Carl Edwards Jr.

Cubs 2018-19 pitching staff coming into focus

Cubs 2018-19 pitching staff coming into focus

Wade Davis still hasn't signed anywhere, but the Cubs have added more bullpen reinforcements while their former closer decides his future.

The Cubs are still looking for another starting pitcher and very well may be open to another reliever — whether that be Davis or not is still to be determined.

But with more than 10 days left until Christmas — a checkpoint for most free agents as they want to kick back during the holiday with family knowing where they're going to play in 2018 — the Cubs' pitching staff is taking shape with Steve Cishek now in the fold.

If the season started today, here's how the staff may look:

2018 rotation

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood
Mike Montgomery

2018 bullpen

Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm
Dario Alvarez

Montgomery will serve as a starter at some point in 2018 even if the Cubs sign another guy. The team will either go with a six-man rotation at some point or somebody will end up on the disabled list. Injuries happen and the Cubs are hoping to play into the final week of October this year, so rest assured, they will absolutely be conservative with their starters' innings once again.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer admitted if the season started today, Morrow would be the closer. Beyond that, they acknowledged there are very few moves they could make to bump Morrow out of ninth-inning duties (though re-signing Davis would be one such move).

The Cubs will also likely go with eight relievers for much of the 2018 season with a position player group packed with versatile guys that can play multiple positions and switch-hitters. Dillon Maples may be a guy that finds his name in the bullpen mix if he can harness his control.

Cishek is another quality signing, adding even more depth in the late innings and high-leverage situation. The 31-year-old veteran has 121 career saves and can slot in as a closer if need be, though Joe Maddon also thinks Edwards and Strop can do the job and Wilson was one of the game's best closers before he hit a rough patch the final two months of 2017 in Chicago.

The Cubs' moves this winter have helped stablize the pitching staff beyond 2018. Chatwood, Morrow and Cishek are all signed under multiyear deals while Drew Smyly was also inked to a deal through 2019 as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

Here's how the 2019 pitching staff looks right now:

2019 rotation

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood
Drew Smyly

2019 bullpen

Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Justin Grimm

(Pedro Strop has a team option for the 2019 season.)

Thanks to Quintana's affordable contract, the Cubs only have around $77 million committed to the pitching staff in 2019 (plus arbitraion for Hendricks and Montgomery), so they have the flexibility to add even more depth and talent in the run prevention department.

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.”

Cubs need to get their pitching in order or else this entire foundation could crumble

Cubs need to get their pitching in order or else this entire foundation could crumble

There were times where it felt like the entire pitching section to The Cubs Way manual could be summed up with four words, every time Theo Epstein’s front office acquired another faded prospect or change-of-scenery guy: “Get him with Boz.”

Hands-off manager Joe Maddon would often deflect pitching questions during his daily media briefings by saying: “You’d have to ask Boz.”

The pitching infrastructure doesn’t begin and end with Chris Bosio, who got fired less than 24 hours after the Cubs ended their third straight trip to the National League Championship Series, 352 days after they finally won the World Series.

But it is another unknown at a time when The Foundation of Sustained Success doesn’t feel quite so stable, the Los Angeles Dodgers already catching and passing the Cubs and zooming into Tuesday night’s World Series Game 1 against the Houston Astros.

The Cubs are looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation – Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and three-time World Series champion John Lackey – at a time when the talent pool of free agents is shallow and the farm system lacks ready-for-impact pitching prospects and the minor-league headliners to make another Jose Quintana trade. The cost of their young hitters is about to soar through the arbitration system.

The Cubs will have to go far outside their comfort zone to re-sign All-Star closer Wade Davis – maybe something along the lines of the regrettable four-year, $62 million contract the San Francisco Giants gave Mark Melancon last winter – or acquire another ninth-inning guy because Carl Edwards Jr. bombed in the playoffs (11.57 ERA) and trade-deadline addition Justin Wilson got bumped off the NLCS roster.

