Hall of Famer Lee Smith pitching for the Cubs in 1987.

Closer mentality: Growing respect for relievers paved way to Hall for Lee Smith

SHARE Closer mentality: Growing respect for relievers paved way to Hall for Lee Smith
SHARE Closer mentality: Growing respect for relievers paved way to Hall for Lee Smith

LAS VEGAS — For all the success and dominance Lee Smith had as a closer with the Cubs and Cardinals a generation ago, he probably can thank the recent success of the Brewers, Royals and Dodgers just as much for his election to the Hall of Fame.

‘‘So many ballclubs now set their team around their bullpen,’’ said Smith, who became only the sixth relief pitcher elected to the Hall when the veterans’ committee selected him Sunday after he fell short in 15 tries on the writers’ ballot. ‘‘I’m so glad we got a little more recognition.’’

Smith retired as the all-time saves leader after the 1997 season, and his 478 saves still rank third behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman.

Hoffman was inducted last year, and Rivera is expected to be elected by the writers this year in his first year of eligibility. That will make the 2019 Hall of Fame class the first to feature multiple relief pitchers.

For decades, relievers were considered failed starters and often discounted because of it in Hall of Fame voting.

That thinking gradually has shifted with the trend over the last three decades of pitchers being groomed in the minors for late-inning roles and more recently of playoff teams leaning almost as hard on their relief staffs as on their rotations.


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‘‘Back in the day, all my idols were starting pitchers in the Bob Gibsons and the Fergie Jenkinses and the Nolan Ryans,’’ Smith said. ‘‘You wanted to be a starting pitcher because, in that era, it was somewhat of a slap in the face being a relief pitcher because the starter usually went the complete game. Or, if he didn’t, he got knocked around, and it was like a mop-up role.’’

Smith actually quit baseball as a Cubs minor-leaguer when he was asked to make the transition to reliever until Cubs legend Billy Williams got in his face and talked him out of it.

‘‘And the rest is history,’’ Smith said.

Position-battle alert

The Cubs are kicking the tires on veteran backup catchers this winter. They still have both catchers — Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini — who finished on the roster last season, and general manager Jed Hoyer said he doesn’t expect to have the luxury of having three catchers next season because the Cubs ‘‘almost definitely’’ will carry 13 pitchers again.

Clubhouse leader wanted

One of the Cubs’ priorities this winter is to acquire a veteran position player who can provide a strong clubhouse influence for a team that fell short in that area in 2018. That almost certainly will be a bench player.

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