Carl Edwards Jr.

Can the Cubs' bullpen move on from all those postseason walks and provide a safety net for Brandon Morrow?


Can the Cubs' bullpen move on from all those postseason walks and provide a safety net for Brandon Morrow?

The Cubs have a super rotation with four guys who could be No. 1 starters on other teams. They have a lineup packed with young position players that even in a down year managed to score the second most runs in the National League.

After reaching three straight NL Championship Series, this team looks primed for another run at a World Series.

That's not to say there aren't questions, of course. And if there is a hole on this club, it might be found out in the bullpen, where efforts to bring back All-Star closer Wade Davis didn't pan out and Brandon Morrow, who hasn't regularly worked as a closer in a decade, is the new ninth-inning man.

Morrow brings plenty of success from last season, when he was stellar in high-leverage situations for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched in every game of the World Series as the Dodgers came one win away from a championship.

But closing is a different animal, as plenty of baseball folks will tell you.

"There is something about the ninth inning, and the last three outs are the toughest and the last out is the toughest," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said during the early days of spring training. "I think the big thing about that is you really have to have a short memory because you’re going to screw up once in a while. I think the guys that handle the failure the best are the guys that play — in combination with having good stuff — but the guys that handle the bad moment better are the guys that can really do that job. Because you’re not going to get that opportunity unless you have good stuff. You have good stuff, you have great ability, how do you handle the bad moment? And I think that really separates these guys."

The Cubs have all the confidence in the world in Morrow. But what happens if Morrow can't translate general late-inning success to ninth-inning success? What happens if Morrow doesn't work out in the closer's role? Then what for a Cubs team with such high, "World Series or bust" expectations?

Certainly there are options. Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop have years of late-inning experience with this team. Justin Wilson is being hyped as a strong bounce-back candidate after his rough go of things after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers last summer. Steve Cishek, also signed this offseason, has a lot of closing experience from his days with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners.

"We’ve got eight guys down there, eight guys that can go get three outs in the ninth inning. I truly believe that," Justin Grimm said. "It’ll be fun to watch. It’s so funny, certain guys, it’s just rising to that occasion. And you see a different pitcher out of them in different situations. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ve always had faith in every single guy down there. I watch them work, I watch them throw their bullpens. Pretty impressive stuff."

"(Wilson) can, Stropy can, CJ can, Cishek’s done it. We’ve got a lot of guys that fit into that category," Maddon said. "The days that Morrow’s not available, it could be anybody."

"Anybody on this team can close the game," Edwards added.

All that confidence is great, especially heading into a season where the expectations are what they are. But don't be surprised if a large number of Cubs fans don't share that confidence.

As good as the North Side relief corps was during the regular season in 2017 — the 3.80 bullpen ERA was the third best in the NL — the playoffs were a completely different story. In 10 postseason games and 37.2 postseason innings, Cubs relievers posted a grotesque 6.21 ERA, walking 27 batters compared to striking out just 35.

Now, bullpen pitching wasn't great across the league last postseason. The world-champion Houston Astros saw their bullpen turn in a 5.40 ERA and issue 26 walks, just one fewer than the Cubs. But the Astros also played seven more games, with their relievers pitching nearly 25 more innings and striking out almost 30 more batters.

Edwards alone walked six guys and gave up six runs in 4.2 innings of work, an 11.57 postseason ERA. Strop walked three batters in 5.1 innings. Wilson faced just two hitters in one appearance, unreliable after he gave up 10 earned runs and walked 19 hitters in just 17.2 regular-season innings after joining the Cubs. Grimm didn't pitch at all during the 2017 postseason after a rough season that saw him shuttled back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A Iowa and finish with a 5.53 ERA.

So there's a reason for folks to feel that the safety net past Morrow might not be all that safe.

