Steve Cishek

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."

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018


How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

We have officially reached a Bullpen Revolution.

Never before in baseball history have relievers carried so much weight and importance as starting pitchers are being pulled earlier and earlier in games.

We see it in the slow winter, where even guys who aren't being signed as closers are still earning $7 or $8 million a season and being inked to multiyear deals.  

Meanwhile, the largest contract given out to a starting pitcher (as of this writing) is still the Cubs' three-year, $38 million pact with Tyler Chatwood.

"The money is shifting to the bullpen and teams are building super-bullpens," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the Cubs Convention inside the Sheraton Grand Chicago earlier this month. "A lot of organizations are not expecting their starters to go deep into games anymore. 

"The pendulum swang a little bit too far in that direction, because if you're constantly pulling your starter before tehy face the order a third time, it puts a tremendous burden on your bullpen throughout the course of the regular season."

The Cubs saw that last fall, when their relievers experienced a prolonged drought of inconsistency and instability.

From the morning of Sept. 1 through the end of the postseason, the Cubs bullpen ranked 17th in baseball with a 4.38 ERA. Among playoff teams, only the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers had worse marks and keep in mind, those numbers are skewed because both World Series teams saw bullpen implosions constantly throughout the seven-game Fall Classic.

Yet in the first half of the season, the Cubs posted the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.26 ERA), second to only the Dodgers (2.99) among National League teams.

"Our bullpen, I think, got a bit over maligned by the end of the year," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I think they were [out of gas]. Throughout the year, we could not throw enough strikes. That was almost like a disease that ran through our bullpen.

"Guys had their career worst strike-throwing years. But overall, I think our bullpen was better than it looked at the end of the year. We have a lot of really good relievers in that bullpen that are gonna throw well for us."

In that same stretch from Sept. 1 onward, the Cubs were second only to the woeful Cincinnati Reds bullpen in walks per nine innings. On the season as a whole, Cubs relievers tied with the New York Mets for the second-highest BB/9 mark.

Hoyer is right: The Cubs featured a bunch of guys with their worst walk rates ever.

Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Koji Uehara and Justin Wilson all either approached or set new career highs in BB/9. The only relief pitcher who turned in a quality strike-throwing season was Brian Duensing, which is part of the reason why the Cubs re-signed the veteran southpaw to a two-year deal last week.

So how do the Cubs fix that issue?

For one, they're hoping the change in pitching coaches — from Chris Bosio to Jim Hickey — will do the trick. Bosio is one of the most highly-respected pitching coaches in the game, but for whatever reason, oversaw that alarming increase in relief walks. A new voice and message could be enough to effect change.

Beyond that, the Cubs placed an emphasis on strike-throwing as they remade their bullpen this winter. 

Gone are Davis, Rondon and Uehara and in their stead are Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, two veterans who are adept at throwing strikes. Morrow ranked 18th in baseball last season in BB/9 (1.85) among relievers who threw at least 40 innings. That's a big part of the reason why the Cubs are so confident in Morrow's ability to close, even though he has just 18 career saves only two of which have come in this decade.

The Cubs are counting on a return to form from Justin Wilson, who walked just 37 batters in 119.2 innings from 2015-16 before doling out 19 free passes in 18.1 innings in a Cubs uniform last year.

Last season, manager Joe Maddon felt Edwards was getting too fine at points and trying to nibble to avoid getting hit hard, which led to an uptick in walks. But because the young flamethrower has such dynamic stuff, even if he lives in the strike zone, he should still find — Edwards has allowed just 44 hits in 102.1 innings the last two seasons.

The Cubs are also woke to the importance of keeping relievers fresh down the stretch.

The proof was in the pudding last postseason when all bullpens were "fried," Epstein said, especially by the time the World Series rolled around.

"We need to strike a balance," Epstein said. "We as an organization still put a lot of value on starting pitchers and starters' abilities to get through the order a third time because it really works in the long run — it allows your bullpen to stay fresher throughout the six months of the season."

The Cubs don't intend to wear out any pitcher, whether it's a reliever with a checkered injury history (Morrow), a starter getting up there in age (Jon Lester) or anybody else who takes the hill for the team in 2018.

The idea is to have the entire pitching staff strong and hitting their stride as October approaches.

But even with the weight placed on bullpens — especially in October — the Cubs know they still need more starting pitching depth because bullpens are so volatile.

"There's definitely a shifting dynamic in the game where there's increased importance on the 'pen and slightly less on the rotation because more innings are shifting to the bullpen," Epstein said at the MLB Winter Meetings last month. "But there's a contradictory dynamic which is relievers are a lot less predictable than starters.

"So if you react to the first dynamic that I described and put all your resources into the 'pen and then you end up becoming the victim of unpredictability, then you're in a really tough spot."

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?