How the Cubs plan to navigate April of reckoning without closer Brandon Morrow
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
MESA, Ariz. — Cubs closer Brandon Morrow paused to consider how much he might affect the team’s goals this season when he finally joins the bullpen after finishing rehab work on his right elbow.
‘‘I hope they’re not waiting for me, you know what I mean?’’ he said.
To be clear, Morrow isn’t suggesting an extended stay on the disabled list; he expects to miss about the first month of the season. Just as clearly, however, the Cubs haven’t waited.
While they didn’t exactly go hot and heavy on free-agent pitching — or even much more than mild and medium — the Cubs added some volume to their bullpen that, in theory, will provide a little more safety net for the ninth inning.
With the addition of former Orioles closer Brad Brach, the Cubs have five pitchers in camp who have closing experience — most of them with at least a similar amount of experience as Morrow has.
The Cubs’ bullpen was tied for second in the National League in most walks allowed last season, but it led the NL with a 3.35 ERA.
‘‘I think everybody else is going to be good enough when I’m away that it’s [going to be] a bonus when I come back and not something that needs to happen,’’ said Morrow, who was mostly dominant on the way to 22 of his 40 career saves last season until the elbow cost him the second half of 2018.
They had better be, or what’s shaping up as a critical season during this competitive window might unravel quickly by the time Morrow expects to return.
The front office has made it clear that a different level of ‘‘urgency’’ is expected this season — from largely the same group of players — after two years of disappointing results in October in the wake of the 2016 World Series championship.
Beyond exercising their $20 million option on left-hander Cole Hamels because they can’t bank on right-hander Tyler Chatwood, they added no impact names to the roster since their wild-card loss to the Rockies. They put off talking to manager Joe Maddon about a contract extension until his deal runs out at the end of this season. And the onus is on the young core of hitters to fix the offense that president Theo Epstein said ‘‘broke’’ in the second half of 2018.
But even with urgency, exceptional managing and more potency at the plate, its hard to imagine the Cubs getting off to a strong start in April without strong finishes from the bullpen.
Maddon said he won’t name a fill-in closer — now or when the season starts.
‘‘It’s fluid, and it’s something I’ve done before,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘I’m very comfortable with it. We get plenty of information. The big thing is conversing with the guys themselves, so they have an understanding of what’s going on.’’
Count on Pedro Strop to resurrect his supporting role in the ninth inning until Morrow returns — or until he pulls
another hamstring while batting for himself — unless it’s somebody such as Brach, a 2016 All-Star as a setup man.
‘‘If I’m the closer, fine,’’ Strop said. ‘‘I’m willing to take the challenge and pick my boy up. But hopefully Brandon will be healthy sooner than later. Also, we’ve got a bunch of guys in the bullpen that can do that, guys that have done it before, too.’’
Steve Cishek, the Cubs’ most valuable reliever last season, is a former closer who leads the team with 125 career saves. Second is Brandon Kintzler, who was an All-Star closer with the Twins in 2017 before being traded that summer to the Nationals. He has 48.
‘‘And even C.J. [Edwards], he’s one of the younger guys back there,’’ Strop said. ‘‘He’s got something in that arm and got some movement on that ball. I’m pretty sure he can do it, too.
‘‘I feel comfortable because I’m not by myself in there. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ve got a down bullpen.’ We’ve got the best bullpen in the National League. Whatever they decide to do, we’re willing to do it and ready to compete.’’