But the Cubs have done work to assure that's not the case. Maddon and plenty of others are expecting big things from Wilson, who converted 13 of 15 save opportunities as the Tigers' closer prior to last summer's trade. Cishek has 121 career saves, including 25 in 2016, when he finished 40 games for the Mariners. He was one of the more effective closers in the game during a three-year stretch with the Marlins during which he recorded 88 saves.

And then there's new pitching coach Jim Hickey. Maddon's old partner in crime with the Rays, Hickey is confident in how things will play out in the bullpen. But he's focused on getting those walks down.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said repeatedly during the offseason that they intended to fix the strike-throwing problem that Hoyer said went through the pitching staff like a "disease." Hickey's all for being the cure for that ailment.

"I think there is something that a coach can do to help, however it’s just simply making them aware or encouraging them. And I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong," Hickey said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate. Now it’s 1-0, now it’s 2-0, so you maybe nibble a little bit.

"So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

"I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ That would all be great. Or ‘I want to lead the league in batting average against.’ But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season."

And it sounds like buy-in won't be a problem.

"I can prove a lot," Edwards said. "Starting with strikes."

Brandon Morrow hasn't closed in a decade, but he pitched in every game of the World Series: High leverage enough for you?


Brandon Morrow hasn't closed in a decade, but he pitched in every game of the World Series: High leverage enough for you?

MESA, Ariz. — Brandon Morrow pitched in every game of the World Series.

Is that "high leverage" enough for you?

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Morrow will be the Cubs' new closer on Opening Day, the team's fourth in as many seasons. Wade Davis was sensational in 2017, living up to the hype of being one of baseball's best relievers by converting 32 of his 33 save opportunities, being selected as the Cubs' lone representative at the All-Star Game and striking out Bryce Harper to send the Cubs to their third straight National League Championship Series. But he got a record-setting contract from the Colorado Rockies, meaning Morrow is now the guy on the North Side.

It's not like Morrow is some consolation prize, though. He was terrific as a late-inning man for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season and logged some really important innings during the playoff run that went all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. Morrow turned in a 2.06 ERA during the regular season, then he shut down the Cubs in the NLCS and pitched in all seven games of that epic Fall Classic against the Houston Astros.

It wasn't all pretty, of course. He gave up four runs and two homers without recording an out in that bonkers Game 5. But in his six other outings, he surrendered just one run on four hits over 5.1 innings of work.

No, he hasn't been a go-to closer in a decade. But he's pitched in plenty of important moments and is ready to take on the bullpen's most high-profile role.

"I've closed before. It's been 10 years, but there's so many different places to pull experience from. And I think all the playoff experience last year helps a lot in pressure situations," Morrow said Wednesday at Cubs camp. "That was something that I didn't have before. I pitched in almost every other situation besides a playoff situation and World Series games and coming in with bases loaded, two outs in the World Series and everything like that. I've pretty much seen it all.

"You'll see somebody that is pretty even-keeled. Ups and downs don't really get to me. I'll be out there competing on a daily basis."

Last year was Morrow's lone campaign with the Dodgers after spending his first 10 big league seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres. But that was his first postseason, and those experiences pitching for a World Series contender were mighty valuable. Not only did he pitch — and succeed — on the game's biggest and brightest stage, he also got into a closer's mentality, looking at the eighth inning like it was the ninth ahead of the virtual lock of a scoreless frame from Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, one of the league's best.

"I was treating it like I was pitching in the ninth last year," Morrow said. "From a mindset point of view, you've got Kenley behind you, if you get through the eighth, the game's basically over. He's one of the best. So I was thinking, 'If I close out the eighth, we've got Kenley in there and finish it off.' That kind of mindset, trying to prepare myself that way.

"In the playoffs, maybe there's that little bit of butterflies at first, and then it's just baseball at a high level. I think those games definitely prepare you for some tough spots throughout the regular season that you can pull experience from and know that you can keep yourself calm. Over the last 10 years, I've kind of seen it all. I've got a much lower heart rate than I used to."

According to Morrow, the Cubs pitched an important role to him when they signed him, not yet guaranteeing the closer's role should Davis have decided to return to the North Side. But that job is Morrow's now.

