Chicago Cubs have their closer, but rest of bullpen will continue evolving
Any discussion of a baseball team's bullpen should always begin with this disclaimer: Bullpens are the most fickle and finicky part of any team, and the bullpen a team has to begin the season is never the one it has to end the season.
So now we can move forward in talking about the Cubs' relief corps -- or at least as it stands now.
The biggest move of the off-season was the signing of Brandon Morrow to a free-agent contract. Morrow will serve as the team's closer, replacing Wade Davis, who took his steady presence to the Colorado Rockies.
The Cubs have had remarkable stability at the closer's spot over the past few years. Hector Rondon did steady work until losing the job to Aroldis Chapman in the middle of the 2016 season. Rondon, who signed with Houston after not being tendered a contract, ranks sixth on Cubs' all-time saves with 77.
Davis provided a calm presence last year in his only season with the Cubs, saving 32 games in 33 opportunities.
For his career, Morrow has only 18 saves, but high-leverage situations are not new to him. After all, he appeared in 14 games for the Dodgers last postseason, including all seven World Series games. During the 2017 regular season, Morrow was 6-0 with a 2.06 ERA and a WHIP of 0.92.
"I was really very comfortable coming out of the bullpen last year," he told cubs.com. "Obviously, to get all the experience in the pressure innings in the playoffs, which I hadn't been in before, and pitching innings that mattered (helped)."
The Cubs recently released right-hander Justin Grimm, who has signed with the Kansas City Royals. That opens a possible spot, depending on whether they go with a 12-man or a 13-man pitching staff.
The right-handed setup men are holdovers Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and sidearmer Steve Cishek, who was signed in the off-season. Strop has been slowed by a calf injury and illness during spring training, but he is expected to be ready by Opening Day. It is possible that righty Eddie Butler, who made 11 starts in 13 games last year for the Cubs, could win a bullpen job.
The lefties include swing man Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing and Justin Wilson. After a bad first month last year, Duensing went on to have a solid season for the Cubs, and he re-signed in the off-season.
The Cubs were expecting big things from Wilson after obtaining him from Detroit in a July 31 trade last year, but he struggled with his new team, going 1-0 with a 5.09 ERA and a WHIP of 2.09. Both Wilson and the Cubs are hopeful a reset will help.
From Day 1 of the off-season, Cubs president Theo Epstein has talked of need to throw more strikes out of the bullpen. Last year, Cubs relievers waked 264 batters in 559 inning, contributing to a WHIP of 1.30 for the pen.
"We were 30th out of 30 (last) year in walk rate, the only team over 10 percent unintentional walk rate, and that's not acceptable," Epstein said at the time. "None of us feel good about that. We managed to have the third-lowest bullpen ERA in the National League, but we did it in a way we're not really comfortable getting there. We have to get better. We have to throw more strikes.
"We didn't peak at the right time: October. We kind of peaked in September, the last three weeks of the regular season. Our pen was a huge factor in that pennant push. Our pen in the last three weeks of the season was really lights-out and helped get us there. But we didn't deliver in October, including some guys who are going to be big parts of our future and we really believe in. So we just have to figure out a way to help develop those guys and get them more consistent and throw more strikes across the board in the bullpen."
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