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New Cubs pitching coach opens 2019 without closer Brandon Morrow (elbow surgery)

The Cubs finally announced the hiring of their third pitching coach in three years Thursday, promoting pitching strategist Tommy Hottovy to replace Jim Hickey.

The decision comes just in time to help figure out the late innings next April with closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list and to help fix Tyler Chatwood and his historic command problems.

As if the Cubs’ tight winter budget and Paul Goldschmidt’s trade to the Cardinals didn’t make the 2019 season look daunting enough already.

With the winter meetings just a few days away, president Theo Epstein revealed Thursday that Morrow underwent an arthroscopic clean-out surgery on his pitching elbow early last month and isn’t expected to start throwing again until early February, significantly raising the stakes on adding bullpen depth the club already sought.

Brandon Morrow

Brandon Morrow | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

“Based on the rehab schedule, it could potentially affect his availability in April,” said Epstein, whose bullpen returns Pedro Strop, who filled in for Morrow as the closer during the second half of last season. “We’ll certainly have to set things up a little bit differently the first few weeks of the season.

“It kind of underscores the need for depth and late-game options early in the year.”

Morrow missed the entire second half in 2018 because of elbow soreness that eventually was diagnosed as a stress-reaction bone bruise. Morrow and the team said as the season ended that rest would provide the cure and allow for a full recovery.

“As we gave him plenty of time to heal from the bone bruise, we felt a lot better, but his elbow didn’t feel perfect, didn’t feel quite as he expected it should,” said Epstein, who described the surgery as a “quick cleanup of some cartilage and bone in there.”

He said Morrow appears to have responded well to the surgery.

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“I think it’ll be a positive for him,” Epstein said. “It’ll mean that we’ve completely addressed the issue that was bothering him last year instead of waiting for him to come back to make sure, and it also could really help him be strong later in the season from that respect.”

Welcome to your first big-league pitching coach assignment, Tommy.

Hottovy, 37, pitched briefly for the Red Sox and Royals before finishing his career as a non-roster invitee with the Cubs in spring of 2014.

He has spent the last four seasons in a scouting and strategy role for the Cubs’ staff, working closely with strategy coach Mike Borzello, bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coaches Chris Bosio and Hickey.

Hottovy

“We wanted to maintain that continuity as best we could,” said Epstein, who said another club asked permission to interview Hottovy for a pitching coach job, adding, “and I think we would have lost him but for this move. But that’s not why we made it. We felt like he was the best person, and those three individuals — Tommy, Borz and Lester — were the right guys to bet on to keep supporting our pitching staff.

“Tommy’s a tremendous communicator, great worker, great teammate, and he’s got terrific relationships with the pitchers,” Epstein said, praising Hottovy’s tech skills and calling him a “problem solver.”

If Morrow’s early absence won’t give him a chance to prove that last point, Chatwood’s response to a franchise-record walk rate in 2018 will.

“Tyler and Tommy have a strong relationship, and there’s a chance that some new eyes and a new voice might help Tyler make the adjustments that he’s determined to make to get back on track and contribute this year,” Epstein said.

Note: The Cubs also announced that former big-league outfielder Terrmel Sledge has been hired as assistant hitting coach, replacing Andy Haines, who was hired away by the Brewers. Sledge will work with first-year Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce, who replaces Chili Davis. The Cubs also added former big-league outfielder Chris Denorfia to the staff as a quality assurance coach.