If you're still not sold on Morrow as a Davis successor, allow Carl Edwards Jr. to calm your fears with this ringing endorsement.

"Morrow's a great guy. I talked to him, and it's kind of like me talking to Wade Davis all over again," Edwards said. "I'm just looking forward to getting to pick his brain."

Despite a lack of recent closing experience, Morrow was one of the biggest names on the relief-pitching market this winter. Just like they did with Morrow's teammate in Los Angeles, Yu Darvish, the Cubs made the splash they needed to accomplish the only goal that matters these days: winning the World Series. And while Morrow, and Darvish for that matter, didn't do that last season, they came darn close. They've been on that stage, like the rest of these Cubs who won it all in 2016.

For a team seeking championships, that experience is invaluable.

"That was one of the things in free agency that I was looking forward to was 'Are we going to compete?' And obviously the Chicago Cubs are in that small group of teams that you think have a really good chance to win a World Series," Morrow said.

"I'm sure that's high on their list, guys with experience in those situations and guys that have shown that they can handle the pressure and continue to throw strikes and compete."

Playoff tradition? Sign Morrow up. Bullpen dancing? Maybe not so much.

"I keep getting asked that," he said about those post-homer dance parties under the left-field bleachers. "Is that going to continue?

"I might be the awkward one in the corner just bobbing my head."

Who are Cubs relying on to finally bring homegrown pitching to big leagues?


Who are Cubs relying on to finally bring homegrown pitching to big leagues?

There are less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training to kick off Year 7 of Theo Epstein's regime and yet the Cubs are still waiting for the first wave of true homegrown pitchers to roll through Chicago.

To be clear, Epstein did exactly what he was hired to do — stop the championship drought and set the Cubs up for a period of sustained success.

This is one of the best teams in baseball and barring a wild rash of terrible luck and injuries, the Cubs should have one of the top pitching staffs in the game once again in 2018.

But the Cubs have built that pitching staff based off trades and free agents. Not one pitcher on the projected Opening Day roster was drafted by the club and only Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. have spent extended time in the Cubs minor-league system after coming over in trades with the Texas Rangers.

The Cubs are working to rectify that situation, bringing in pitching guru Jim Benedict and new minor-league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara to add to the mix this season. New big-league pitching coach Jim Hickey is part of the equation, too. 

Benedict will work with Cubs senior VP of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod to get a look at the entire pitching infrastructure within the organization, but will mostly focus on guys on the 40-man roster.

"It's definitely been frustrating," Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison said earlier this month. "And that's why there's this whole re-evaluation of how we're doing everything from the ground up, just to make sure everybody's on the same page and we're doing everything possible to get the most out of our pitchers.

"...We're digging in and re-evaluating everything we're doing from a pitching standpoint. We've come a long way, but now we need something to take us over that next level. So that's where [Benedict] and Hickey and Sagara will come in.

"We're completely looking at how we do everything at the minor-league level. There might be some more changes there to help the infrastructure and get these pitchers ready to go."

Madison also pointed to the level of patience required with pitchers that is different from how hitters are evaluated. 

The Cubs placed an emphasis on polished college position players when they had Top 10 picks in the draft and were able to let guys like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ fly through the farm system.

Pitchers have to be handled in a completely different way.

"Pitching takes longer," Madison said. "You have to prepare these guys. You can't just shoot a guy up to Double-A or Triple-A if it's his first or second year because they have to build up and have innings under their belt or they're going to get to the big leagues and they won't have any innings left and we're shutting them down.

"You've seen that with a lot of big-league clubs who have run out of innings — like [Stephen] Strasburg that one year [with the Nationals]. So that's the difference with pitching — you have to build on what they did the previous year and add a little bit to that."

Gone are guys like Zack Godley and Paul Blackburn, who were traded away and wound up posting solid seasons in the big leagues last year. Pierce Johnson — the first pitcher drafted by Epstein's front office — made his MLB debut in 2017 and was promptly waived in September. 

