PITTSBURGH – One way to look at Cubs closer Brandon Morrow’s arm injury and his cautious and slow process in coming back is that the Cubs budgeted for this when they constructed the roster.
The Cubs added Morrow, Steve Cishek and made a handful of waiver claims and minor-league deals since last season to build their deepest bullpen during this competitive window, and they’ve carried at least eight pitchers in their bullpen all season. Then they added Jesse Chavez and Brandon Kintzler at the trade deadline.
So what happens when Morrow returns to the No. 2-ranked bullpen in the National League (3.29 ERA) in a few weeks, as he expects?
“I just hope there’s still a setup job available when I come back,” said Morrow – who might be about to ramp up his rehab workload toward a return in early September after a 25-pitch bullpen session Saturday.
“Stropy’s been unbelievable,” Morrow said. “Guys have already stepped up and filled the void. It’s a non-issue at this point. These guys are great.”
The Cubs have answered the question of whether they can survive if their shutdown closer can’t pitch: Setup man Pedro Strop leads the NL in saves since the All-Star break (eight), and the Cishek-led setup corps continues to rack up holds.
After a short start from walk-prone Tyler Chatwood, the bullpen handled all but the first two innings with another stout effort Saturday night in Pittsburgh.
But now Morrow is tasked with answering the biggest question that might remain for manager Joe Maddon’s best bullpen in four years in Chicago:
Can Morrow return with the kind of impact that made him a postseason force for the NL-champion Dodgers last October – and had him in the conversation for an All-Star selection two months into his two-year, $21 million deal with the Cubs?
“I hope so,” said the hard-throwing Morrow, whose breakout season of relief for the Dodgers last year included just on run allowed in seven appearances during the NL playoffs – none in four games against the Cubs.
“Hopefully, we’re still with a little bit of a comfortable lead and we’re able to pick our spots and line up how we want it and get things to full health,” he said of the workload the final weeks of the regular season. “Obviously, the long-term goal is to be 100 percent for the playoffs and be able to burn it out again then.”
For now, Morrow has come to terms with the fact he’ll pitch with low-level “achiness” in the area near his elbow where a stress-reaction bone bruise lingers even after the biceps inflammation has disappeared.
“It felt really good mechanically,” Morrow said of Saturday’s first work from a mound since he last pitched in a game, July 15. “I thought the ball was coming out well. It’s just that little underlying achiness that won’t go away.
“I can pitch with it now, he added. “It’s manageable so if it doesn’t go too far in the wrong direction it should be OK. I’m not losing strength with the little achy soreness. That’s why I’m optimistic about it. … I should still be able to throw at full strength with just some achiness in there, which I can handle.”
Morrow expects to throw two or three more bullpen sessions and then at least one simulated game before sneaking in a minor-league rehab inning or two before the minor-league seasons end in early September.
Then rejoin the Cubs’ bullpen.
And then rediscover his 2017 fall magic at some point down the stretch?
“I want to believe that. But we don’t know that,” said Maddon, who expects to use Morrow cautiously enough the rest of the way – at least until playoff time – that back-to-back appearances are probably out.
“Let’s just get him well, and then get him back out there,” Maddon said.
And maybe keep leaning just as hard on a supporting cast that looks more and more like a group of leading men every day Morrow’s been out?
“While he’s been hurt, other people are developing a different mindset,” Maddon said, “which can be helpful.”