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Keeping Carlos Marmol a tough call for Cubs bullpen

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Carlos Marmol walks back dugout after baseball against St. Louis Cardinals Saturday Sept. 24 2011 St.

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Carlos Marmol walks back to the dugout after a baseball against the St. Louis Cardinals, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in St. Louis. The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 2-1. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

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Updated: December 1, 2011 5:27AM

ST. LOUIS — If there’s an upside to Carlos Marmol’s ugly season, it might be that the Cubs haven’t particularly needed a closer the way the season has gone.

But if they plan to be competitive next season, they’ll need a new Marmol. Or a new closer.

His latest command meltdown Saturday — punctuated by a bases-loaded wild pitch that ended a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals — put him in sole possession of the major-league lead in blown saves with 10. His .773 save percentage (34-for-44) is the worst in the ­National League.

“I don’t like the year that I’ve had,’’ said a somber Marmol after throwing 13 of his final 17 pitches for balls, including a game-tying bases-loaded walk to Ryan Theriot during an at-bat in which he didn’t swing. “Hopefully, next year will be a better year.’’

If not, a team already in major transition might be forced to look at its ninth-inning alternatives, despite the three-year, $20 million contract Marmol signed during spring training. The deal pays him $7 million next season and $9.8 million the year after.

With a handful of big, bad contracts falling off the books this offseason and the Cubs bracing to eat the bulk of one or two more, carrying a $7 million middle reliever/setup man won’t look very appetizing to ownership. Never mind the process of identifying or acquiring a replacement — or a replacement for Sean Marshall, for instance, if the club went that direction.

Just one more potential wrench in the works of a long-broken season.

“We need to get it straightened out,’’ Cubs manager Mike Quade said. “All we need to do is get him back to where he was the last few years. And he will.

“I don’t think he’s ever going to have lights-out command, but the ability to throw the fastball when he needs to for a strike and then do the same with the slider, he’s done that for several years. We just need to get him back to that.’’

Until then, hitters have learned to leave their bats on their shoulders, which isn’t a bad way to start against Marmol even when he’s at his best considering how unhittable his good slider is.

He’s still striking out a lot of hitters (12 per nine innings), and he’s walking and hitting batters at roughly the same rate as last year. But last year, he got away with more runners because he struck out so many more batters (major-league record 15.99 per nine innings).

“I know it’s a lot different,’’ Marmol said of hitters’ approaches against him this season. “I have to throw strikes.’’

It won’t get any easier next year for a pitcher whose mechanics are so unorthodox and hard to repeat that command is a constant maintenance issue.

“His stuff can be so devastating that he needs hitters in swing mode,’’ Quade said. “That’s why the value of the fastball for strikes and getting ahead of guys is so big, because you put a strike on them and now they’ve got to consider both pitches.’’

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