19 for '19: How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?

19 for '19: How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?

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?

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Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto