Cubs

Can the Cubs' bullpen move on from all those postseason walks and provide a safety net for Brandon Morrow?

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USA TODAY

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."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jon Lester returns and Addison Russell's future with the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jon Lester returns and Addison Russell's future with the Cubs

Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss Lester's return, the upcoming road trip, plus Addison Russell talks about his suspension.

01:00 Lester looked good in his return to the rotation

03:30 Bullpen getting help from unexpected sources

05:00 Was Almora's hair the reason he wasn't hitting homers?

06:45 Kris Byrant looking better at the plate

09:30 Cubs get ready for game at Arizona and Seattle

10:30 Addison Russell's future with the Cubs

18:30 Will Russell be with the Cubs on May 3rd when eligible?

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

The on-field ripple effects of Addison Russell's potential return

The on-field ripple effects of Addison Russell's potential return

The Cubs have just started clicking as a team this season, but an off-field distraction looms next week. 

After starting 1-6, this team has turned it around and woke up Thursday morning a season-high 2 games above .500.

A central figure in that turnaround is Javy Baez, who has not only duplicated his production after an MVP runner-up campaign, but actually seems to have taken another step forward and is firmly entrenched as a superstar. 

So how could the Cubs turn around and disrupt Baez or the clubhouse with Addison Russell's suspension coming to an end next Wednesday?

There are many non-baseball implications with the Russell situation, including his development as a father of three children and a human being away from the diamond as he nears the end of his 40-game suspension for domestic abuse. 

But there are also on-field ripple effects of Russell's return, including the shortstop controversy brewing. 

Prior to his suspension, Russell was always atop the team's shortstop depth chart. There was some doubt along the way, but ultimately, it was Russell ahead of Baez with Baez moving around the infield as a utility guy.

But things are different now.

Baez has been phenomenal in every aspect of the game in the season's first month and has regularly displayed his exceptional arm strength and athletic ability while playing shortstop. This week alone, he made close to a dozen plays on the Dodgers from the outfield grass.

Last weekend, Joe Maddon called Russell one of the best defensive shortstops in the game and that's true — he is a gifted defender. But Russell doesn't possess the same arm strength as Baez (especially while dealing with right shoulder issues the last couple seasons) and Baez has not done anything to warrant moving him off the most important defensive position on the field.

"It's such a difficult decision and then to come to the conclusion, that definitely has to be considered," Maddon said Thursday morning. "Based on what [Baez has] done and his status among the group, but at the end of the day, you still have to make the decision that is best for the group and for the team. A couple years ago, we had to make a tough one when we took Starlin [Castro] off shortstop and put him at second and put Addy [at shortstop].

"It's not as clear-cut and easy as it may seem from a distance when you do talk to human beings and there is emotion involved and you have to consider that. But at the end of the day, you still have to make the decision you think is best for everybody involved. So this one has layers to it. It requires a lot of back and forth among all of us."

The Cubs have been talking about all the different scenarios, but haven't yet made a decision on how Russell would fold into the roster if he does earn a call-up next week. It's also unknown who will go down to the minors to make room for Russell, though Mark Zagunis could be the call as it stands right now.

Theo Epstein admitted Thursday morning the Cubs could still choose to option Russell to the minor leagues after the seven-game assignment is up next Wednesday, but right now, the whole organization is trying to take things one day at a time. 

Russell played shortstop in his Triple-A Iowa debut Wednesday night, but the Cubs confirmed he will also see some time at second base over the next week.

If Russell returns to the roster — which isn't promised, Epstein said — there's no guarantee he'll immediately be thrown in as a regular starter. Over the last two years, Russell made 29 errors and posted only a .245 average and .687 OPS in 240 games.

Inserting him at shortstop and moving Baez back to a utility role is a risk. The second base tandem of Daniel Descalso and Ben Zobrist (and some David Bote) has performed well and who knows if breaking up the stability will disrupt Baez in any way.

"I think everyone recognizes how important [Baez] is as a central member of this team," Epstein said. "The energy that he provides, the things he can do on the field and the spirit with which he does them — how important that is to all of us, so he's one of our very most important players. I think there's a lot to be said for creating consistency for your most important players — creating reliability, putting them in situations where they know they're relied upon and can impact the game, reduce variables for them, that type of thing.

"But there are a lot of other considerations, too. That's not lost on anybody. Addison's gonna play some shortstop on his rehab. He's also going to play some second base. He's also not back yet. I think it's a question for another day, but Javy is obviously right at the very center along with some other crucial players in everything good that we do. Risking interrupting that if you don't have to would be a questionable move. That said, it's not the only factor."

Baez has not done anything to lose his status as the everyday shortstop, but from strictly a baseball sense, it would be advantageous to add another elite glove to the infield. Baez has never had any issue with moving around defensively in the past and regardless of Russell's status upon his return, nothing will keep the Cubs from putting Baez in the starting lineup every single day when healthy.

Inside the clubhouse, Russell's teammates have shown him nothing but support.

Epstein was asked if Russell will have to win back the trust of the clubhouse again when he returns, but the Cubs president said that's not his place to answer. 

"That part of it is between Addy and his teammates," Epstein said. "I will say that everyone noticed that he was working hard on his individual relationships with his teammates this spring and he was a lot more open and engaged than he'd been in the past as part of his attempt to grow — not only most importantly as a person and as a father and a good member of society, but I think also as a teammate.

"He recognized there was room and need for growth there and then put a concerted effort in. I think there were moments where he took responsibility as well with his teammates. I think he recognizes the importance of it and has a desire to make things right with his teammates as well and gain their trust."