Cubs

Bullpen jumps to forefront of Cubs offseason wish list after Brandon Morrow news

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USA TODAY

Bullpen jumps to forefront of Cubs offseason wish list after Brandon Morrow news

If the Cubs have the lead in the ninth inning of a close game on Opening Day, don't expect to see Brandon Morrow trotting out for the potential save.

Theo Epstein said Thursday the Cubs are anticipating being without their closer for the first part of the 2019 season as Morrow recovers from the forearm bone bruise that kept him out for the entire second half of 2018.

Morrow followed in Yu Darvish's footsteps, needing a debridement procedure to clean up the elbow after the bone bruise. The problem is, Darvish had the surgery in September and is on track to begin throwing soon and the plan is to have him ready for the start of spring training.

Morrow, on the other hand, just had the surgery a month ago (Nov. 6) and will not throw at all until about Feb. 6, three months after the initial procedure.

"As we gave him plenty of time to heal from the bone bruise, he felt a lot better, but he didn't feel perfect," Epstein said. "He didn't feel quite as he was expecting it to feel as the bone bruise was allowed to heal, so as a similar case with Darvish, we made the decision to just go in and do a quick scope of him. 

"They did a quick clean-up of some cartialge and bone in there. A quick debridement arthroscopically and he's feeling really good one month post-op. And based on the rehab schedule, it could potentially affect his availbility in April. ... Feb. 6 is the target date — that probably doesn't give him enough time to get fully, 100 percent ready Opening Day."

The Cubs were very cautious with Morrow in 2018, his first year with the club, and it's reasonable to expect them to be careful once again with the veteran pitcher who sports a long history of arm injuries over his career. If there's any question about Morrow's health or readiness, expect the Cubs to opt for giving the 34-year-old more time to ensure he's ready to go.

Obviously that is not good news for the Cubs, who were already planning to address their bullpen this winter. The plan has always been to augment Morrow and top setup man Pedro Strop with other options who could potentially slide in at closer in case of injury or ineffectiveness.

That now becomes a pressing need for the club with MLB's annual Winter Meetings beginning this weekend in Las Vegas. 

The Cubs are highly motivated to finding other bullpen options for all season, but now they may be without Morrow for an indeterminate amount of time to begin the season.

"That underscores the need for depth and game options early in the year," Epstein said. "For him, I think it will be a positive knowing that we completely addressed the issues that were bothering him last year instead of waiting for them to come back to make sure. And also to really help him be strong late in the season, as well."

The Cubs could've really used Morrow at the end of last season and when they initially signed the veteran reliever, they envisioned him pitching in the most impactful moments in the most important games of the year. 

That wasn't possible in 2018, but the Cubs are hoping that may be the case next season — even if that means going the first few games (or weeks) without Morrow's services.

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

MESA, Ariz. — Don't write the obituary on Ian Happ's career as a second baseman just yet.

The versatile young player started 28 games at second base during his rookie year in 2017, but did not see a start in 2018 and played just 3 innings at the position the entire season.

Thats not a trend that typically bodes well for Happ's future at second base.

But it's not necessarily a trend that will continue.

After last season ended, Happ had a conversation with Maddon and was direct: He wants to be included in the second base picture.

"We were in contact several times," Maddon said Sunday. "One of the things I really like about Ian is that he is very lucid and transparent regarding what he's thinking and he brought that to my attention."

Happ has been clinging to his desire to play second base in much the same way Kyle Schwarber passionately stuck by his love for being a catcher. But as the Schwarber situation proved, you need more than just passion (though, undoubtedly, Schwarber's major knee injury in 2016 and that entire lost year of development played a factor in his scenario).

The Cubs drafted Happ with the 9th overall pick in 2015 out of the University of Cincinnati, where he spent time in both the infield and outfield. Coming out of college, there were concerns about Happ's ability to stick in the infield, but he started more games at second base (107) than he did in the outfield (30) over his 3 years in the minor-league system.

Last spring, there was a push for Happ as a primary outfielder for several reasons: 1) it was the position he was most likely going to end up at long-term and 2) the Cubs had more playing time available in the outfield with Jon Jay departing and the combination of Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez dominating time at second base.

This spring, things are quite a bit different. Baez will shift over to shortstop for at least the first month of the season and the second base picture is filled with a bunch of players (Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, David Bote) who can also play a host of other positions. (Nobody knows yet how Addison Russell fits into the picture if he returns from suspension.)

If Happ wanted another shot at proving his mettle at second base, now is as good a time as any.

But it won't be easy. Zobrist and Descalso have much more experience at the position and Bote is a natural second baseman who has already impressed the Cubs with his infield defense in his brief big-league career.

The switch-hitting Happ, meanwhile, still figures to see a good amount of playing time in the outfield as a potential platoon option to Jason Heyward (right field), Albert Almora Jr. (center field) and Kyle Schwarber (left field). Happ will also back up the corner infield spots as he did last year.

"He made it clear to me he wants to be considered to play second base," Maddon said. "...He wants for me and us to know that he'll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup. If we're facing a lefty or whatever and he wants in the lineup or a righty and the outfield's set up a certain way, he knows there might be an option somewhere else to play if we want to move it around or just give somebody a day off. He's smart. It's just about him wanting to get into the lineup."

Happ has only played 263.1 innings at second base in the majors and the Cubs would like to see him grow as a defender, though they understand he needs reps to continue to develop.

"When you watch him, he's still a work in progress when it comes to being — for lack of a better term — a little bit more smooth, but then again, he's effective," Maddon said. "I've seen some really good defenders that aren't necessarily this Spalding guy, but they don't make mistakes. Probably just [improving his] lateral range, going to his right as much as anything, backhanding, throwing that ball. He's got a really strong arm; he can complete a double play.

"It's just a nuance — the lateral movement nuance of the position. But he's smart — he knows where to be, he knows where cutoffs and relays occur, he knows all that stuff. It's just like this repetitive thing, I would say for me in my mind's eye - going over [to the right] more smoothly to make that play would be something optimal for him.

"He's not the Spalding guy all the time, but he's pretty effective out there. I think it's just repetition."

The Cubs aren't guaranteeing Happ playing time at second base or anything like that. But at the very least, it appears they're open to giving him a legitimate shot this spring to potentially earn an opportunity in the regular season.

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Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

MESA, Ariz. — We may finally be nearing a resolution in the Bryce Harper free agency saga at just the right time.

Spring training begins in earnest Monday with position players officially reporting around the league and Harper may not be far behind.

USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale reported Sunday evening the Philadelphia Phillies are reportedly willing to meet Harper's price tag and give him more than the $300 million, 10-year deal the Washington Nationals offered before the season ended:

Keep in mind, Nightengale is not reporting a done deal and the key word is Harper "appears" to have found a team willing to meet his price tag in the Phillies.

But this is one of those "big, if true" situations that portends a potential conclusion to Harper's 3.5-month free agency tour.

The Cubs ruled themselves out of the Harper Sweepstakes back at the very beginning of the offseason due to a bloated payroll for 2019 and a budget that doesn't have the room for the salary Harper is about to make.

The Phillies have been rumored to be in on Harper from Day 1 and owner John Middleton famously said his team may spend "stupid" money this winter. They've been very aggressive this offseason trying to build around a young core and improve upon thhe 80 wins they put up a season ago.

The Phillies have already signed Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto in the last couple months while also giving ace Aaron Nola a long-term extension.

Adding Harper to the mix would be a huge boost to the Phillies' chances in what is shaping up to be a very competitive National League East.

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