The Cubs undoubtedly will add options to their bullpen this winter, but in what form remains to be seen.
Will they acquire a high-leverage left-hander or continue to fill in the roster with veterans and unproven young southpaws and hope lightning strikes? Will they add more guys capable of throwing multiple innings per outing? Do they need to add another pitcher with closing experience?
Let’s tackle that last question.
The Cubs signed Brandon Morrow during the MLB Winter Meetings last year and tabbed him as the closer assuming no other deals with Wade Davis or another stopper came to fruition.
Obviously no other deal came about, with Morrow and Steve Cishek serving as the top bullpen additions last winter. The Morrow Experience got off to a great start as he went 7-for-7 in save opportunities and didn’t give up a run until May 5.
But then disaster struck — first in the form of a bad pants-taking-off experience in mid-June and then a bone bruise in his forearm in mid-July. The end result was Morrow missed the entire second half of the season, only throwing off a mound twice before being shut down in September.
Pedro Strop stepped in at closer and did a fantastic job…before he, too, went down with an injury in mid-September.
That left Joe Maddon to piece together a closer on a daily basis from Cishek (who seemingly ran into a wall in the season’s final month from overuse), Justin Wilson and Jesse Chavez. Heck, even Randy Rosario (Sept. 13) and Jorge De La Rosa (Sept. 14) picked up saves in that span.
Morrow and Strop are in line to be 100 percent healthy by spring training and Cishek is well rested, but Chavez is gone and Wilson is expected to sign elsewhere this winter.
The Cubs have tabbed Carl Edwards Jr. as a future closer, but he needs to rebound from his most recent late-season fade and prove he can be a consistent, dominant force for a full season before jumping into that role.
Theo Epstein historically does not hand out megadeals to closers, understanding the volatility of relievers and how risky it is to sink so much of a team’s payroll into a guy whose performance can fluctuate wildly from year-to-year and who will only throw 60-70 innings a season even in a best case scenario. That stands to reason this winter more than any other given the financial constraints the Cubs are working under.
So does that take the Cubs out on free agent pitchers like Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino and Zach Britton?
“Just weight all the alternatives,” Epstein said last month. “I do believe getting those last outs can be a little bit more challenging than getting the other outs, so it’s not just any job. But I’m a lot more concerned with just like the overall [bullpen]. The way we look at it is I want as many really talented options as we can in the ‘pen. That’s what we ask ourselves more than do we have a ‘closer’?
“…I just want to make sure we have a really talented ‘pen with lots of different options and see how thinsg shake out. I don’t think given our other needs, given our roster and payroll situation now and going forward that investing long-term at closer at big money is really high up our priority list right now. But stranger things have happened. I think we have some other areas to address.”
The Cubs took that same approach to building the bullpen the last two winters, opening the season with at least 5 arms they felt could be “even or ahead” guys – pitchers who can come in and get outs in high-leverage spots.
The Cubs would ideally add to their current stable of “even or ahead guys” — Morrow, Strop, Edwards, Cishek, Mike Montgomery (if he’s not needed in the rotation) — but considering they are already projected to eclipse the $206 million luxury tax threshold even before any other signings or deals this winter, it’d be hard to see Epstein and Co. out-bid the rest of the market.
There are other guys on the open market with closing experience who probably won’t break the bank this winter (Greg Holland, Ryan Madson, A.J. Ramos, Joakim Soria, etc.), but it’s a matter of whether the Cubs feel those guys can become reliable pieces in the 2019 bullpen.
The issue hasn’t been a lack of talent on the Opening Day roster, but rather injuries and late-season slumps. Edwards isn’t the only Cubs reliever who has run into a wall in August or September.
However, the key may not lie in the season’s final months, but rather in April and May, when the Cubs’ top bullpen arms are being utilized early and often.
“We have to provide that depth,” GM Jed Hoyer said. “It’s hard. If the same guys are pitching in every close game, you’re gonna wear them out. We have to have a deep enough bullpen where Joe has more options. When you’re a good team — and we’re a good team — you play a lot of close games. You win a lot of close games and the games you don’t win are usually close and that wears down your bullpen.
“It’s easier to protect your relievers if you’re getting blown out every fourth or fifth day. When you’re playing games that are in the margins all the time, it’s hard. So going in, the only thing you can do is have depth.”
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