James Farris (2014 — 9th round) looks like he could grow into a big-league reliever, but he was dealt to Colorado for Butler a year ago. Duane Underwood Jr. — the second pitcher selected by Epstein's group in 2012 — still hasn't reached Triple-A and has had trouble staying healthy.

Other former early-round draft picks like Tyler Skulina (2013 — 4th round) and Trey Masek (2013 — 5th round) are no longer with the organization: Skulina is with the Nationals and Masek is in Independent Ball.

Rob Zastryzny (2013 — 2nd round) is the only pitcher drafted under Epstein's front office that has made even the slightest impact in the big leagues and he's pitched just 29 innings the last two years to a 4.34 ERA and 1.48 WHIP.

Dillon Maples — who enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2017 — was part of the final draft of Jim Hendry's front office in 2011.

Zastryzny and Maples could have an impact in the Chicago bullpen at various points in 2018 and on the starter's front, the Cubs are insistent those waves are coming. Adbert Alzolay and Jen-Ho Tseng were both signed as international free agents and the Cubs are counting on both to act as rotation depth in 2018.

[MORE — The prospect that may change everything about the Cubs' long-term pitching plans]

Health is a big part of the problem.

Carson Sands (2014 — 4th round) appeared in just 8 games in 2017 while Jake Stinnett (2014 — 2nd round) made only 14 relief appearances in the minors.

Ryan Williams (2014 — 10th round) was the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year in 2015 when he went 14-3 with a 2.16 ERA and topped out at Double-A Tennessee, but the big righty has only appeared in 15 games (11 starts) in the two years since.

Trevor Clifton (2013 — 12th round) — the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2016 — took a step back in Double-A last year, posting a 5.20 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 21 starts.

The Cubs handled their most recent first-round picks (Brendon Little and Alex Lange) with kid gloves, as the two combined for just 10 starts in short-season Class-A ball.

But Little and Lange are part of a group that has the Cubs front office believing reinforcements are on the way. Seven of the Cubs' Top 10 prospects ( are pitchers, with Lange coming at No. 4 and Little at No. 5.

Back in 2014-15, Corey Black was seen as a future option in the big-league bullpen but he missed all of 2017 to injury. He's now back and fully healthy and will start the year in Triple-A and could once again provide bullpen depth.

Southpaw Justin Steele (2014 — 5th round) enjoyed a breakout 2017 (2.92 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7.5 K/9) in High-A and is starting to draw buzz — ranked No. 10 on's prospect list.

Thomas Hatch is another former high pick (2016 — 3rd round) who is beginning to emerge on the radar near the big league. The 23-year-old right-hander made 26 starts with Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach in 2017 and struck out more than a batter per inning (126 Ks in 124.2 IP) and was ranked No. 7 on's list.

But it's the international signings — not draft selections — that are really turning heads in the Cubs system.

Oscar De La Cruz (No. 1 on's prospect rankings) turns 23 in March and has been in the Cubs system for five years, but he's made only 53 appearances in that span as he's had trouble staying healthy. He had a pec issue in 2017, but is healthy now and the Cubs believe he could move quickly through the system with a big-league-caliber arsenal.

Jose Albertos (No. 2 prospect) is 19 and started just 10 games last year, but the Cubs love his mental makeup and toughness.

"All the tools are there," said Alex Suarez, the Cubs director of international scouting and assistant director of player development. "He's a young kid that — very much like Dillon [Maples] — has a major-league arsenal. ... We're confident he can move pretty quick."

Albertos and Lange are slated to begin 2018 with Class-A South Bend.

Most of these guys won't make any impact on the Cubs' pennant race this fall, but the Cubs hope they can be one day in the not-so-distant future.

"I think those waves are coming," Madison said. "It's just a matter of staying healthy and continuing to do everything we can to develop these guys.

"It's really digging in on those guys and making sure we're doing everything we can do to get them to the big leagues."