Pedro Strop

Brandon Morrow shows ways Cubs can rebuild bullpen

Brandon Morrow shows ways Cubs can rebuild bullpen

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.”

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

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USA TODAY

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

"Of course," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in the middle of the National League Championship Series — he would like his coaches back in 2018. Pitching coach Chris Bosio told the team's flagship radio station this week that the staff expected to return next year. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein didn't go that far during Friday afternoon's end-of-season news conference at Wrigley Field, but he did say: "Rest assured, Joe will have every coach back that he wants back."

That's Cub: USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale first reported Saturday morning that Bosio had been fired, a source confirming the team declined a club contract option for next year and made a major influence on the Wrigleyville rebuild a free agent. Epstein and Bosio did not immediately respond to text messages and the club has not officially outlined the shape of the 2018 coaching staff.

Those exit meetings on Friday at Wrigley Field are just the beginning of an offseason that could lead to sweeping changes, with the Cubs looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation, identify an established closer (whether or not that's Wade Davis), find another leadoff option and maybe break up their World Series core of hitters to acquire pitching. 

The obvious candidate to replace Bosio is Jim Hickey, Maddon's longtime pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who has Chicago roots and recently parted ways with the small-market franchise that stayed competitive by consistently developing young arms like David Price and Chris Archer.

Of course, Maddon denied that speculation during an NLCS where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game and the manager's bullpen decisions kept getting second-guessed.

Bosio has a big personality and strong opinions that rocked the boat at times, but he brought instant credibility as an accomplished big-league pitcher who helped implement the team's sophisticated game-planning system.

Originally a Dale Sveum hire for the 2012 season/Epstein regime Year 1 where the Cubs lost 101 games, Bosio helped coach up and market short-term assets like Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. 

Those win-later trades combined with Bosio's expertise led to a 2016 major-league ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) and a 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) plus setup guys Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell.

Bosio helped set the foundation for the group that won last year's World Series and has made three consecutive trips to the NLCS. But as the Cubs are going to find out this winter, there is a shelf life to everything, even for those who made their mark during a golden age of baseball on the North Side.

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

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USA TODAY

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

Wade Davis knew Bryce Harper desperately wanted to be the hero, to finally change the perception of the Washington Nationals in October and take down the defending World Series champs.

The Cubs closer noticed how hard the young superstar swung through a first-pitch cutter, a 97-win team now down to its final out, Thursday night at Nationals Park already turning into Friday morning.

Harper took the next pitch, fouled off a 94.8-mph fastball and then stared at two more (93.4 mph and 95 mph), working the count to 3-2 while Davis pushed himself toward a seven-out save, something he had never done before.

Davis, who talks to himself on the mound but never really shows his true emotions, unleashed an 89.9-mph cutter that looked like it fell off a table, Harper whiffing as the exclamation point to a 9-8 game and a fantastic National League Division Series and the start of a wild celebration.

“You’re trying to stay relaxed,” Davis said. “He put such an aggressive swing (on it) the first swing. I was kind of hoping he would stay that aggressive and maybe use that to our advantage. We got to the last pitch and he was still pretty aggressive.”

The Cubs will absolutely need that ability to be the calm in the middle of the storm, make adjustments in real time and neutralize the Los Angeles Dodgers who got a “Best. Team. Ever?” Sports Illustrated cover in late August (before losing 16 of 17 games).

Aroldis Chapman came close, but even he didn’t throw 44 pitches in a playoff game during last year’s World Series run.

It’s not a great look when the Cubs drop from the playoff roster their big move to strengthen the bullpen at the July 31 trade deadline (Justin Wilson) and add an ex-closer clearly outside Joe Maddon’s circle of trust (Hector Rondon) for this NL Championship Series rematch.

The Cubs had two chances to eliminate the Nationals and Maddon deployed a $155 million middle reliever (Jon Lester), used Saturday night’s Game 1 starter at Dodger Stadium (Jose Quintana) and pulled his top setup guy in the middle of an at-bat and after walking one hitter on five pitches (Carl Edwards Jr.).

The Cubs faced 190 total batters during that five-game series against the Nationals and 91 percent went to the playoff rotation (Kyle Hendricks, Lester, Quintana, Jake Arrieta) or the late-game bullpen (Davis, Edwards, Pedro Strop).

“Of course, we’ve got to be really mindful of Wade,” Maddon said, explaining why the Cubs would lean against adding another pitcher for the NLCS. “But you need the bench to match up like we were able to match up in some of these games — the pinch-hitting being aggressive, the defensive maneuvering being aggressive.

“It's just the way of the world right now. The days off still are beneficial, two on, one off, three on, one off. It's still beneficial regarding keeping your bullpen in order.”

The 2017 Dodgers are a more dynamic team than the one that put up a major-league worst .622 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season, boosting that total 167 points during a 104-win campaign. These Dodgers also apparently have enough depth to keep All-Star shortstop Corey Seager (back injury) off their initial NLCS roster.

Between Maddon’s reputation (fair or not) and Davis about to become a free agent, the Chapman comparisons will be coming. But maybe think of Davis as this year’s Kenley Jansen, who pitched multiple innings and covered for weaker spots in the bullpen and willingly went outside his comfort zone.

It wasn’t enough to get the Dodgers to the World Series for the first time since 1988 — and the Cubs aren’t in the business of matching almost-recording-setting contracts for closers — but Jansen did return to Los Angeles on a five-year, $80 million deal.

That is a discussion for the winter, and when the Cubs see Davis jogging out of the bullpen, they feel like their playoff run is only just getting started.

“He’s a stud,” said Ben Zobrist, who played with Davis on the 2015 Kansas City Royals team that won a World Series title. “He’s got the postseason experience. And everybody knows he’s got ice in his veins, so there’s no moment that’s going to get the best of him.”