Cubs

Cubs remain hopeful Brandon Morrow can still make an impact in 2019 bullpen

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USA TODAY

Cubs remain hopeful Brandon Morrow can still make an impact in 2019 bullpen

As the Cubs got set to welcome the Oakland A's to Wrigley Field for the first time in nearly a decade, they had to do so without their closer and their backup stopper. And a few hours later, they watched as their potential backup backup closer walked off the mound wincing and holding his chest. 

Craig Kimbrel (knee) just hit the injured list Monday afternoon, Pedro Strop (neck) went on the shelf on the Cubs' last road trip and Brandon Kintzler just left Monday's 6-5 win with right pec discomfort.

Kintzler's status is unknown right now and the other two pitchers should be back in the near future, but it's the 2018 closer — Brandon Morrow — who looms as the biggest x-factor in the bullpen.

Morrow just turned 35 at the end of last month and hasn't pitched in the big leagues in more than a year, but he's still plugging away on the comeback trail.

"He's feeling good," Jed Hoyer said Monday. "He's throwing right now; he's out to 120 feet. We've been getting good reports about how he's feeling and that's the most important thing. I've said all along — we're cautiously optimistic. 

"He'd be an unbelievable shot in the arm if he can do it."

Hoyer said last week the Cubs weren't banking on a return from Morrow this season, but the GM clarified those comments Monday, saying he and the rest of the front office didn't want to operate as if and Morrow return was a guarantee. So they went out and added Derek Holland and David Phelps to the bullpen in the week leading up to the deadline.

Morrow was lights-out in the Cubs bullpen last season, pitching to a 1.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 22-for-24 in save chances across 35 outings. 

He is not yet pitching in games and the Cubs have not announced their plan for the right-hander, but Hoyer said Morrow is currently pain-free in the elbow thanks to a minor procedure that alleviated the pressure on his radial nerve.

Imagine how the Cubs bullpen would look with Morrow in the mix, assuming Kimbrel and Strop can return to health.

But with Morrow's injury history and the long layoff, nothing is guaranteed.

"Obviously, the comments he's made and in talking to him, it's clear — he wants nothing more than to come back and help this team," Hoyer said. "It has to be frustrating to not be here. We're cautiously optimistic and we know how much it would help us if he did it."

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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