Cubs

Cubs still not sure when they're getting closer Brandon Morrow back

Cubs still not sure when they're getting closer Brandon Morrow back

The Cubs have the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League, but they haven't had a designated closer in six weeks.

That doesn't look to be changing anytime soon, either.

Brandon Morrow is still nursing a sore biceps/elbow and does not currently have a timetable to return to the Cubs bullpen.

He threw from flat ground again before Wednesday's game from a distance of 105 feet. He's thrown from flat ground a few times over the last week or so, but the last time he was on a mound was Aug. 18 in Pittsburgh for a 25-pitch bullpen session. Morrow flew back to Chicago after that bullpen to get more tests on his arm, but the Cubs insisted there was no setback.

Right now, nobody knows when he will on a mound next and at this point, you can rule out any chance of Morrow pitching in a minor-league game as part of a rehab stint. The best case scenario would be a mid-September return.

"He is doing better and he's reported that he's not feeling anything after he's thrown, which is a good thing," Joe Maddon said. "We're optimisitic, but we haven't put a date down to get him on the mound or get him in a sim game. We haven't done that yet.

"We're just small victories right now that he's feeling better every time. Relatively soon, though, we're gonna have to be figuring that out. We're getting closer to having to start to figure out when's the right time to get him out there on the mound, doing regular pitching things. 

"We may have to test it out and find out if it's gonna be real or not for the next month."

The Cubs have about four-and-a-half weeks left of regular season action before playoffs begin. They haven't pushed Morrow with his long injury history, nor have they really needed to with trade acquisitions like Jesse Chavez helping to augment the bullpen in Morrow's absence and keep the Cubs atop the NL Central.

With the minor-league seasons ending this week, the only way Morrow will be able to face live hitters before returning to a game is if he pitches a simulated game at Wrigley Field against his Cubs teammates.

That will become easier to do beginning Saturday when rosters expand.

The Cubs also could roll Morrow out in low leverage situations in September, working him in in the fifth or sixth inning or when they're up/down big in games. 

"You'll have extra players here to start up a sim game and then you could pick and choose earlier parts of the game and almost treat it like a rehab assignment," Maddon said. "You just have to be more creative with it. Definitely worth it for a guy like that. We'll try to figure that out as well as we can."

Morrow has been exactly as advertised since signing a two-year, $21 million free agent deal over the winter.

He's served as an anchor of the Cubs bullpen and a low-stress closer, converting 22 of 24 save chances with a 1.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 31 strikeouts in 30.2 innings. When he's on, he comes right out and attacks hitters, pumping strikes at a high rate without wasting many pitches or nibbling.

Morrow's been valuable for the Cubs in the regular season, but where they're gonna need him the most is in October, when elite relievers suddenly become so important. So it makes sense the Cubs have been so patient with him and this injury.

They've gotten by without him by using a mix of options in the closer's role, with Pedro Strop getting most of the opportunities.

But Maddon has not named anybody the "closer" since Morrow's been on the DL, joking this week that Strop is not the "ordained" closer — "He's not been to the Vatican," Maddon riffed.

Strop has picked up 8 saves in the second half, Chavez has notched a pair and even guys like Brandon Kintzler have come in to pitch the ninth inning after Maddon utilized Strop in the eighth to snuff out a rally (like last week in Detroit).

Whenever Morrow does return, he won't immediately be thrown right back into the closer's role, though part of that is because he won't have had much of an opportunity to face live hitters with no rehab stint.

"That would be a bad assumption for me, I think. You'd have to build him back into that role and find out where he's at," Maddon said. "And even if you want to use him in the ninth inning, I can't even imagine back-to-back nights kind of a thing. 

"You would think that by the end of the month, if it all went well, that you can possibly do something like that. But I don't think that you just throw him back into that."

Optimism on the North Side

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USA TODAY

Optimism on the North Side

Cubs starters have picked things up over the last six games, posting a 1.13 ERA in 39.2 innings with only two home runs allowed and an impressive ratio of 42 strikeouts to only six walks over that span. Cubs starters had a 6.52 ERA over the first 11 games.

