Cubs

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.”

Quintana's script against Brewers flipped

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USA TODAY

Quintana's script against Brewers flipped

Before this afternoon's game against the Brewers, Jose Quintana had a 0.95 ERA against them, but thanks to some first-inning longballs, that changed quickly. Milwaukee, on their way to a 7-0 win at Wrigley Field, had sort of stumbled in to this two game series thanks to shaky bullpen performances against the Padres and Braves in their previous two series, and given Quintana's past success against them, it didn't appear likely going into the game that things would change.
 
It took all of two pitches for Lorenzo Cain to homer to left, and then later in the first inning, for Ryan Braun to do the same with a two-run shot that gave the Brewers a quick 3-0 lead. Braun, who before today's game was hitting .143 without even an extra base hit against Quintana, ultimately homered twice.
 
"Everything he’s thrown me, he’s had success with," Braun said of Quintana. "Everything he’s shown me had worked for him."
 
As a team, the Brewers were hitting just .202 against Quintana, so they knew scoring opportunities would be at a premium.
 
"A guy as good as him isn’t going to make many mistakes, so any mistakes he does make you have to take advantage of," Braun said. "He’s had so much success against us, the odds were we were going to find a way to score a couple runs, we were able to do that against him today."
 
In the first inning, Cain homered in the first on a fastball left too far in the zone, and Braun on a curveball that didn't break away from the sweet spot. Braun's second homer came on a 75 mph curveball after Quintana fell behind in the count 2-0.
 
Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin said that going into the game, he was thinking about how much his offense has struggled against Quintana, but seeing them score so early eased the pressure on him and allowed him to work with his slider and fastball a little more aggressively.
 
"A couple of big-time players stepped up in the first inning, and I mean, yea, we've really struggled against this guy," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of the first-inning success against Quintana. "You put up three runs in the first inning with two homers, it flips the script pretty fast."
 
With the onus off of Chacin, he was better able to throw seven scoreless innings on the way to his sixth decision in his last seven starts. Today's was an especially important win for Milwaukee, who entered this week's short series three games behind the Cubs. Brewers players differed on whether or not they'd call it a must-win, however.
 
"We have six more after these against the Cubs, but I feel like any game is must-win right now," Chacin said.
 
Braun, who has seen firsthand how much games in August and September can change the course of what had been a successful season, called it a little differently.
 
"It’s pretty close to a must-win. If we want to stay in the division race, I think we had to win one of two, ideally you gotta win both," Braun said. "These guys are really good, you obviously didn’t want to leave here down five games."
 
Against the packed crowd of 40,441 Tuesday, Braun said that he enjoys the atmosphere at Wrigley as the opponent.
 
"I’ve always enjoyed playing here. As a competitor, there’s no more enjoyable atmosphere to play in than this. The more hostile the environment is, the more enjoyable it is as a competitor. This place is always packed, it’s always loud. It’s a very challenging place to win," Braun said.
 
Even with another win tomorrow, the Brewers will still remain a game behind the Cubs, but Braun said that he is thankful to be playing in meaningful games at this point in the season regardless. After tomorrow, the Cubs and Brewers play two series in the first half at September, one at Miller Park and one at Wrigley Field.
 
 

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Two days after David Bote turned in the best moment of the Cubs' season, Ben Zobrist delivered the best line of the Cubs' season.

As the top of the ninth inning was getting underway, the 37-year-old mild-mannered veteran was seen talking with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

As Jorge De La Rosa finished his warm-up pitches and the inning was about to start, suddenly Zobrist and Cuzzi got animated and the next thing anybody knew, Zobrist was slapped with his first-ever ejection.

"When you have good, quality at-bats as a hitter and you feel like it's kinda taken away from you, you want some sort of an answer," Zobrist said. "Or you want to be assured that they're gonna go back and make an adjustment and that's what I asked for.

"It was met with, basically, he didn't want to talk about that. He didn't want me to tell him that. I just basically said, 'Well that's why we want an electronic strike zone.'"

MIC. DROP.

This came after a passionate discussion between the two men in the bottom of the sixth inning when Zobrist was called out on strikes on a full count pitch he thought was clearly off the plate. On that play, Joe Maddon came out to intercede and was ejected, but Zobrist walked back to the dugout to collect himself and remained in the game.

So before his next at-bat, Zobrist wanted to say his piece. A calm discussion transformed into something more and while Zobrist didn't apologize for what he said, he was willing to admit his pride played a factor.

"It is what it is," he said. "I'm not gonna lie. When you're dealing with that and you're trying to have good, quality at-bats and you feel like it gets taken away from you, sometimes your pride gets in your way and you say things that are going to upset them. Obviously that upset him and he tossed me."

Zobrist's strikeout wasn't an altogether huge moment in the game, but the pitch — a breaking ball off from Jhoulys Chacin that started off the plate and remained off the plate — should've been Ball 4 and would've given the Cubs runners at first and second with nobody out for Jason Heyward. Sure, it was a 7-0 ballgame, but with the wind blowing out and the Cubs had 12 outs left, crazier things have happened (which Bote just proved).

The Cubs never went on to record another hit, but they didn't blame Cuzzi for that.

"Whenever Zo argues, as a manager, you better get your butt out there," Maddon said. "He's rare to be that way and eventually to get ejected, that's unfortunate. But regardless, there was a couple bad calls, but we gotta do a better job offensively. My god."

Zobrist said he's been more animated and riled up at other points in his career compared to Tuesday afternoon, but obviously that zinger was enough to get the job done to notch his first-ever ejection.

Almost a year ago to the day, Zobrist was very nearly tossed in a game against the Reds, but Maddon once again got in the middle.

This is the latest chapter in what has become a surprising trend of the Cubs vs. umpire debacle. 

For the third straight homestand, the Cubs have had an issue with the umpiring crew — from Javy Baez getting tossed against the Cardinals last month to Anthony Rizzo getting heated with Angel Hernandez two weekends ago to Maddon getting the boot a few days ago against the Nationals.

Only Rizzo's was related to balls and strikes, but between him and Zobrist — two guys who rarely argue — getting heated in the span of 9 days, it begs the question: Does Major League Baseball need an electronic strike zone?

"I'm just gonna leave it at that," Zobrist said. "I think that discussion will happen eventually. But I'm just gonna leave right now at the fact that I said that today. That's it."