Cubs

As Cubs search for bullpen help, how much should they weigh closing experience?

As Cubs search for bullpen help, how much should they weigh closing experience?

The Cubs undoubtedly will add options to their bullpen this winter, but in what form remains to be seen.

Will they acquire a high-leverage left-hander or continue to fill in the roster with veterans and unproven young southpaws and hope lightning strikes? Will they add more guys capable of throwing multiple innings per outing? Do they need to add another pitcher with closing experience?

Let's tackle that last question.

The Cubs signed Brandon Morrow during the MLB Winter Meetings last year and tabbed him as the closer assuming no other deals with Wade Davis or another stopper came to fruition.

Obviously no other deal came about, with Morrow and Steve Cishek serving as the top bullpen additions last winter. The Morrow Experience got off to a great start as he went 7-for-7 in save opportunities and didn't give up a run until May 5.

But then disaster struck — first in the form of a bad pants-taking-off experience in mid-June and then a bone bruise in his forearm in mid-July. The end result was Morrow missed the entire second half of the season, only throwing off a mound twice before being shut down in September.

Pedro Strop stepped in at closer and did a fantastic job...before he, too, went down with an injury in mid-September.

That left Joe Maddon to piece together a closer on a daily basis from Cishek (who seemingly ran into a wall in the season's final month from overuse), Justin Wilson and Jesse Chavez. Heck, even Randy Rosario (Sept. 13) and Jorge De La Rosa (Sept. 14) picked up saves in that span.

Morrow and Strop are in line to be 100 percent healthy by spring training and Cishek is well rested, but Chavez is gone and Wilson is expected to sign elsewhere this winter.

The Cubs have tabbed Carl Edwards Jr. as a future closer, but he needs to rebound from his most recent late-season fade and prove he can be a consistent, dominant force for a full season before jumping into that role.

Theo Epstein historically does not hand out megadeals to closers, understanding the volatility of relievers and how risky it is to sink so much of a team's payroll into a guy whose performance can fluctuate wildly from year-to-year and who will only throw 60-70 innings a season even in a best case scenario. That stands to reason this winter more than any other given the financial constraints the Cubs are working under.

So does that take the Cubs out on free agent pitchers like Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino and Zach Britton?

"Just weigh all the alternatives," Epstein said last month. "I do believe getting those last outs can be a little bit more challenging than getting the other outs, so it's not just any job. But I'm a lot more concerned with just like the overall [bullpen]. The way we look at it is I want as many really talented options as we can in the 'pen. That's what we ask ourselves more than do we have a 'closer'?

"...I just want to make sure we have a really talented 'pen with lots of different options and see how things shake out. I don't think given our other needs, given our roster and payroll situation now and going forward that investing long-term at closer at big money is really high up our priority list right now. But stranger things have happened. I think we have some other areas to address."

The Cubs took that same approach to building the bullpen the last two winters, opening the season with at least 5 arms they felt could be "even or ahead" guys - pitchers who can come in and get outs in high-leverage spots.

The Cubs would ideally add to their current stable of "even or ahead guys" — Morrow, Strop, Edwards, Cishek, Mike Montgomery (if he's not needed in the rotation) — but considering they are already projected to eclipse the $206 million luxury tax threshold even before any other signings or deals this winter, it'd be hard to see Epstein and Co. out-bid the rest of the market.

There are other guys on the open market with closing experience who probably won't break the bank this winter (Greg Holland, Ryan Madson, A.J. Ramos, Joakim Soria, etc.), but it's a matter of whether the Cubs feel those guys can become reliable pieces in the 2019 bullpen.

The issue hasn't been a lack of talent on the Opening Day roster, but rather injuries and late-season slumps. Edwards isn't the only Cubs reliever who has run into a wall in August or September.

However, the key may not lie in the season's final months, but rather in April and May, when the Cubs' top bullpen arms are being utilized early and often.

"We have to provide that depth," GM Jed Hoyer said. "It's hard. If the same guys are pitching in every close game, you're gonna wear them out. We have to have a deep enough bullpen where Joe has more options. When you're a good team — and we're a good team — you play a lot of close games. You win a lot of close games and the games you don't win are usually close and that wears down your bullpen.

"It's easier to protect your relievers if you're getting blown out every fourth or fifth day. When you're playing games that are in the margins all the time, it's hard. So going in, the only thing you can do is have depth."

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19 for '19: What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?

19 for '19: What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: What can the Cubs expect from Yu Darvish?

Yu Darvish's inaugural season in Chicago obviously didn't go well. But despite a minor blister issue, Year 2 seems to be off to a much better start.

Darvish has been different this spring - from his physical shape (he's added more muscle) to his health to his confidence and comfortability.

He said he now feels like part of the family in the clubhouse and has been holding court with reporters without a translator, even cracking jokes on the regular. He was confident enough in his English skills last year to interact with teammates and understand the media questions he was asked without a translation, but he still responded in Japanese, which created some miscommunication at times.

