Cubs bullpen off to a historic start

Cubs bullpen off to a historic start

MILWAUKEE — No Cubs position group was more maligned than the bullpen late last season, but the narrative has changed quickly around the relief corps.

The Cubs bullpen has been a source of steady strength in the first week-plus of action while the team has gotten off to a disappointing 3-4 start.

Entering play Saturday, Cubs relievers led Major League Baseball with a microscopic 0.84 ERA and .491 OPS against in 32.1 innings. The last time a Cubs bullen got off to this good of a start was 1945, when that group posted a 0.72 ERA through their first seven games with an appearance.

Even with a run allowed Saturday, Cubs relievers still own a 1.02 ERA.

Friday was a perfect example of the bullpen's impact, even if they wound up saddled with the loss.

After Kyle Hendricks gave up a pair of two-run homers in the fifth inning to allow the Brewers to tie the game at 4, the Cubs bullpen stepped up to keep the game even to the very end.

Brian Duensing allowed the first two batters in the sixth inning to reach base, but teamed up with Pedro Strop and Justin Wilson to strand the runners at second and third. 

Wilson came on to blow 96 mph fastballs by Travis Shaw and looked very, very good again for three batters before the wheels came off with back-to-back-to-back walks, giving Cubs fans flashbacks of his 2017 season. But Steve Cishek came in to twirl a breaking ball by Lorenzo Cain and another threat was dodged.

"When [Wilson] came in, I was looking to get four outs out of somebody," Joe Maddon said. "And it ended up being him the way it played. Started out great. I mean, right up to [Brewers first baseman Jesus] Aguilar.

"It was great; he was outstanding. I do believe that's going to be in the rearview mirror. I don't think that's gonna be any kind of negative carry over effect. 

"I think he's fine, but he was outstanding and then all of a sudden, he lost the plate a little bit. But the way he came in and got Shaw, the ball was jumping."

Carl Edwards Jr. had a sparkling eighth inning before Mike Montgomery gave up a one-out walk in the ninth inning that came back to haunt the Cubs as the winning run two batters later.

The walks were a major concern for the Cubs bullpen last year and they have doled out 15 free passes in 32.1 innings this season, but they've also permitted essentially nothing else.

Through seven games, here's how the bullpen compared to the starting rotation:

Cubs SPs: 36.2 IP, 20 ER, 62 baserunners, 24 Ks, 4.91 ERA, 1.58 WHIP

Cubs RPs: 32.1 IP, 3 ER, 37 baserunners, 35 K, 0.84 ERA, 1.11 WHIP

"What our bullpen's been able to do, lights out again," Hendricks said after Friday's game. "It's been really fun to watch them lately."

Part of the impact of the bullpen is how much it's been used. Through five games, Cubs relievers actually had recorded more outs (78) than starting pitchers (77) thanks in large part to the 17-inning game in Miami.

It's also impressive that the bullpen has done this all without a contribution from its closer and highest-paid member. 

Brandon Morrow was the big relief addition over the winter, but through the first seven games, he's thrown just two pitches and that was serving up Miguel Rojas' walk-off hit in that 17-inning ballgame in Miami.

It's not for lack of trying. Morrow's been up several times getting warm, but the situation in a game hasn't presented itself yet. The Cubs haven't had a save chance yet and have only three holds as a team through the seven games.

Still, the Cubs want to get Morrow out there one way or another and that could come Saturday against the Brewers.

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal


Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since July 2018, but he’ll get a shot at making a comeback next season.

Morrow is set to sign a minor league deal with the Cubs, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. It’s worth $1 million if he makes the Cubs' roster and could reach $2.25 million if Morrow makes 65 big-league appearances. 

Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 15, 2018, missing the second half of that season with right biceps inflammation. He underwent a debridement procedure on his right elbow last offseason, which was supposed to keep him out for the first month of the 2019 season. But Morrow suffered several setbacks and never pitched in 2019. 

Morrow’s agent, Joel Wolfe, told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times last month that the right-hander feels a sense of loyalty to the Cubs after they stuck by him through thick and thin. He said Morrow was open to a minor league deal.

When he last pitched, Morrow was one of the most dominant closers in baseball. He posted a 1.47 ERA in 35 games in 2018, converting 22 of 24 save tries. He provided the Cubs with a power arm in the back of the bullpen, striking out 31 batters in 30 2/3 innings compared to nine walks.

For the Cubs, Morrow is a low-risk addition with high-reward potential. He told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that his arm feels great. If he’s healthy, he could be a major contributor to the Cubs' bullpen.

This time, the Cubs won’t place such high expectations on the 35-year-old. They expect closer Craig Kimbrel to bounce back in 2020 with a normal offseason ahead of him. Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs last June and struggled mightily, posting a 6.53 ERA in 23 games.

If healthy, Morrow could prove to be a lethal weapon in front of Kimbrel. If he can’t stay healthy, it’s not like the Cubs are investing a lot of money in him, as they did two offseasons ago when Morrow signed a two-year, $21 million deal.

Simply put: if Morrow pans out, great. If he can’t stay healthy, the Cubs can move on without losing a large investment.

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If Rangers sign Nicholas Castellanos, it could lead them to Kris Bryant deal

If Rangers sign Nicholas Castellanos, it could lead them to Kris Bryant deal

After losing out on free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon, the Texas Rangers have spoken to agent Scott Boras about Cubs free agent outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

Castellanos played third with the Detroit Tigers from 2014-17, but considering he posted a -64 Defensive Runs Saved mark in four seasons, he won’t be moving back there. Interestingly, however, Castellanos is willing to consider playing first base, according to Grant.

The Cubs — who are reportedly still pursuing Castellanos — obviously would be affected if the 27-year-old signs with Texas, as they'll lose one of their most productive players from 2019. But besides that, Castellanos landing with the Rangers would impact the Kris Bryant trade market.

The Rangers are looking for a consolation plan at third base after missing out on Rendon. They have a three-year offer on the table for Donaldson, according to Grant, and signing him would cost them only money. The same cannot be said about acquiring a third baseman via trade, like Kris Bryant, who would cost several assets.

But if Donaldson doesn’t sign with the Rangers, they might be more inclined to pursue Bryant. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said at the Winter Meetings they’ll address third base this offseason, and the Cubs' third baseman would be the best option left. That is, unless Texas calls the Rockies about Nolan Arenado.

Daniels also indicated that the Rangers are unlikely to trade for a player with only a few years of team control left (like Bryant) without making other major additions.

“There are some trade options [that] would have quite frankly made more sense in our mind if we had landed the free agents at the top of our list,” Daniels said. “I don’t love the idea of half measures. I don’t love the idea of taking a chunk out of the system if it doesn’t really make sense. Trading for somebody with a year or two of control makes more sense if the club is a little more filled out.”

So if the Rangers land Castellanos, a pursuit of Bryant could follow. But the same might also be true if they sign Donaldson, thanks to Bryant’s positional versatility.

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