We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.
Next up: How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
You’d excuse Cubs nation for having a bit of a panic attack on Tuesday night when news broke that Pedro Strop pulled his right hamstring. Though Strop says he’ll be ready for Opening Day, hamstring injuries have a knack for lingering, and missing games this close to the regular season almost always comes at a cost.
Outside of the questions that a sidelined Strop presents, his hamstring injury illuminates just how much the Cubs are going to need a healthy Brandon Morrow this year.
Morrow, heading into the last season of a two-year deal, was brought in to be the Cubs’ de-facto closer, performing admirably in the role before a bone bruise ended his 2018 season.
In 30.2 innings pitched last year, Morrow posted a 2.97 FIP, 1.08 WHIP and held batters to a .214 average against him; he was also getting ground balls at a 51 percent rate. He may have been well on the way to matching his stellar numbers from 2017, which happened to be the best season of his career.
Perhaps the biggest reason that the 2019 Cubs need their closer, outside the obvious, is that Morrow is one of the few pitchers in their bullpen that can consistently find the zone. Only the Braves bullpen walked guys more often than the Cubs did last year, and Morrow has drastically reduced his walks since becoming a full-time reliever. Of Cubs relief pitchers who pitched at least 30 innings last year, only Jesse Chavez had a lower BB% (3.5) than Morrow (7.4). Strop came in third on that list (8.8), and I’m sure Cubs fans will be thrilled to hear that they are currently in line not to have any of their three most accurate relievers in the bullpen when they kick things off in Texas.
A 12-year vet coming off an elbow injury is not the safest bet in the house, though, and there are some reasons to temper expectations when it comes to Morrow.
For starters, he’s not even throwing off a mound yet. He was already ruled out for Opening Day and probably won't see game action until May in a best-case scenario.
His flashy 1.47 ERA from 2018 was (marginally) misleading. There’s no denying that Morrow was having a strong year, but there are signs that he was getting real lucky, too. His FIP was almost double his ERA. He stranded 93 percent of the runners on base when he was pitching, almost 20 percentage points higher than his career average. The amount of hard contact he was allowing rose 14 percentage points. He posted his lowest BABIP in six seasons, and his year-over-year walk and strikeout ratios were trending in the wrong direction.
Much of this may have to do with his elbow. Morrow is unquestionably the Cubs’ closer when he’s healthy, and one of the few guys in the ‘pen (as it’s currently constructed) that can rear back and get close to triple-digits when he needs to. You’d like to see him miss more bats, but sometimes that’s the price you pay when you’re only throwing offspeed pitches 13 percent of the time. Still, you can do much worse than having a guy who induces groundballs at a 51 percent clip, generally stays around the zone and has proven experience closing games.
What can the Cubs expect from Morrow this year? The numbers say a proven late-innings arm — something they sorely missed over the last 3-4 weeks of 2018. It just might take some time for him to get there.
The complete 19 for '19 series:
19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?