters — 35 in 691/3 innings in 2007 — and got himself in too much trouble.
“The biggest thing is just location,” said Cubs starting pitcher Randy Wells, a former catcher. “That’s the hardest thing to learn.”
Marmol was dominant in the setup role in 2007, posting a 1.43 ERA in 59 appearances. He set up for Kerry Wood in 2008 and then again in ’09 for Kevin Gregg. Marmol’s slider was gaining a reputation, but his location continued to raise concerns. He walked 106 in the two seasons combined and allowed only 83 hits.
Marmol finally became the closer in August 2009, replacing Gregg. He has mostly been good ever since — saving 38 games last season — but his struggles resurfaced this season, and he lost the closer job briefly last month because of mechanical flaws.
“As good as you may be, you’re going to take your lumps,” catcher Koyie Hill said. “As many times as you hear the crowd cheer, you’re going to get your share of times when they don’t. Once you understand that, you try to stay somewhere in the middle — and he does that well.”
When he’s on his game, Marmol can retire the side with three strikeouts in nine or 10 pitches. But when he struggles, he goes back to what he knows best — throwing really hard — with no idea where a pitch will go.
Control is the one thing keeping Marmol, 28, from being a perennial All-Star.
“Even when he struggles, we still trust him to close the games for us,” said Cubs pitching coach Mark Riggins, who helped convert Jason Motte with the St. Louis Cardinals. “And if he does blow a save, he has that closer mentality where he’ll come back out the next night ready to go again. Those guys are special people, and they are very, very hard to find.”
Like Marmol, Santos thought he could hit.
The native of Bellflower, Calif., was taken in the first round of the 2002 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks and spent the next three years working his way up through that organization.
He was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays after the ’05 season, and he almost got his big break with the organization in 2007. Blue Jays shortstop Royce Clayton fouled a ball off his foot and looked to be headed to the disabled list — a move that would’ve brought Santos to the big leagues.
But Clayton never went on the DL, and Santos never got promoted.
“At the time I was like, ‘Goodness gracious, is anything ever going to go my way?’ ” Santos said. “I have no idea where my career would be now if that had happened.”
After a short stint in the Minnesota Twins’ farm system, Santos was signed to a minor-league deal by the Sox after the 2008 season.
The organization didn’t think he had what it took to be an every-day player, so Bell — the minor-league director of operations — laid out his options.
“It was either utility Triple-A guy or pitching,” Santos said. “I felt like I was too young and a little too talented to be a utility guy at 25. I felt like I was better than that.”
So the Sox dealt him to the San Francisco Giants for future considerations, and Santos had a fresh start. But he and the Giants quickly realized he wasn’t going to make it as a big-league shortstop. The Sox were still interested in Santos as a pitcher, so two weeks after he left the organization, he was traded back to the Sox to begin the conversion.
Unlike Marmol, Santos had pitched before, though the last time was when he was 13.
Making the change to preserve his career was nerve-racking. Santos was married with two kids, and he was playing with guys fresh out of high school and college.
“I’m starting all over again, and these kids don’t have the same worries as me,” Santos said. “I got a mortgage; I got bills to pay; I got kids to feed. All of that added motivation for me to make it.”
Santos struggled in 2009, posting an 8.16 ERA in 26 appearances at four minor-league levels. But unlike Marmol, who made 88 minor-league appearances over six seasons, Santos never returned to the minors.
“Nobody has done what he’s done,” Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. “He looked like a pitcher from the beginning.”
Santos pitched 512/3 innings as a reliever in 2010, posting a 2.96 ERA with 56 strikeouts. His slider was becoming a great out pitch, and he continued to develop a changeup.
“A reliever is really an every-day player, and he knows that grind,” said bullpen coach Juan Nieves, who closely monitored Santos’ conversion. “He was able to adjust really easy.”
Santos eventually earned the Sox’ closer job. Like Marmol, it has been a roller-coaster ride.
Manager Ozzie Guillen stuck with Santos, allowing him to work through his struggles when other managers might have lost patience. Guillen’s belief in Santos has helped him become one of the better closers in the American League.
“There’s nowhere to run or hide,” Santos said. “It’s something you really have to work through by yourself. That was huge.”
Santos, 28, has done something he never imagined he could do.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Nieves said. “As long as he keeps his confidence, nothing can keep him down.”
Two of a kind
Even though they never really crossed paths until this year, Marmol and Santos have quietly followed each other’s careers.
“He’s got a good story; he’s a good pitcher,” Marmol said of Santos.
“I know he’s struggling right now, but I’m sure he’ll come out of it soon,” Santos said of Marmol awhile back.
They recognize how remarkably similar their unusual paths to the majors have been. They both have nasty sliders, they both throw their fastballs in the mid- to upper 90s and they’re both exciting closers in the same city.
Not bad for two former position players headed nowhere.
“It’s hard enough to pitch at this level when you’re healthy and you’re good,” Wells said, “but to convert and have that kind of success so quick, that’s special.”