Brandon Morrow

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing isn't the marquee pitcher Cubs fans were hoping their team would sign on the morning of Jan. 17, but he is one of the heroes they need.

Duensing is back in the Cubs' bullpen for the next two years at a discount of $7 million. It's a raise for him — he made $2 million in 2017 — but he left a lot of money on the table, joining players like Ben Zobrist who signed for less.

The veteran lefty was somebody the Cubs' "Geek Squad" and scouting department targeted last winter and made a priority to sign a year ago.

That worked out awfully well, as the 34-year-old Duensing put up the best season of his life with a 2.74 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and struck out a career-high 8.8 batters per nine innings.

Even Duensing himself was surprised by the strikeout totals:

"A lot of swings and misses — I don't know what that's about, to be honest," Duensing said back in August when he joined the Cubs Talk Podcast. "I really don't know what's going on there. Just things are working really well right now and hopefully they continue."

Duensing's success didn't quite continue on a linear path from there, as he followed up a stellar August (1.93 ERA) with a 4.82 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in September while striking out only six batters in 9.1 innings.

That poor last month was part of the reason why Duensing fell out of Joe Maddon's circle of trust entering the postseason, and while the veteran southpaw put up a 1.69 ERA and allowed just five baserunners in 5.1 innings, he didn't pitch often in high-leverage situations in October.

As for where Duensing fits in the Cubs bullpen in 2018 and 2019, he provides another reliable arm and helps work toward the front office's goal of getting more strike-throwers in a bullpen that struggled in that department in 2017.

Duensing walked just 18 batters in 62.1 innings and was not a part of the overall problem that saw the Cubs' bullpen post one of the worst BB/9 rates in Major League Baseball.

Of Duensing's 68 appearances in 2017, 15 of them went for more than three outs. While he wasn't a true long-relief option like Mike Montgomery, the former Minnesota Twin does have a background as a starter and can help eat up innings if a Cubs starter is knocked out early or the other bullpen arms need a rest.

He also provides another left-handed option for the 'pen with Justin Wilson a major question mark after his struggles in Chicago and Montgomery currently slotted in as a starter and expected to serve in a swingman capacity for parts of 2018. Reliable left-handed relievers are in short supply in the majors, and the Cubs are investing as much capital as they can in their bullpen.

Duensing probably isn't a guy that would fill in at closer at all if Brandon Morrow is injured or ineffective — Duensing has just two career saves — but he's another glue guy to a bullpen that looks like this:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Justin Grimm
Brian Duensing

Another arm — whether that's Montgomery or somebody else — should slot in there by the end of spring training as the Cubs are expected to roll with eight arms in their bullpen for much of the season.

The big question with Duensing is how he'll be used in October, assuming the Cubs make it there again. Maddon's bullpen usage in the postseason has been oft-questioned, but he clearly saw something in Duensing that made him lose trust on the game's biggest stage.

Does that happen again in 2018?

Predicting what the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen will look like

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AP

Predicting what the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen will look like

We're still five weeks away from Cubs pitchers and catchers reporting to Arizona, but it's never too early for 2018 season predictions.

What else is there to do for baseball fans right now? The "hot" stove season has been boring as hell.

On the latest NBC Sports Chicago Hot Stove Facebook Live (complete video below), we broke down what the Cubs' bullpen may look like when they break camp and head to Miami for an Opening Day tilt with the Marlins:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Justin Grimm
TBD

A lot to unpack here, but let's start with the closer spot. 

Theo Epstein's front office would love for their team's relievers to have defined roles because they understand the bullpen is made up of a bunch of humans and humans typically prefer to know when they're going to be used and prepare in accordance with that.

Joe Maddon, however, is notorious for running with a "closer by committee" where he plays the matchups.

The Cubs don't have a surefire ninth-inning option like they have the last year-and-a-half with Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis, so it will be interesting to see how the debate between front office and coaching staff turns out.

But Morrow is the guy signed to be the closer (as of right now), though there is some concern about his ability to stay healthy — he's averaged only 18 appearances a season since 2013. 

The Cubs believe Edwards is a closer in waiting while Wilson was one of the top stoppers in the game for the first four months of the 2017 season while in Detroit. 

Strop could also close if needed, but represents one of the top setup men in baseball, even though he draws some hate from meatball Cubs fans. He's been remarkably consistent, posting a 2.72 ERA in five seasons with the Cubs and never finishing a campaign with an ERA over 2.91. 

Cishek also brings closing experience, but can slot in in pretty much any role in the bullpen.

Montgomery is slated as a starter right now given the Cubs don't have a surefire fifth guy in the rotation and even if they sign a guy, Montgomery will absolutely get some starts at some point. But he's also the long man in the bullpen and will fill a swingman role.

From there, things are a bit iffy. The Cubs figure to carry eight guys in the bullpen because they have so many versatile position players that they need fewer bench bats than the average team. 

Justin Grimm used to be a mainstay in the Cubs bullpen, but he struggled to the tune of a 5.53 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. From 2014-16, however, Grimm posted a 3.36 ERA and 10.6 K/9 in 203 games in a Cubs uniform. Assuming he can rekindle that form, Grimm may once again be counted on as one of Maddon's middle innings closers.