The blister issue Darvish had a few days ago caused Cubdom to hold their breath momentarily, but it doesn't appear to be anything serious and he may not even miss a start because of it. The forearm bone bruise is completely gone and Darvish had a procedure to clean up his elbow right before the offseason started, so he should enter 2019 as close to 100 percent as somebody with a blister on their pitching hand can be.

He also doesn't have to answer any questions about his performance in the World Series or try to determine if he was tipping pitches - two issues he had to discuss last spring coming off a couple of nightmare outings in the 2017 Fall Classic.

On top of that, there's something to an increase in comfortability in Year 2 of a megadeal, which Jon Lester has talked about in detail the last few seasons. Lester admitted he was pressing in his first year with the Cubs, trying to live up to his big contract and the lofty expectations that came with it. But he also said he felt a lot more comfortable in the second year of his deal, especially during a season in which the Cubs had World Series expectations.

Maybe Darvish follows that same path. He doesn't have the same pressure or burden he had a year ago and the Cubs don't need him to be their ace - they already have a rotation filled with proven veterans.

Remember, this is still the same pitcher who has whiffed 11 batters per 9 innings over his 872.1-inning big-league career. Prior to 2018, Darvish had never posted an ERA over 3.86 or WHIP over 1.28 in a season (last year he was at 4.95 and 1.43, respectively).

Nobody can guarantee health for a full season, but if Darvish is able to throw even 120-150 quality innings, that would be a huge boon for the Cubs in 2019.

- Tony Andracki 

It feels like Darvish's decline has become a bit overstated at this point. He was bad last year, but also clearly hurt and only has a 40-inning sample size. He had gotten to at least 100 innings in each of his prior five seasons and was averaging 166 IPs per season until 2018. 

If he's healthy, there's no reason not to expect the Darvish that's a 4-time All Star and Cy Young runner-up. What looks like a dip in production during the 2017 season -- when he was traded from Texas to the Dodgers -- is actually somewhat misleading - Darvish's K-rate, BB-rate, and velocity all returned to career norms when he joined the Dodgers. Pitching in Texas can be a disaster, and all of Darvish's park-adjusted numbers suggest that the Globe Life Park wasn't doing him any favors. No one's confusing Wrigley for say, Safeco (or T-Mobile I guess), but it beats the launching pad in Dallas. 

Much of Darvish's value stems from the fact that he gives the Cubs' rotation something they don't otherwise have: a high-volume strikeout guy. No other starter comes close to piling up strikeouts the way that Darvish can - his K/9 rate is almost three batters more than any other starter on staff. 

A bounce back season from Darvish and he's probably in the conversation to be a hypothetical playoff Game 1 starter. Leaving Spring Training games is always a little bit concerning, but given Darvish's injury history, it could have been much worse. Overall, there are a lot of signs pointing towards a really good 2019 for Darvish, and the Cubs could use all the good pitching news they can get. 

- By Cam Ellis

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs designate Brian Duensing for assignment, sign reliever Tim Collins

Cubs designate Brian Duensing for assignment, sign reliever Tim Collins

The Cubs Opening Day roster is not finalized, but it appears the bullpen will be without lefty Brian Duensing.

Sunday, the Cubs announced that they signed left-handed reliever Tim Collins. To make room for him on the 40-man roster, the team designated Duensing, 36, for assignment.

The Cubs could retain Duensing, though he has to pass through waivers first. However, it's unlikely any team claims him; Duensing will make $3.5 million in 2019 and has struggled in spring training following a disappointing 2018 season.

In eight Cactus League appearances, Duensing has allowed eight runs on nine hits in seven innings, surrendering two home runs. It's worth noting that he allowed no runs and just two hits in his first four appearances (four innings), though he has allowed six runs in his last two appearances, managing to record a single out on each occasion.

Duensing had a successful debut season with the Cubs in 2017, posting a 2.74 ERA in 68 games (62 1/3 innings). The Cubs re-signed him to a two-year contract ahead of the 2018 season, though his ERA ballooned to 7.65 in 48 games (37 2/3 innings). NBC Sports Chicago's Cam Ellis analyzed Duensing's 2018 struggles here.

Collins signed a minor league deal with the Twins in February, though they released him on Friday. The 29-year-old has pitched in parts of five MLB seasons with the Royals (2011-14) and Nationals (2018). After four-straight seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA, Collins did not pitch in 2015 and 2016 after undergoing multiple Tommy John surgeries. He finished the 2018 season with a 4.37 ERA in 38 games.

Collins presents the Cubs with left-handed bullpen depth. That "position" is one of the team's bigger question marks right now, as Mike Montgomery is the only lefty certain to make the Cubs Opening Day roster. 

With Duensing designated for assignment, the Cubs could elect to put one of Allen Webster, Kyle Ryan or Randy Rosario on the Opening Day roster. Ryan and Rosario are lefties, for what it's worth.

Here is what the bullpen could look like when the team breaks camp:

Pedro Strop (if hamstring strain is healed)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Tyler Chatwood
Webster/Ryan/Rosario

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