The Cubs could try to sign Brandon Morrow or find the next Brandon Morrow or maybe pull off both moves as they rebuild a bullpen that got exposed in the playoffs.
After another October featuring short-leash starters, hybrid relievers and managers on the hot seat, super-bullpens will again be a trending topic when the general manager meetings kick off on Monday in Orlando, Florida.
The lottery-ticket ideal is Morrow, the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft who didn’t live up to the hype in the Seattle or Toronto rotations, a survivor of two Tommy John surgeries and a breakout playoff star after beginning the season with Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Morrow shut down the Cubs for 4.2 innings during the National League Championship Series, striking out seven of the 16 hitters he faced, working 14 of 15 playoff games out of the Dodger bullpen and generating some free-agent buzz.
Since the Theo Epstein regime took over after the 2011 season, the Cubs have handed out multiyear contracts to only two relievers — swingman Carlos Villanueva and Japanese closer Kyuji Fujikawa — and neither deal totaled more than $10 million. Signing a top-tier reliever like Morrow might cost two or three times that amount and require a commitment of at least three or four years.
Even Pedro Strop’s low-risk extension announced in spring training came out of settling at a $5.5 million salary for 2017 before a potential arbitration hearing and then adding a reasonable guarantee for 2018 ($5.85 million) and a 2019 club option ($6.25 million or a $500,000 buyout).
This is more of an overall bullpen philosophy than a hard-and-fast rule, but the Cubs will probably have to get out of that comfort zone, whether or not they bring back All-Star closer Wade Davis.
“You’ve got to keep an open mind,” general manager Jed Hoyer said on NBC Sports Chicago’s Cubs Talk Podcast. “We’ve certainly had offers out there to different guys that have gone elsewhere. Building a bullpen is a very complicated thing, and probably one of the hardest things that we have to do. They come from all over.
“Pedro Strop had a 7.00 (ERA) with the Orioles and was in that (Jake Arrieta) deal and he comes over to the Cubs and he’s been fantastic for us. You can get guys off the waiver wire. You look at Brandon Morrow and the kind of season he had. That was obviously not expected.
“You have to always be vigilant trying to find guys and put guys in opportunities to succeed. Now, that said, having some stability in the bullpen — and guys with a little bit more of a track record or a little better stuff — is important as well.”
The Cubs completely rebuilt their bullpen on the fly in the middle of a 97-win season — picking up Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill and Fernando Rodney from the scrap heap — and made it to the 2015 NLCS.
Despite their postseason struggles, Epstein pointed out that Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery got the three most important outs in franchise history — the 10th inning of last year’s World Series Game 7 — and will be vital parts of the 2018 bullpen.
Brian Duensing showed the Cubs enough in only 14 appearances out of the Baltimore bullpen in 2016 to get a one-year, $2 million deal that generated zero buzz last offseason — and the lefty wound up being one of Joe Maddon’s most-trusted relievers.
The Cubs can also take advantage of the supply-and-demand dynamics this winter.
Addison Reed — a reliever the Cubs have monitored at trade-deadline season — will be 29 next year and has extensive experience as a closer (with the White Sox) and a setup guy for big-market playoff teams (Mets and Red Sox).
The Cubs showed interest in Greg Holland before trading for Davis at last year’s winter meetings. But that was as a bounce-back Tommy John guy, not someone who opted out of his $15 million player option for 2018 and will probably decline the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Rockies.
Bryan Shaw just turned 30 and has made at least 70 appearances in each of the last five seasons for the Indians, plus five playoff series out of Terry Francona’s bullpen. Tony Watson had been a left-handed piece to that lights-out Dodger bullpen in the NLCS.
Steve Cishek and Pat Neshek can offer funky sidearm looks. Jake McGee has the Tampa Bay connection to Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey. Chicago guy Luke Gregerson helped transform the Astros into World Series champs.
“There’s a little bit more depth in the reliever market than some of the other markets,” Hoyer said. “All in all, this is not a robust free-agent class, which may lend itself to some creativity by a lot of teams. But that is one area of the market that has a few more players than some of the others.”