The final spot in the bullpen may well go to Dillon Maples if the young flamethrower shows up and has a great camp. 

Eddie Butler could also be in the mix if the Cubs want another longman to join Montgomery in the 'pen. But with 2.5 months until Opening Day, the Cubs could also acquire another reliever — via trade, free agency or claiming a guy off the scrap heap/waiver wire.

Hot Stove - Predicting the Cubs Bullpen/Sox Prospects Up in 2018

What will the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen look like? Which White Sox prospects will be up in 2018? Hot Stove is BACK and we want to hear your thoughts!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How Wade Davis heading to the Rockies could shake up the rest of the Cubs' offseason

How Wade Davis heading to the Rockies could shake up the rest of the Cubs' offseason

The Cubs will need a new closer in 2018, what with Wade Davis getting a record contract to pitch the ninth inning for the Colorado Rockies.

So what's that do to Theo Epstein's offseason to-do list?

Well, bringing Davis back sure would've been nice. After all, he was great for the North Siders last season, converting his first 32 save opportunities and 32 of 33 total and picking up four saves in the postseason, including pitching the final 2.1 innings of Game 5 of the National League Division Series to eliminate the Washington Nationals and send the Cubs to their third consecutive NL Championship Series. He's been one of the best relievers in baseball for the past four seasons, turning in a 1.45 ERA and recording 79 saves over that span with the Kansas City Royals and the Cubs, going to a pair of World Series with the Crowns and winning a ring in 2015. And he proved popular in the Cubs' clubhouse with a lot of off-the-field value for that relief corps.

But his absence will be the most dramatic change to a Cubs bullpen that's already undergone a significant makeover this offseason. Chiefly, the Cubs will have a new guy closing out games. They've already added two free-agent relievers in Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek this month, and while Morrow has little closing experience, he was stellar in a late-inning role for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, turning in a 2.06 ERA in 45 appearances. It's that success that had Epstein's front office talking Morrow up as the team's top closing option if they didn't bring Davis back. Well, Davis isn't coming back, so it looks like you can pencil Morrow in as the ninth-inning guy heading into 2018.

But Davis heading to Denver does more than just alter roles in the 'pen. It could also alter the Cubs' approach for the remainder of the offseason, with them potentially shifting the resources they would have committed to re-signing Davis to the ongoing pursuit of a top-of-the-line starting pitcher.

The Cubs have been heavily linked to both Yu Darvish and Alex Cobb, two of the three top free-agent starting pitchers on the market. The third is Jake Arrieta, who spent the past five seasons on the North Side, though he has been viewed as unlikely to return to the Cubs. Earlier this week, it was reported that all three of those guys could be searching for deals no shorter than five years in length. Handing out a deal like that is a risky and potentially expensive proposition for a Cubs team that has looming financial commitments with its young position players and next winter's Bryce Harper sweepstakes. But with Davis signing elsewhere, the Cubs, who are still more than $30 million under the luxury tax, can now use that money to try to lock down one of these top-of-the-line free-agent starters.

While heading into 2018 with Morrow as the team's closer could make plenty of fans nervous, look back to 2016 for a template of how things could play out. Having a dominant starting rotation is incredibly important, and losing Arrieta and John Lackey only to replace them with Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery would have to be considered an offseason downgrade. The Cubs already have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana as superb arms in their rotation, but adding another top-of-the-line guy could make the difference in the Cubs remaining one of the top teams in the NL. Plus, much like they did in 2016, when they acquired Aroldis Chapman in a trade with the New York Yankees, a midseason addition to bolster the bullpen would not be out of the question, especially if the Cubs manage to hang on to all their young position players this offseason.

All that being said, it's worth noting the evolution of baseball, particularly in the postseason, with starting pitchers throwing fewer innings and closers being turned into multi-inning arms at the most critical moments of games. To not have a dominating closer could mean to be at a disadvantage come October. Should Morrow falter, Cishek does have a lot of closing experience from his days with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners. He's recorded 121 saves in his big league career including a combined 73 of them over a two-year span with the Fish in 2013 and 2014. After Cishek, other internal options are less appealing for fans who watched the bullpen struggle during the postseason. Carl Edwards Jr., Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop could be given shots if it gets to that point.

The Cubs could also still go shopping this offseason. It's unlikely they would spend big money on Greg Holland, the now-former Rockies closer who's still on the market. A lower-cost but more proven option like Addison Reed would make a lot more sense. Reed saved 19 games for the New York Mets last season and posted a 2.84 ERA splitting time with the Mets and Boston Red Sox. He recorded a combined 101 saves in three seasons with the White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks from 2012 to 2014. And there's always the trade market. The Cubs do have all those young position players, and remember that Davis was acquired in an offseason trade with the Royals.

The Cubs have yet to make a blockbuster move this offseason — same goes for the majority of major league teams during this strangely slow winter — but now their plan on how to make one could change. We'll soon find out if it was Davis or bust on the free-agent closer market. And if that was the case, then maybe adding Darvish or Cobb or even bringing back Arrieta becomes more likely. Stay tuned.