The last two starts have been particularly impressive.

Tuesday – José Quintana: 7 IP, 6 Hits, 0 Runs, 0 Walks, 7 Strikeouts

Wednesday – Cole Hamels: 7 IP, 3 Hits, 0 Runs, 0 Walks, 8 Strikeouts

Prior to that, the last time the Cubs had a lefty starter toss seven scoreless innings in consecutive games was 1935, when Roy Henshaw tossed a 9-inning CG on June 28 and Larry French tossed a 12-inning CG in game 1 of a doubleheader on June 29.

But if you add in the element of not issuing a walk, you have to go back even farther.

It was the first time Cubs had a starting pitcher (lefty OR righty) pitch 7+ scoreless innings with no walks in consecutive games.. since they were defending World Series champions in 1909!

It was Ed Reulbach on July 31, then Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown on August 1 (game 1 of doubleheader).

And what about the hitting?

What’s clear is this: any success they have had is not because of Rizzo & Bryant.

It’s tempting to use the phrase “supporting cast” but I think that’s selling short the man who finished 2nd in NL MVP voting. In any event, look what the Cubs not named Rizzo or Bryant have accomplished this season (excluding pitchers):

Rizzo & Bryant:                                      .189/.318/.331, 4 Home Runs

Everyone else (excluding pitchers):       .303/.381/.509, 22 Home Runs

Of course there are two ways to interpret this. One is “Just wait until Rizzo & Bryant heat up.” The other is “By the time Rizzo & Bryant heat up, the rest of the pack will cool down a bit.” Both are reasonable. But it’s still encouraging to see Contreras show that 2018 was a fluke as well Báez show that 2018 wasn’t a fluke. So far, at least. And then there’s Jason Heyward.

The same Jason Heyward who’s one of seven players in the Majors this season (entering Thursday) with at least 4 home runs and more walks than strikeouts. His launch angle has jumped from 9.4° in 2018 to 15.2° so far this season, as has his average exit velocity (from 88.1 to 90.5). Sure it’s early, but it’s progress.

But back to Báez & Contreras. They are tied for the team lead with 6 home runs apiece. It may come as a shock (it certainly surprised me) that it’s the first time the Cubs have had two players with at least six home runs through the team’s first 17 games of a season since 1958, when right fielder Lee Walls had nine and Ernie Banks had six.

Last season, Contreras didn’t hit his sixth home run of the season until June 27 and he finished with ten. So far this season he’s hitting a robust .319/.458/.766 and looks like a force at the plate. With the catcher position fairly thin in today’s game, the Cubs have a special player in Willson.

As for Báez, he defies logic at the plate. He has the 4th highest swinging strike percentage (19.6%), the fifth highest percentage of pitches swung at (57.1%) and the third highest percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone (46.6%), yet still here he is with very similar numbers through 17 games as he had last season, even if the strikeout to walk ratio has taken a dip.

2018: .290/.371/.742, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 6 BB (4 IBB), 14 K

2019: .324/.351/.635, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 3 BB (0 IBB), 24 K

His numbers do a weak job at describing what he does at the plate. He has 3, 3, 3 and 2 hits in his last four games, and you need to see where he makes contact to truly understand.

Overall, the Cubs stand at 8-9; 4th in the NL Central. But their +18 run differential ranks 2nd in the National League; first in the NL Central (the Brewers have the worst run differential in the division at -2). They’re 7-3 since starting the season 1-6. Despite the awful start by the pitching, the team ERA stands at 4.55 entering Thursday; which is just a touch above National League average (4.40). They are one of three teams in the NL to average 6 runs a game, and their team on-base percentage of .357 is 3rd in the NL. Even with the cornerstones of the team off to a terrible start.

It's a season of ups and downs – especially in the early weeks of the season – but things are starting to settle, and there’s reason for optimism on the North Side.

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Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...

Bryzzo

We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

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