“We face a lot of challenges,” Epstein said during last week’s year-in-review press conference at Wrigley Field. “We knew that the 2017-2018 offseason would be one of our most challenging. We’ve known that for a long time, and that there may be more opportunities presented next offseason, but more challenges presented this offseason, and we have to find a way to balance those two things.”

The Cubs have enough Geek Department resources, support staff and institutional memory to continue the game-planning system spearheaded by catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello. Jim Hickey – Maddon’s old pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who interviewed for the job on Monday – has a proven track record and a reputation for being a good communicator.

It clearly looks like Maddon pushed for it and wanted the perceived upgrade, but this is stuff around the margins. Some might like the new voice, some might not care either way. Whatever. It’s coaching, not playing.

But you already noticed the drop-off when the Cubs don’t play defense at a historic level and it could be even steeper if Jason Heyward becomes a $184 million part-time outfielder or Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber stick around and take on bigger roles or the middle-infield combination of Addison Russell and Javier Baez gets broken up in a trade.

The Cubs are now also entering the second half of Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal, which covers his age-34, 35 and 36 seasons. That contract changed franchise history and already paid for itself, but Lester is coming off a season where he put up an ERA that almost exactly matched the major-league average (4.33), went on the disabled list for the first time since 2011 and failed to exceed the 190-inning mark for the first time in 10 years.     

The Cubs will stay in touch with super-agent Scott Boras about Arrieta – and have long been intrigued by Yu Darvish – but it doesn’t sound like they’re all that eager to go to the top of the market again and give another 30-something pitcher a nine-figure contract.

“You don’t want to make a living or make a habit out of trying to solve your problems with high-priced pitching free agents,” Epstein said, “because over the long run, there’s just so much risk involved. It can really hamstring your organization.

“But we have a lot of players who have reasonable salaries who contribute an awful lot that might put us in a position to consider it going forward in the future.

“So I wouldn’t rule it out completely, and I wouldn’t rule it in. I would just say it’s not our preferred method. We prefer to make a small deal and find Jake Arrieta, but you can’t do that every year, either. That’s tough.”

Epstein also dismissed Maddon’s theory that Mike Montgomery could grow into a double-digit winner in the rotation, leaving him as a very useful lefty swingman, but not the winning Powerball ticket the Cubs once hoped for, or lightning striking twice the way it did with Arrieta.

“In a typical Mike Montgomery year, he’ll probably come to spring training as a starter, stretch out as a starter,” Epstein said. “Barring something unusual in spring training, like extreme performance or injuries somewhere, he’ll probably start the year in the bullpen and he’ll pitch well out of the bullpen, the way he did this year.

“And then at the end of the regular season, when you look up, he’ll have somewhere between 10 and 20 starts. And you’ll say: ‘Wow, Mike Montgomery was really valuable this year.’”

Epstein signaled that Jen-Ho Tseng, the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year, will likely begin next season among the top three depth starters at Triple-A Iowa, and the industry sees his ceiling as a back-of-the-rotation guy in the big leagues.

Through six draft classes, the Epstein regime has used 132 picks on pitchers, and so far, two have played on the big-league team: Rob Zastryzny (29 total innings) and Pierce Johnson (who made one appearance at Wrigley Field before the Giants claimed him off waivers in September).       

Almost exactly six years after his “Baseball is Better” stadium club press conference and the Wrigley Field marquee putting his name in lights, Epstein knows how much work has to be done this winter.

“Mission not accomplished,” Epstein said. “The goal is to create a really high floor for this organization, where the off years are years where you might win in the high 80s and still sneak a division or a wild card, or win 90 games and get in and then find a way to do some damage in October. And the great years you win 103 and win the whole thing, and the in-between years you’re dangerous in October.

“We have done a lot of tremendous things, and thus far it’s been a success, but I think the whole goal is to get there as many times as you can over a long stretch and a long period of time. We’re really well-positioned for the future. In no way do we see this window ending now or lessening in any way.”